CULTURAL WORKINGS

Welcome to THE CULTURAL WORKER, a blog dedicated to protest arts on the Left ranging from the radical avant garde to revolutionary folk song. This blog is aligned with John Pietaro's revolutionary music website www.DissidentArts.com . The Cultural Worker celebrates art at its boldest and features a variety of articles, reviews, fiction, essays and musings by myself--a musician, writer, and labor organizer by design. Scroll straight down and you'll also find also find an extensive, ever-expanding Photo Exhibit of cultural workers in action, and a series of Radical Arts Links. The features herein will be decidedly revolutionary and unabashedly partisan---make no mistake about that. The neo-fascists and the slaves to capital and conformity will find no words of warmth in the content of this blog. The concept of the cultural worker as a force of fearless creativity, of social change, indeed as an artistic arm of radicalism, has always been left-wing when applied with any degree of honesty at all. No revolutionary act can be truly complete in the absence of art, no progressive campaign can retain its message sans the daring drumbeat of invention, no act of dissent can stand so strong as that which counts the musicians, writers, painters, dancers, actors and performance artists within its ranks. Here's to the history and legacy of cultural work in the throes of the good fight...
john pietaro

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Memories of the WTC on the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11


THE SPACE WHERE THE TOWERS ONCE STOOD:

Memories of the WTC on the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

By John Pietaro

Feels like a lifetime has passed since then. Well beyond the passage of years, it’s the alteration of the social terrain which was more drastic than we ever could have predicted. 9/11, devastating in so many ways, remains downright surreal for those of us who knew the World Trade Center well. And even more surreal as we stare down the tenth anniversary of that day. Everything but our memories crumbled into rubble on that fateful morning, that which was an otherwise perfect late-summer day. New Yorkers can still recall the gentle breeze and sweet, warm scent in the air before the news reports flooded in. Before everything changed.

Visions of the gleaming Towers, of the spacious Plaza between them, of the rushing elevators and bustling lobbies and pulsing concourse; the shops and train stations, the sub-basements hidden beneath public view; the throngs waiting to visit the Observation Deck, the sparkling Windows on the World soirees, the dizzying view from the roof. And the people whose very lives were intertwined with the machinations of the complex. These all remain vivid, tangible for those of us who walked those halls in another time. Neither hateful terror nor blind vengeance can ever fully disappear the visceral life which rang through the Trade Center. Today, in the thick of anniversary fervor, in the shadow of ongoing global strife and rising unemployment at home, we recall not only 2001’s losses, but the history and culture of what once stood high above downtown Manhattan.

****

IT WAS 1980 and I was a college freshman, majoring in music of all things, struggling to maintain grades and a part-time job. Long tired of my work as a supermarket cashier, I leapt at the chance to apply to a security firm with openings for guards at the World Trade Center. As a Brooklyn boy, the prospect of going to work in an important place like that, filled with dignitaries and visitors from all over the globe, in ‘the City’ no less, seemed just so relevant.

It was a grey, overcast February afternoon which found me on the subway toward Queens, seeking out an application and uniform. Once inside the security agency’s Hillside Avenue office, my eyes scanned the fading paneled walls and aging desk. On the wall behind it was a crested banner which featured the profiled picture of a steely-eyed Spartan warrior brandishing a full head-dress and armor. The man behind the desk looked no less static, seemed no less intense than his warrior brother of another age. He seemed to be one who always wanted to be a cop but could never quite make it. It must have been the height requirement, I thought, standing uncomfortably in the small, close room as he shuffled papers, ignoring me for as long as possible, as a drill sergeant might do with a recruit. Here was the kind of guy who’d dare you to knock a battery off his shoulder. Does he have a framed picture of John Wayne at home? Am I really security officer material? But after reviewing my application and taking my fingerprints he told me to report to the sixth floor security office of One World Trade Center on Saturday. I’d be on the day shift, weekends and holidays. The pay was damned good at the time: $50. per day, so no one could complain. Least of all me; I was saving for a car. As I headed back out to the chilly blue-grey afternoon I examined the uniform’s billowy shirt, clip-on tie (yes, the sort they put on cadavers), navy pants and polyester beige jacket with its own miniature version of the warrior crest. Well, at least it was better than the paper hat and smock back at the supermarket near Coney Island.

On Saturday, it was still sort of dark when I left my house and descended into the subway. The ride took nearly an hour—all local stops—and the car was largely empty, save for other weary early morning travelers and the faceless people crumpled into corner seats. The train stopped right in the Trade Center’s concourse within a small maze of still closed shops, restaurants and food stands featuring glitzy designer clothing and hurtfully expensive dinners. How odd this bustling, crowded space looked with the stores shuttered, the lights dimmed and the only passersby being narcoleptic night workers or the lost and lonely homeless who filled the crevices of each doorway and archway as the city slept. Warmed by discarded newspaper and a hide thickened from scorn, the homeless were a significant presence at the World Trade Center in those Reagan era years, when housing and psychiatric programs slammed shut around them and the rich-poor divide grew to previously unheard of proportions. They were a significant presence, that is, until the lights switched on. Then they were ejected out of the sight of the polite dignitaries, shoppers and visitors.

Make no mistake about it, the Trade Center was a world unto itself. For a while I had a cream assignment—guarding one of the stock market firms which inhabited a couple of the upper floors of building one, the North Tower. This agency would be all over the press come 9/11, having lost so many of its staff on that awful day, but twenty years earlier, it was just another marble-bedecked office filled with very expensive art. On weekends, though, things were quiet and I took the time to do homework, listen to a radio someone had conveniently left, and drink lots of coffee. Sometimes it got so quiet, especially as the holidays approached, that one could get caught up listening to the building sway in the wind. By design, the towers swayed just enough to keep them from being damaged under the harsh winds savagely whipping the open terrain—this in a time when Battery Park City had not yet had a cornerstone laid, the World Financial Center was still an empty muddy lot and World Trade Seven was not even a concept. The wind was so severe that walking the Plaza could be physically harmful on an icy day and the doors on West Street were nearly impossible to pry open. So when I say that you could hear the buildings swaying, this is no exaggeration. Sitting in my dim mausoleum of a post, the creaking, cracking, throbbing sound of the structure bending against the vicious jabs of icy blasts prayed on one’s imagination. What would happen if the Tower snapped---or collapsed? But then you stopped and chuckled about how far-fetched that all seemed.

From such a height, where the cars below looked smaller than toys and none of the sounds of Manhattan were audible, one longed for interactions with others. In such a desolate spot, I came to know the patrolling guards well---they looked for a place to have a rest and I needed the company. There was Lew Horowitz, a retired Brooklyn store owner who began working as a security guard on weekends to supplement his income years before. Just old enough to collect Social Security benefits, he said he’d stay on in his position as a Vertical Patrol Guard until he needed to retire from that job, too. “Vertical” referred to the assignment: he patrolled the stairwells and floors of the area known as Abel 3—floors 78-107 in Tower 1--and could get through his run quick enough to stop in and kibitz with me, especially whenever I made a pot of coffee. Lew enjoyed speaking about the Lower East Side of the old days and he would spin on endlessly with quips and bizarre stories about odd characters I longed to know. Quite the working-class philosopher, he was a tall, sweet, awkward man who seemed to gain real confidence only when he could make you laugh---so he habitually hurled out one-liner after one-liner. When not in mixed company, Lew also engaged in the art of dirty joke telling and tried to absorb any new material to fortify his already brimming repertoire of ‘blue’ humor. He must’ve kept a filthy file back in his little Bay Ridge apartment.

Lew was often in the company of Si Feldman, a still older man who’d worked as a municipal employee for many years but also saw fit to seek out a supplement via weekend security work. Another purveyor of classic old New York humor, Si could spit out Borscht Belt stories, a master story teller who rarely cracked a smile. A rotund, gentle sort when he wasn’t telling raunchy jokes or barking at you, Si had a long association with the Trade Center. Between Lew and Si, the entire history of the complex could be heard, peppered of course with outlandish tales of strange co-workers and oddball happenings. I was amazed to hear that during the construction phase, Security would have to man posts in upper floors before the installation of the ceiling-to-floor window panels. Guards would sit huddled in the center of an open, wind-strewn floor avoiding at all costs the areas which might be frighteningly close to the edge. Those were the wild west days.

They laughed about the actions of other bizarre characters, some of which still worked there when I came along. I can recall Haley, a smallish, stocky man with slicked back grey hair and a bulbous, perennially-red nose. Stories abounded of his odd behavior, particularly on the night shift when few might notice the flask in his back pocket. Haley had crashed the security golf cart into a wall of the Plaza some years prior to my arrival, thus guards were hence forth forbidden to operate any kind of motorized vehicle on premises. No one ever let him forget it, least of all Haley himself, but his was a different take. “They all say I am a drinker cuz I got a red nose, but this here nose ain’t caused by drinkin’”, he implored, “I got a medical condition”. Haley had also fallen several times on WTC property and apparently had sued the Port Authority but retained his job over the decades. I imagined the Port bosses wishing he’d just go away. “They can never get rid a me---I got dem by the short hairs”, he would proudly proclaim.

There was also a night shift supervisor named Coughlin who was a tall, dour man with a dry wit who one Saturday night attempted to actually heist a safe out of the Observation Deck. He’d arranged for someone in maintenance to wait in a basement level as he and another accomplice lowered the filled safe down the freight elevator shaft on a chain. Someone apparently spilt the beans and Coughlin ended up lowering the safe to the police waiting below and was arrested immediately. The next morning we entered command post expecting to see Coughlin, as per usual, getting ready to go home, but instead found a sub who didn’t need a lot of persuading to relay the facts of the late-night escapade hours before. This could be a strange place.

Ah, who could forget Larry Heinz? Here was a wonderfully social man who’d lived a fascinating life, filled with poetry and literature and music. He also spoke French fluently and shared his knowledge of disparate facts continuously, but in a mild, soft-spoken manner. Larry lived in Greenwich Village for many years, but had also spent some years residing in Paris and Morocco where he managed Jazz clubs, thus his wealth of knowledge extended into brilliance when he discussed John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and other giants. But then he also offered tidbits such as, “Do you know the technical difference between a hobo, a bum and a tramp?” I feel the need now to carry on the tradition and offer Larry’s explanation that a hobo travels seeking work, a tramp travels and sometimes seeks work, and a bum stays local and never seeks it. Perhaps this can be viewed as politically incorrect, but I guess there is a pecking order in every social strata. Of course, spending some significant time in the concourse during early mornings, I did come to know some of the homeless and there were lots of travelers among them. Harmonica Harry stayed for a couple of weeks, serenading visitors from his corner with an open box and a sign out front which read ‘Music For Trade’. Harry explained that life had just gotten in the way and he was unable to stop and settle down; he also had never been able to stay sober long enough to finish school. But his music kept him going and often brought new people into his life. His charming, folksy performances remain with me. I guess parts of Harry did settle in somewhere.

Another old-timer of the security force was Roy Turner, who’d survived his tenure as weekday supervisor for years and years. A former Golden Glove boxer, he stood all of 5’ 4” tall but had a shoulders span to match his height. By the time I’d come to know him Turner was well into his 60s and his loss of teeth was apparent, but he maintained a thick head of silvery hair. A voice like a grinding wheel and a vocabulary which could only be described as classic New York, Turner spat out verbal jabs with the velocity of his right-hook in the ring; a cut-up but a serious boss, too. Until he’d obviously crossed one of the brass who took him down in a vicious manner: Turner descended from the supervisor’s desk to a lobby post which put him smack into the throngs of mid-week passersby; there was no hiding. Turner had no choice but to grin and bear it as his sick wife also depended upon his salary. We saw him often on weekends after that, always available for overtime, always hungry.

The old-timers were aware, too, of the divide which had existed between security officers who were white and those who were African-American. It seems that while the complex was still under construction, the security contractor hired two “classes” of guards—class A and class B, each who’d received a pay scale appropriate to their designation. But in this case the B really stood for “Black”. For some years in the 1970s, Lew, Si and the other whites worked for a higher amount than did the guards of color, up until the union came into the picture and demanded equal pay for equal work. By then, the tier system was done away with but some of the older Black guards remained suspicious. They were a mixed group of African-Americans and those originating in various parts of the Caribbean. Many were from Guyana and, in British fashion, preferred to be known not by their first names, but in the formal surname manner—Mr. Peabody, Mr. Palmer, Mr. Heffington, and Mr. Robertson among them. These gentlemen were dignified in their approach, with an appreciation for the arts and the ladies, and with a keen awareness of their surroundings. Mr. Heffington had been a police officer back in Guyana, moving up the ranks to Lieutenant before immigrating to New York and landing in one of those initial B-guard positions. Standing on post in one of the complex’s lobbies, he always stood taller than most and wore his uniform clean and starched.

I had the chance to move to the Vertical Patrol assignments, walking the halls and stairwells of both Towers, examining the silent weekend world close-up. At the time Tower Two was largely filled with New York State agencies and on Friday evenings when they closed up, the floors went dark and vacuum-empty. Tower Two’s sectors known as Baker Two (floors 44-77) and Baker 3 (floors 78-106) were especially lonely places, with floor after floor of utter darkness. And the winding halls had no windows, thereby shutting out all signs of life around you. The security company never had enough working flashlights so one got used to bringing his own. Turning a corner down a pitch-dark hallway was like entering the inner sanctum. We had radios but often they broke down and were subject to going out of range, so you felt alone. I recall waving my flashlight back and forth, desperately trying to fill the blackness with some semblance of light, but this only made you think you saw ominous movement in the shadows. Reaching out for doorknobs in the blinding dark, trying to make sure the offices were secured, one’s hand glided over the walls and hoped to never find a crouching psychopath waiting to pounce. It all seems bizarre with the passage of time, but there in the sealed-in blackness, listening to the grinding sway of the building, it was much too real.

Weekend security officers had whole other lives Monday through Friday, so come Saturday morning we could be cranky and short of patience with each other, at times the public too. Stuck with the economic need to be there, many of us hadn’t had a weekend off in years. Shortly after I began my job, I was able to bring my girlfriend Laurie---now my wife---into the fold. If we could not have weekends free, at least we were both in it together After braving a variety of posts, Laurie became our shift’s Security Dispatcher—a “6-3” in WTC lingo-- which really made her second in command to the shift Supervisor, the “6-2”. She was an excellent 6-3, handling in-coming transmissions over the radio from security officers with problems and Port Authority operations brass with issues. She made up the schedules, answered phones, would trouble-shoot as needed and ran role call when the boss could not be there. She needed to be in at the crack of dawn, so by this time I’d made enough to get my first car---a rattly, steel grey 1976 Chevette---so we drove in together. Home is where the heart is.

Our boss, Ray, was a man who’d become a dear friend. He’d worked there in security for a long time and would eventually work his way up to a Port Authority operations supervisor job. He was a stern, dark-skinned man with enough height and depth of voice that many on staff avoided his glare at all costs, but we came to see Ray as a giving, caring guy with a wicked, hysterical sense of humor. He had a deep appreciation for film and we visited with him and his wife Angela to watch the latest video-discs he’d purchased (Ray was on the cutting edge of technology!). As often happens, after Laurie and I left the Trade Center we had only intermittent contact with Ray. We were deeply thankful, however, to learn that he’d received a transfer out of the WTC almost immediately before the 9/11 attacks. But a few others we knew had not been so lucky. They remain with us almost as myth, elevated through the fading years and tragedy. Among them were Lee, a large Chinese-American mechanic with a huge smile, thick accent and warm greeting. On weekends he could often be found hanging out with freight elevator operator Fernandez (yes, Army-like, people were often known only by last names) or maintenance men Sanchez and Alvalino. Often they were dodging the Port operations supervisor Russo, a harsh, abrupt man who hunted problem employees like a shark. But I was told that when the building went down he was last seen running back in to help with rescues. His remains were never quite found.

During the majority of my run at the World Trade Center, I held the assignment of “6-4”, Key-Run. This meant that I carried the majority of the keys to the complex on a series of jailer-like rings weighing my belt down. I was quite skinny back then so the pants always hung a bit and my belt was working over-time. I opened locked doors when they needed to be opened, secured others, activated elevators and escalators at the start of my shift and did a patrol of the concourse’s stores. I opened up the outside garage ramps, located out on West Street and Barkley Street, and also took calls from the operations and security supervisors for a variety of issues. When a problem with an elevator occurred, they called me to check it out and start another one as needed. The purple-carpeted lobbies of both buildings were lined with shining, silver elevators which briskly took passengers up to the Sky Lobbies at floor 78 with a pop of the ears and a slight nausea to the stomach, the quickest way up. On weekends we kept just a couple of these elevators running, in eye-range of the guard assigned to the post nearby. On several occasions, trying to hurriedly get a car down from 78 to an angry group waiting in lobby, I found myself stuck in an elevator which crawled all the way down in its “inspect” mode, moving in slow motion for what seemed like an eternity. As I sat trapped, calls from annoyed Port bosses would be coming in and the jobs left to do would pile up. “Where the hell is the 6-4?!”.

The guy who held this post before me was another good friend, Malachi Hart, Mal for short. He was an intellectual young man who, like most of us, was only at the WTC for the short term, but was industrious enough to move up from regular guard to Vertical to 6-4 in a brief period of time. He began to date Mia, a pretty lady who worked in the Trade Center’s Observation Deck, and they became quite the item. Today these two remain married, living on the West Coast and their children are fast approaching the age we were when we all met. But back then he was striving for something big to happen and felt he would begin his ascent right there. Soon, he was offered a chance to be at the helm of the afternoon shift. When Mal climbed up, so did I, moving into his 6-4 position with ease. But he had a harder time getting the old job out of his system than most would assume. A few minutes before he began his first tour as 6-2 he heard a call on the radio from the Operations dispatcher, “6-4, 6-4, report down to the Police Desk”. I was still on duty though in no mood for yet another run down to the B-1 level just before getting off from my own day-shift tour. As I grumbled over this in my customary way, I noticed that suddenly Mal was gone with the wind, running down to take the call. “Mal, what the hell are you doing, acting as both Key-Run and Supervisor at the same time??”, I later asked him, incredulously. “Oh, leave it alone!”, he insisted, terribly embarrassed to admit that he’d jumped up in response to the 6-4 call as if on auto-pilot, forgetting for the moment that he’d moved on to bigger and better things. Ray caught word of this and threw his head back, releasing deep bellows of laughter all over Mal’s shine. Over the next months, comedy routines to ward off long, boring hours were based on this scene and the legend grew through quite childish but creative adaption.

A few years later, Mal and Mia left the Trade Center together, after buying a new car and laying plans for their relocation to California. It was his dream, a sunlit haven far removed from his life in Bedford-Stuyversant; the land of milk and honey was where he envisioned making his fortune. Excitedly they drove across country, wishing to see all of the small places out there they’d only dreamt of. He later explained that their adventure turned sour when the couple, tiring and in need of a rest stop, headed into some tiny, non-descript southern village and grew cold as they saw two truckfuls of locals who felt a little more like Klansmen than our friends, both people of color, should feel comfortable with. Mal pulled to a slow stop in order to ask about a hotel or a restaurant and one of the young men in a crew cut stared into his eyes with hatred and asked, “What do you people want around theeeeese parts??” as the rest laughed viciously. Wisely, Mal took the car into a wide U-turn and taking full advantage of the vehicle’s fuel-injected technology. Even months later he said that he still felt the cold sweat on the back of his neck when recollecting what could have happened. But somehow, he maintained his sense of humor.

Some of the operations brass could also demonstrate the all-important sense of humor, like Barry Petrocelli who used the radio airwaves as a portal for dry humor. Calm in any situation, Barry knew his job well and relaxed everyone else with a laugh. And we enjoyed the company of another operations supervisor, Mick Evigan, a warm voiced detective-like character who loved talking about music and drama. A purveyor of the arts hidden beneath a classic “NYPD Blue” exterior, Mick always lent a hand to the staff beneath him. Best of all, he never made anyone feel that their station was of less importance than his own. Even his cohort, angry old Lou Russo, demonstrated a softer side at points: I can still recall him rushing out onto West Street to participate in ‘Hands Across America’ that Sunday afternoon in May ‘86, clutching the hands of those at either side with eyes closed for the momentous fifteen minute interlude. But then there was Rob DeForn, a short, paunchy, easily agitated guy with untrusting eyes, the textbook Napoleon Complex case study. DeForn could only be recalled as a despot and every guard knew his wrath. We would trade DeForn war stories and several of the security and maintenance staff fully expected him to get jumped in the parking garage some night on his way home, left broken in a dumpster. A guy like DeForn, of course, was nowhere near the complex when trouble ensued. While, he may have been the worst of the worst, he was not unique in such a setting. More than a few of the characters one encountered in our weekend world-within-the-world could be harsh, desperately snarling at all who came near them. They were the ones who walked the sullen halls alone.

As Key-Run I came into intimate contact with all areas of the WTC complex, from its sub-basement bowels up through the veins and arteries of its floors and stairwells. And one time in 1987 even to the roof of Tower One, normally only visited by the rare antenna technician: Tower One’s roof had no fence, no enclosed deck as did the South Tower. The occasion, forever burnt into my memory, was in preparation for the unveiling of the just refurbished Statue of Liberty; the scaffolding was now coming down to present a polished, torch-bearing beauty to a waiting public. At the same time, the nation was celebrating the bicentennial of the Constitution, so a huge fete was planned. A phalanx of ships were to fill the harbor that July 4th, a gigantic fireworks display was to illuminate the sky above the Trade Center and New York was going to play host to an Independence Day like none before.

The week prior, the complex was already in high security mode and the operations and security staff were working with police and emergency services toward a safe, festive coming weekend. I was called up to the roof of Tower One, where I had never been allowed to go before, to open up a caged-in electronics closet for the Port guys up there. Helicopters were scheduled to lower huge searchlights onto the roof, to light the ships down in the harbor during the big celebration. For me, getting up to that level was no easy feat; one had to have a special key obtained from the Police Desk and be buzzed-in by the operations office simultaneous to turning the key. As the roof door opened up, a flood of sunlight momentarily pushed me back: here was the very roof of the 110th floor on a clear, bright summer afternoon. It took my breath away. I located the supervisor and handed him the key he needed. “Mike, can I hang around a moment? I have never been here before”. “Yeah, sure, John, go ahead. Everyone else is here”, he shrugged, nodding toward the throng of cops, firemen and EMTs who were sitting along the edge of the roof, looking over in awe. I have always suffered from a fear of heights, truth be told, but it only kicks in when I am insecure, where I feel I may actually fall. So, here was a chance to look over the edge of the World Trade Center, from a view free of any kind of guard-rail, window or fencing. My worst nightmare, maybe, but one which was too tempting to pass up.

I moved over, precariously, to where the emergency personnel were sitting. The edge of the building was equipped with a sort of window-seat feature: a platform area one could be caught in in the event of a powerful wind; it was designed to prevent you from actually falling over the edge of the building. But on that day, it served as a box seat for the first responders who were mesmerized by the rare view. I came near the edge and then crawled on my bottom to this balcony above the city, gripping the tar anxiously as I inched my way over. I held my breath as I moved from the roof itself into this safety platform, squeezing the lip as I painfully looked over. It was what the view must have been like from Mt. Olympus. Here’s why these guys were staring out with the calmest look on their faces I’d ever seen. We were out in the open, but well above the fray. The Good Year blimp floated below us, as did a couple of prop planes. We were sitting above even the clouds. Here’s the place where the sky met the steel girders and everything was right all around.

Laurie and I got married in June of 1988 and, moving onto our careers, we said goodbye to our weekend jobs, our many WTC friends and the enemies, too. The latter were easy to walk away from but the former posed a challenge. Over the next few years, we spoke regularly of these folks, the good and the bad, as they became a part of our historic fabric. We enjoyed our free weekends. And then I suddenly found myself out of work in 1993, floundering as one does when a job ends and Unemployment Benefits become a fact of life. The weekends bled into the weekdays and I longed to find a job. Driving over the Manhattan Bridge one February evening that year, the traffic became ensnarled in an impenetrable mass of honking car-horns as the throngs spilled out into Chinatown. Police maintained the streets and every approach was blocked---the World Trade Center had been bombed by a van filled with explosives. It had entered the complex through the Barkley Street Ramp that afternoon. The reports came out that the basement parking garage was destroyed and so was part of the lobby of Building One. My heart grew cold—did everyone get out okay? It had been almost 5 years since we’d visited the site but we still knew all the players. No answer at Ray’s house that night but we got through the next day. His wife Angela said that Ray WAS there in his office in basement Level 2 when the bomb exploded, but he was okay. I spoke to Ray and he said that the blast had literally sent him flying, yet he sustained no injuries. But the place was a mess. As I was out of work I was glad to learn that they were looking for experienced security guards, especially those with a knowledge of the complex and I surely had this. So I signed up.

My first day back was eye-opening, to be sure. The concourse stank of burnt ash and soot coated the walls and the air in front of you. The complex, now closed to the public, was one massive crime scene, with locked gates and police tape sealing off many areas. I walked up to the makeshift command post and showed them the new ID I had been issued, as well as the security pass one needed to get anywhere. The regs now called for different color passes for different zones, different sectors, and the halls were crawling with ATF and FBI agents. Where an Alexander’s department store once thrived was now the Operations center and the guards had traded their jackets and ties for navy blue jumpsuits with ‘Security’ splashed across the back.

The heat was off, so I wore my coat beneath the jumpsuit during the mandatory 12-hour shifts. We were asked to bring our own flashlights and had to contend with a severe shortage of radios. Each guard was now on continuous Vertical Patrol, securing the vulnerable stairwells mostly, and a contingent of supervisors were flown in from around the country to lead special clean-up crews. Burning embers reddened our eyes and irritated our lungs and a gaping crater occupied much of what had been a gleaming lobby. It extended down several basement levels, looking ominously like the gate of damnation, smothered in brimstone. I was assigned to a special Vertical sector each day, without a radio so largely out of contact from any other human. We were watching for intruders and bomb-throwers, but God knows what we would do if we encountered them, sans communication or weaponry. The shifts were long, lonesome and cold and so I carried a couple of books with me to read during short breaks. Sitting in dimly lit stairwells, I got through two novels I’d always wanted to read, Frankenstein and 1984, both tales of utter isolation. I guess I am a glutton for punishment, but the need for some kind of culture had to be responded to under such harsh conditions. Two or three months later I was able to get back to work in my own field at the time (mental health, ironically enough) and my recent experiences in the Trade Center began to meld with those of the years prior. The newer visions, faces and stories added to the legend, the one that lives apart from the everyday, to be called upon when old friends have a chance meeting.

And so I gave little thought to it all for some eight years until that bright September morning with the memorable breeze. That’s when it all came back. As I drove to work, to a hospital in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I experienced an initial numbness at the radio announcer’s insane report of a plane striking one of the Towers. God, I thought, how in hell could they manage to hit that? Racing thoughts of old friends suddenly came to surface when the DJ broke in again: “Uuhhh, we just got another report…”. And then nothing was the same.

****

Tens years hence, the stench of charred memories are dissipated but the gaping hole remains. The space where the Towers once stood is not the only emptiness we’ve come to know. The loss of lives and lifestyles met the encroachment of civil liberties and the rise of suspicion. The war which erupted in the wake of the attacks, accompanied by opportunistic fear-mongering, rages on widely, globally, taking more lives and eating away a pained economy. Now, the folklore of the Trade Center evaporates into the mythology of 9/11. Visiting the site now, one is hard-pressed to recall where the buildings actually reined once so tall and strong.

Fading into plans for this year’s gala anniversary is the vision of the first anniversary of the attacks, circa long-gone 2002. We still felt the numbness then, looking out onto what was. Laurie and I walked the Brooklyn Heights Promenade that night and lower Manhattan peered back like a living, glowing organism. That’s a special memory in and of itself: as Brooklynites strolled silently, facing a Manhattan island which would forever remain altered, two glorious beams of light reached up ward, claiming and extolling our weekends from so long ago.