The first thing I remember is the woman’s voice, amplified through the megaphone, calling my name. Castillo, Robert. I opened my eyes, but knew they were open only because I could feel my lids moving. There was no change in the darkness.
Cuarón, Eduardo. Daniels, Margaret. Daniels, Rachel. I couldn’t move.
Everything hurt. There was no light, not much air. But the names kept coming. Diaz, Rosalie. Eaglesham, Jessica. Faye, Renee. I started screaming, Help me, I’m under here!, but my voice went nowhere, it just died in the debris around my face. Hernandez, Adrian. Hull, Leticia. I screamed until I realized how stupid it was, using all the precious air. When I was finally quiet, I could hear her again.
Hold on, she said. We’re coming for you.
The names continued. But after every ten or so, she’d stop and say, Hold on, we’re coming, or, Don’t give up, we’re digging.
And they were. Once I stopped screaming, I could hear that, too. The sound of shovels and picks ringing in the rubble.
There were 146 names after mine, and when she got to the end of the list, she started again at the beginning.
There are about 5,600 pay phones left within the Los Angeles city limits. There are nine on the Santa Monica Pier, eighteen in and around the Convention Center downtown. TheVons supermarket in Echo Park has six. Dodger Stadium has eight, one of which is consistently in need of repair.
My department at the phone company was responsible for these units. We cleaned and serviced, collected the change from the coin boxes, and, as of the last few years, demolished a handful of underachievers every month, casualties of cellular progress.
The destruction was my least favorite part of the job. It felt like a kind of forced euthanasia. Eva always got upset when I made that comparison. She thought it was disrespectful to the elderly. But some of those phones were as old as senior citizens. They had put in a lifetime of service, day and night, weekends, holidays. Some of those phones had never failed until their lines were snipped and they were ripped from their sockets and tossed into the back of one of our trucks.
I always tried to leave them with their dignity. I’d clear away the cigarette butts and scrape off the hardened bubble gum, spray the faceplate and receiver with disinfectant one last time, and then, gently but firmly, cut the line.
“Are we losing our pay phone?”
“You are. I’m sorry.”
“Well, I can’t—I guess nobody really used it.”
“Two hundred dollars a month.”
“It averaged about two hundred dollars a month. That’s 400 calls.”
“Really? I never saw a single… Then why are you taking it down?”
“Two hundred dollars barely pays for the dial tone. This unit used to do close to a thousand, and that was when it was a quarter a call.”
“Well, I’m sorry to see it go for some reason. Out with the old, in with the—Did you feel that?”
“That. Whoa. Did you feel that?”
I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to describe it to reporters and friends and strangers who stop me on the street. What’s it like?
For a while I just said that it was like being buried alive, which is true, and also, I thought, sort of funny. I hoped it would lighten the mood a little. People didn’t want light. They’d nod and look deep into my eye. I can’t imagine, they’d say. Women took my arm. Men set their hands on my shoulders. As if touching me would give them some kind of understanding. As if this was something I could pass on, something I could share.
What’s it like? the network newsmagazine reporter asked me, leaning forward in her chair. What’s. It. Like.
There was movement back in the darkness of the studio, a camera swiveling from the reporter’s face to mine. On one of the monitors I could see the shot: a slow zoom-in, a closeup on the eyepatch. I could feel everyone in the studio—the reporter, the cameramen, the producers back in the booth—waiting for the answer. Twenty-five million, someone had said during the last commercial break. Estimated viewers, leaning toward their TVs.
What’s it like?
“I can’t describe it,” I said, letting myself off the hook, letting twenty-five million people down simultaneously. “It’s indescribable.”
By the time the woman with the megaphone had gotten to Miller, Jessica, I’d started to calm down. I was on the list. They knew I was there. A few minutes before I’d walked into the building, I’d answered a call from my supervisor at the phone company, so he knew I was inside when it came down.
I lay there and waited. Whenever people talk about how brave I was, how heroic, I always want to say, I just lay there. Everyone else did all the work. But no one wants to hear that. They need to believe there was some great inner strength tapped, some proof of the resilience of the human spirit in its darkest hour.
But there wasn’t. I just lay there.
I was in the hospital for six weeks. I went through fourteen surgeries. I lost an eye, I gained a walking cane, though the doctors said I was young enough that the limp probably wouldn’t be so pronounced in a few years. I’m told that I displayed a tremendous amount of bravery in the way I handled this, too, but I don’t see it. What was I going to do, throw myself out the window? I was too doped up to get out of bed.
I spent most of the time in the hospital watching the news. They were still showing footage of the rescue: the cops and firefighters pulling me out, carrying the stretcher down the mountain of steel and cement; the huge work lights holding back the darkness; the workers and newspeople cheering and crying. That shot where, right before they load me into the ambulance, I raise my hand. I don’t know what I was doing. Feeling for my eye, probably. That same shot, over and over. Raising my hand. Everybody cheers. The triumph of the will.
They showed earlier scenes, too. The first shots of the collapsed building. The swarm of sirens and flashing lights. The rescue workers digging day and night. The mayor telling the cameras, This is no longer a rescue operation; this is a recovery operation.
Every so often there was a shot where you could see the woman with the megaphone, pacing at the foot of the rubble. You could hear her under the voiceovers of the newscasters and guest experts. It’s a wide shot, to get the full scope of the devastation, and she’s tiny in the frame. A black woman, middle-aged, heavyset, with a bit of a Southern drawl. You can hear it softening the corners of the names she’s saying. Pollack, Henry. Pullman, Sarah. Her back is to the camera. She never stops talking, never lowers the megaphone.
Hold on, she says. We’re coming for you.