Saturday was special for Gratia Karmes and her granddaughter Ruby Brenner.
That evening, the two sat in front of the television, logged into Disney+ and watched a concert by their favorite music group – the seven-member Korean Pop sensation BTS.
It was the second time the two had enjoyed that same concert. The first was in Inglewood, California, in December, when they saw it live in-person.
Karmes, 75, doesn’t fit the expected demographic for BTS fandom. But with an eclectic taste in music, ranging from classic rock to opera, she was open-minded when Brenner first introduced her to BTS a few years ago.
“I had a friend tell me one time I was the only person they ever met who can get equally excited about Guns N’ Roses and (the Italian opera) ‘Tosca,’” she said.
At first, she thought BTS was just OK, but when the group performed on James Corden’s late-night show in March 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, something clicked.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I see what everyone is talking about,’” Karmes recalled. “I’ve been really into them ever since. Their music is hard to categorize. The theme is to love yourself and don’t let the world put you in a box.”
It was a particularly potent theme at the time, when quarantines and lockdowns were prominent. Karmes also sees talent in the young men comparable even to The Beatles, which she saw live in 1964 in Detroit.
“(BTS is) like seven James Browns on stage, or seven Mick Jaggers or seven John Lennons,” she said. “I know they don’t play their own instruments, but The Beatles didn’t dance.”
On Sunday, as she sat sipping coffee on the front patio of her Starkville home, Karmes relished talking about her special day even as she grappled with far different memories of another.
“I hate this day,” she said of Sept. 11. “It’s still hard. But like Mr. Rogers said, ‘Look for the helpers.’ In any kind of tragedy, there are always people who are trying to help.”
Karmes, of all people, would know.
A Michigan native, Karmes was a social worker with a community health organization there in 2001. Earlier that year, she trained with the American Red Cross and soon volunteered on her first mission in a flooded area of West Virginia.
She thought she would be passing out sandwiches, which she did, but her license as a mental health professional found her also helping flood victims cope with the disaster around them.
Not long after she returned home, hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; a fourth crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. That day, she called the Red Cross and volunteered to serve in New York.
“I remember the flight over,” Karmes said. “The plane was so empty because no one was flying. There were only 10 or 12 of us on the plane, and when we started talking to each other, we realized we were all Red Cross volunteers.”
When Karmes arrived Sept. 28, she said smoke was still rising from the fallen Twin Towers.
“It was all very bizarre and surreal,” she said. “But it was also the first time I felt hopeful in 2 1/2 weeks. It was the first sense of relief I had since it happened because we were on the move trying to help however we could.”
Karmes was assigned with a team to Ground Zero, where the collapsed towers had blown out the front of several massive apartment buildings across the street and left the surviving tenants homeless.
The team helped survivors, many of whom had worked at the World Trade Center, find clothes, food, places to stay and other resources.
Karmes, again, was available to help them cope.
“One man told me he lost 50 friends in one day,” Karmes recalled. “Then there were people with survivor’s guilt who hadn’t been at the World Trade Center that day for one reason or another. One man told me, ‘I’m a looter.’ There was a bodega down the street that he broke into, got all the water he could and started handing it out to people. There were people who had to be a different person than they thought they were.”
Karmes also spoke with new volunteers as they came on board, keeping them focused on the task at hand and helping them process the trauma of the scene.
“The first time you saw it, it just knocked your socks off to see it and smell it,” she said. “I’ll never get that stench out of my nose.”
Maybe her most poignant experience in New York, though, came riding the subway. As the claustrophobic Karmes told a fellow rider how much she hated being cooped up in the small train car underground, the other woman suddenly interrupted joyfully, “There he is!”
Karmes looked out the window to see a violinist playing in the subway terminal. Before the attacks, she learned, he had played every day in the Twin Towers courtyard.
“The woman said, ‘I thought he was dead,’ and the whole subway car started crying,” Karmes said. “It was like that over and over again every day, just a series of emotional experiences.
Retiring and moving to Starkville
When Karmes returned home after two weeks volunteering in New York, she was “fried.” Her next, and final, Red Cross mission came four years later after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.
She retired from social work and stayed in Michigan 15 more years with a Head Start program before moving in October 2019 to a house across the street from her daughter, Devon Brenner, in Starkville.
Karmes misses the action of the Red Cross. Most of the full-time leaders were older women, she said, who moved from disaster to disaster at a moment’s notice, coordinating aid and “staying for the duration.”
“I asked one of them one time, ‘How do you take care of your pets?’” Karmes recalled. “She said, ‘Pets? Honey, we don’t even have plants.’”
But where handing out teddy bears, sandwiches, water and relieving burned-out volunteers drove Karmes to cope with other crises she’s seen, COVID-19 provided a different set of challenges.
“You really couldn’t do much,” she said. “You had to find positive things you could enjoy, sometimes without leaving your home. I recommend BTS.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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