LANDSCAPE OF 110 STORIES:
Fifteen Years After the Fall, Reflecting on the Days of the Towers
By John Pietaro
Well beyond the lost icon, it’s the slow fade of the faces, the erosion of the names and times that leaves us hollow. The persistence of memory contains a worthy reward.
The devastating events of September 11, 2001 remain surreal for those who knew the Twin Towers’ place high above downtown. It’s been said that our collective trust, perhaps always a false security, fragmented into the dust and debris that morning. Fifteen years hence, New Yorkers still recall the gentle breeze and sweet, warm scent in the air moments before the news reports flooded in. Before everything changed.
Long before the attack, most New Yorkers overlooked these buildings which had claimed our horizon, reshaped our landscape in 1973. You couldn’t miss the Towers, a pair of giant phallic sentinels at river’s edge, but other than the tourists, few took notice. Now when walking up West Street or sitting on the Brooklyn Promenade, trying to recall the exact spot where the original World Trade Center stood can be rather arduous. Clouds of memory became confounded with 9/11’s clouds of dust. The former dissipated along with the latter. At present, Vesey Street, once surging with traffic between WTC 5 and the Brooklyn Bridge, is now open to only police surveillance. Along West Street are old parking lot entrances long paved over, phantom doorways leading nowhere, barricades where crowded pathways once thrived. The new building is up and running, the crowds have returned but the directions they move in are vastly different.
Spectral imagery is fleeting. But for the continued fervor over violent terrorist cells and soulless drone strikes, visions of the place and its times would too fade into the night sky. This, then, is an elegy for the people that were there as well as the very days of the Towers.
It was 1980 and I was a college freshman, struggling to maintain grades and a part-time job. I tired of the painfully annoying supermarket cashier role I lived several evenings per week, so when word got out that a security firm had openings for guards at the World Trade Center, I jumped at the chance. 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 an overcast February afternoon as I descended into the subway, heading toward Jamaica Queens, seeking out an application and uniform. Within the security agency’s Hillside Avenue office, my eyes scanned the worn 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, far more terse than his warrior brother of another age. Short-cropped hair and short in stature. Steely eyes, hardened jaw, brittle mouth. What had been this man’s actual goal in law enforcement? Did he finally abandon his dreams of becoming a Special Agent in federal service or perhaps an NYPD commander? It must have been the height requirement that did him in, I thought, as I stood uncomfortably in the close room. I had to try to keep from shifting my lean one side to the other as I waited for his offer for the chair that never came. 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? How can I fit in with guys like this? Thoughts raced and I became lost in the patterns on the edging of the warrior poster.
After reviewing my application, security guy took my fingerprints and 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 into the chilly blue-grey afternoon I examined the uniform’s billowy shirt, clip-on tie (yes, the sort they put on cadavers), cheap 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.
On Saturday, it was still rather dark when I left my house and headed toward 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 amidst a small maze of shops, restaurants and food stands which featured glitzy designer clothing, hurtfully expensive dinners and glowing signs. How odd this bustling, crowded space looked when the stores were still shuttered, the lights all dimmed and the only passersby were narcoleptic night workers or the lost and lonely homeless population which 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 went on. Then they were ejected out of the sightline of the polite elite, tourists and visitors.
The Trade Center was a world unto itself, but for my first couple of years there, I had a limited view. I had a cream assignment—guarding one of the stock market trading firms which inhabited a couple of the upper floors of building one, the North Tower. This company 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 buzzing offices and very expensive artwork. On weekends the trading furor fell quiet and I took the time to do homework and drink lots of coffee. The place was dead, with few occasions for visitors, so I was pleased to discover a clock radio someone had conveniently left nearby. My listening habits took me all over the FM dial, from WNEW (I especially loved Pete Fornatale’s ‘Mixed Bag’ show on Saturdays) to the jazz stations WKCR and WBGO to the progressive talk of WBAI. But when the atmosphere fell silent, I started listening to the building itself.
By design, the towers swayed just enough to keep them from becoming damaged under the harsh winds which savagely whipped through 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 around the buildings that the doors on West Street were nearly impossible to pry open and an attempted stroll across the Plaza could be physically harmful. So, yes, from the upper floors, you could hear the buildings swaying. 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 the once the music had been turned back on I shook my head 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 this desolate spot, I came to know the patrolling guards well---they looked for a place to have a rest and I needed the company. Lew Horowitz was a retired Brooklyn pet store owner who began working as a security guard on weekends to supplement his income. Just old enough to collect Social Security benefits, he said he’d stay on in his position as a Vertical 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 neighborhood he grew up in, the Lower East Side, and he would spin on endlessly with funny quips and bizarre stories about the old days, which I loved listening to. I still retain many of his tales of his childhood; I’m glad someone does. Lew waxed on about the irascible Moishe Horowitz who tormented the Delancey Street shop owners, Eddie Edelman who greeted everyone with “I’ll pay ya a nickel if ya let me piss in ya pocket” and the toughs that hung out along the trail of Kosher milk bars and Italian coffee shops. Lew also spoke of the Third Avenue El, the elevated train that was torn down during World War Two, apparently so the track metal could be used in the war effort. “Back in the ‘30s the El went all the way downtown and hovered over the Bowery and then Chinatown. The streets were darkened all the time and it felt like an old mystery picture under there”, he fondly remembered, coloring his tale with appropriate hand motions and hushed voice between sips of coffee.
In order to offer something in return for my time, he would sometimes bring up snacks to share but we hit pay-dirt one December when he found a closed suite down the hall being used as a storage area by one of the restaurants. Lew excitedly ran into my area to tell me that there were about 300 boxes piled up in there, each containing very expensive gingerbread houses. We assumed no one would notice if one was missing, so we tore into it and it became the basis for a series of coffee breaks. One box led to two, to three, five, seven, ten. Each weekend we’d check to see if the house-cakes had been moved out yet, but they never were, so we kept eating them. When the supply wasn’t moved out by Christmas, we guessed that they were intended for a New Year’s party up on the Windows of the World restaurant. Anxiously, Lew tried to smooth out the pile of boxes hoping no one would realize the loss, but the New Year came and went and those boxes remained. We kept eating them, looking over our shoulders. We never found out who the owner was and the supply lasted us well into the spring and summer. You can’t go wrong with a good gingerbread house.
Quite the working-class philosopher, Lew was a tall, sweet, awkward man who most enjoyed making others laugh---so he habitually hurled out one-liner after one-liner. Real borscht-belt stuff; he was of that era and reveled in it. When not in mixed company, Lew also engaged in the art of dirty joke telling and could be seen trying to memorize any new ones he may hear in order to could fortify his already brimming repertoire. Lew was often seen in the company of Si Feldman, a still older man who’d worked as a municipal employee for decades but also needed to supplement his income via weekend security work. Another purveyor of classic old New York humor, Si could spit out jokes with all of the details of a master story teller. Unlike Lew, whose face lit up each time he launched into a routine, Si spun on without ever cracking a smile. The distance between his armor of defensive pessimism and the flight of his comedic sarcasm was slim. 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 a wild assortment of outlandish tales about 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 prior to the installation of the ceiling-to-floor window panels. Guards would sit huddled in the center of an open, wind-blown 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 real characters of WTC lore, 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 bizarre 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 now 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’m a drinkah cuz I got a red nose, but this here nose ain’t caused by no drinkin’”, he implored, “I got a medical condition”.
Haley had also fallen several times on WTC property and reportedly 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 de short hairs”, he would proudly proclaim.
There was also a night shift supervisor named Coughlin I am not soon to forget. A tall, dour man with a dry wit who one Saturday night attempted to actually heist a safe out of the Observation Deck’s office. 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 the three were immediately arrested. The next morning as we entered command post expecting to see Coughlin finishing up his tour, we instead found a substitute who didn’t need a lot of persuading to relay the facts of the late-night escapade hours before. This could be an odd place.
And there was Elliot Steinmann. Here was a wonderfully social man who’d lived a fascinating life, filled with literature and music. In addition to a unique kind of learned Brooklynese, he spoke French quite fluently and shared his knowledge of disparate facts continuously in a mild, soft-spoken manner. Elliot had lived in Greenwich Village much of his life, 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, Miles Davis, Red Norvo, Max Roach and other giants. He’d seen them perform live, in many cases right in his clubs, so came to know them as well. “Monk was a rare genius, John, but so introverted dat one could barely touch him…like a rare flower, a gift to da world, dat came briefly and den would be gone…” I was fascinated, but inwardly very suspect of the authenticity of his stories. How did he end up here? But his accounts were detailed enough to appear true and he proudly carried several aging photographs of himself posed with some of these musical heroes in order to quell the doubt. The one that stands out most is a slightly wrinkled back and white 5 x 7 of a darkened nightclub with Elliot, arms outstretched, beaming, sitting at the bar with four African American musicians all recognizable as Thelonious Monk’s quartet of the early 1960s. The band was on break, relaxed, and laughing together with the leader himself faintly chuckling over whatever was just uttered, looking downward and disconnected from Elliot’s gregarious embrace.
The stories of these great artists extended into his vast knowledge of film and poetry as well. Somehow his recitations of Keats, Byron, Woolf and Cummings never translated well through his slow-churning version of a New York working-class accent. Without warning, he would burst into French language verse he’d memorized, reciting as he looked up at his chosen audience through his dusty eyeglass lenses. Perhaps as a means toward balance, Elliot also offered tidbits such as, “Do you know the technical difference between a hobo, a bum and a tramp?” I feel the need to carry on the tradition and offer Elliot’s explanation that a “hobo” travels seeking work, a “tramp” travels and sometimes seeks work, and a “bum” stays local and never seeks it. For an avowed liberal, Elliot’s take on the classes of homelessness was far from politically correct, but he succeeded in illustrating the pecking order of any social strata.
Of course, spending some significant time in the Concourse during early mornings, I did come to know some of the homeless, though usually not many by name. There were lots of travelers among them and always another to take the place left open by those who took to the streets, either willingly or by the force of the police. 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, in a warm but somewhat anxious Midwestern tone, explained that life had gotten in the way and he was unable to stop and settle down. He regretfully added that he’d 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. He loved playing “Skip To My Lou” with a gentle, organ-like full-mouthed accompaniment. His charming, folksy performances remain with me. Indeed, parts of Harry did settle in somewhere.
But the elders that passed through were also matched by the veteran staff who’d seen it all. A notable old-timer on our security force was Declan Tenney, who’d survived his tenure as weekday supervisor for years and years. A former Golden Glove boxer, he stood all of 5’ 5” tall but had a shoulders span to match his height. By the time I’d come to know him, Tenney was well into his 60s and his loss of teeth was apparent, but he maintained a thick head of silvery hair combed heartily to one side. A voice like a grinding wheel and a vocabulary which could only be described as classic New York, Tenney spat out verbal barbs with the velocity of his right-hook; 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: Tenney 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. Tenney had no choice but to grin and bear it as his wife also depended upon his salary. We saw him often on weekends after that, too, always available for overtime, always hungry.
Though little spoken of, many were aware of the divide which had existed between security officers who were white and those who were African-American. It seems that when 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. 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, a genteel eye for the ladies, and a keen awareness of their surroundings. Mr. Heffington, in his late 60s when I knew him, had been a police officer back in Guyana, and moved up the ranks to Lieutenant before immigrating to New York. Once landing on these shores he ended up in one of those initial B-guard positions, swallowing his pride but quietly carrying his police identification with him as a reminder. Years later, it was still a prideful thing. The words “Inspector – Lieutenant” embossed on the small enfolded ID with a photo of a younger, more relaxed Mr. Heffington on have not been forgotten. More so, the vision of him standing on post in one of the complex’s lobbies. He always stood taller than most and wore his uniform clean and starched.
When my regular post closed out, I moved to the Vertical Patrol assignments, walking the halls and stairwells of the 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 at 5 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 (78-106) were especially lonely places, with floor after floor of utter darkness. The security company never had enough working flashlights so you got used to bringing your own. Turning a corner down a pitch-dark hallway was like entering the inner sanctum. We had radios but often they were breaking down or 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 with 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 in 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 1976 Chevy 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 (yes, video discs, then the latest in hip technology). We also came to know his mother, finally retired after thirty years of working two full-time jobs. Visits to Ray’s not only offered the viewing of great films and technology—he also had an amazing sound system to play an array of greats CDs—but we learned of serious Southern cooking. Ray’s Mom maintained the menu when she’d moved up north as a young woman. The scents of corn bread, chicken, mac and cheese and greens wafted through the apartment when she was cooking. And though Ray said he hated to admit to cliché, the family loved watermelon so in summer there was an abundance of it. She watched with a bemused grin as I dug into my slice of the melon, juice running down my chin and back into the plate. “What’s wrong with this boy?” she laughed toward Ray. “I have to teach him to eat a piece of watermelon”. And she did. “Look, I gave you a knife---you are supposed to pick out the pits and then slice off chunks, not dive right in”. And after considerable coaching and a few run-throughs, I pretty much learned how to eat a piece of watermelon like a Southern gentleman. “These white city boys, Ray, I’ll tell ye…..”
As often happens, after Laurie and I left the Trade Center we had fewer contacts with Ray and Angela and the family, and then it fell into the intermittent with occasional calls and Christmas cards as the years rolled on. Trembling, I called Ray’s home on September 12, 2001 and was deeply thankful to learn that he’d received a transfer out of the WTC almost immediately before the 9/11 attacks. Physically safe but the loss to him was nothing short of devastating.
But a few others we knew had not been so lucky. They remain with us almost as myth, elevated through the waning 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). For unexplained reasons, every so often these two would argue and become bitter foes. The freight elevator doors would open and the sound of shouting could be heard echoing across the lobby as Lee would emerge flailing and yelling back and Fernandez’ arms could be seen swinging wildly, yelling back. The combination of accents and emotion made for an incoherent shout-fest that always ended with one or the other steaming over how he’d never talk to him again. By the following weekend, though, they were laughing together again.
There were also maintenance men Sanchez and DeStefano, who swept up in the lobbies even when no trash was visible. “Hey man, if the boss thinks you got nothin’ doin’, then he gonna reassign you. Shit, I don’t need no more to dooo”, Sanchez explained. “Yeah”, DeStefano echoed, “These bosses are just waitin’ to trip you up. They sit on they fat asses all day and then come out to look fuh us doin’ somethin’ wrong. So I make sure I’m seen. Then I find a closet in ta take a nap in”. I learned of more than one broom closet which contained some of the very comfortable office furniture that went missing upon delivery. “Mine got a thick cushy chair and I use a box fuh a foot rest. Ha-ha, alls I need is a refrigeratuh and I’m in heaven. I could live in dere!” Often they were dodging the Port operations supervisor Russo, a harsh, abrupt man who hunted out employees like a shark. He could be cruel and references of his racism abounded through the complex. 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 key-rings weighing my belt down. I was quite skinny back then so the pants always hung a bit and my belt was now working over-time. I opened locked doors when they needed to be opened, 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 as needed. When a problem with an elevator occurred, they called me to check it out and start another if that one had gone out of service. The 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 sickening of the stomach, this was 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?!”
Some of the operations brass could have a sense of humor, like Barry Galbrath 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. He was a very intelligent brand of cut-up and when out of the company of the boys, could be engaged in compelling discussion about politics and other issues. But he was another of these urban intellectuals who’d seriously studied something or other in college and ended up in a job that was so far removed that he couldn’t figure out how to get back.
Another urban intellectual I enjoyed to speak to was operations supervisor, Mick Evigan. Mick was warm voiced detective-like character who loved engaging in debates on music and drama, right up till he was called back to reality by a radio call. Mick always lent a hand to the staff beneath him and he never made anyone feel that their station was of less importance than his own. When he found out that I was a writer and a musician, he immediately sought out opportunities to discuss the arts. A purveyor of all things cultural hidden beneath a classic “NYPD Blue” exterior, Mick liked sharing tapes of albums he’d been moved by, everything from Miles Davis to Bob Dylan. He had a wonderfully eclectic taste in music and film and developed a fascination for David Lynch, then transforming from a cult figure to a celebrated filmmaker. Mick had a videotape copy of Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ before it was available for purchase that he cautiously lent me :“You gotta be careful with this, John---my friend sneaked it out for me. Be careful. And you didn’t get it from me!” I never knew exactly who the mysterious friend was or how he embarked on this dangerous mission, but I did enjoy ‘Blue Velvet’ before carefully rewinding and returned it to the hidden drop-off point.
These operations supervisors were a varied group and one wondered how they all come into these positions. Few seemed particularly happy in their lot and yet even a supervisor such as angry Lou Russo demonstrated a softer side at points. On a warm day in May of ‘86 I can still recall him out on West Street participating in ‘Hands Across America’, the national bonding moment organized on most every land mass around the nation. 6.5 million people participated and millions of dollars were raised to help feed the hungry--these were the Reagan years, remember, and the shuttering of shelters, food pantries, senior centers and drug and psychiatric programs had taken its toll on the most vulnerable among us. The ‘Hands Across America’ human chain ran all along West Street, crossing just in front of Tower 1. Laurie and I were both on duty and unable to join the line, this historic notion of caring in a terribly conflicted time when the AIDS crisis ran wild under a president who’d barely uttered the name of the illness and who’d told the people that homelessness was a choice. This as televised celebrations of privilege, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and “Dallas”, scored huge ratings each week. Watching the line of strangers gather and reach out to one another, I considered that maybe there was a chance for real change in this country if the changes were people-driven. It was powerful imagery. Suddenly there was Russo bolting across the Tower lobby and out of the exit to be a part of the momentous occasion. Clutching the hands of those at either side, with eyes shut during that fifteen minute interlude, he appeared almost serene.
But then there was Rob DeForn, a short, paunchy, easily agitated guy with untrusting eyes who was the textbook Napoleon complex case study. DeForn could only be recalled as a despot and every employee knew his wrath. You just couldn’t find a ray of sunshine within him. 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 complex, from its sub-basement bowels up through the veins and arteries of its floors and stairwells. And one time in 1987 I made it to the roof of Tower 1. A verboten destination only visited by brave antenna technicians, Tower 1’s roof had no fence, no enclosed deck as did the South Tower, which hosted bands of visitors each day. The occasion for my appearance up top of Tower 1, forever burnt into my memory, was in preparation for the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty after several years of refurbishing. 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 1 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 from the Police Desk and then call in to the operations office to be buzzed in while 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, go ahead. Everyone else is here”, he shrugged, looking 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. With my jailer’s keys jangling and scraping the tar-covered roof, I gripped anxiously, inching my way over. Holding my breath, I moved from the roof itself into this safety platform, squeezing the railing around 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. It was mesmerizing. 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 were married in June of 1988 and, moving onto our careers, we said goodbye to the weekend jobs and with them, our many WTC friends. 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 unemployed 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 get back to work. Driving into lower Manhattan one February day that year, the traffic became ensnarled in an impenetrable mass of honking car-horns. Every approach was blocked and it took just a while to find out what happened to suddenly paralyze everything---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? Yes, but the place was a mess. 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. 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 a 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 mostly 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. Like most, 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.
I was able to get back to work in my own field within three months and my recent experiences in the Trade Center began to meld with those of the decade prior. These faces and stories added to the legend, the one that lives apart from the everyday and is only called upon when old friends have a chance meeting.
I gave little thought to my old haunt for some eight years until that bright September morning with the memorable breeze. As I drove to my workplace, 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.
One year later the awful stench of charred memories had dissipated but the gaping hole remained. The space where the Towers once stood was not the only emptiness we’d come to know. The loss of lives and lifestyles met the encroachment of civil liberties and the rise of suspicion. The war without end commenced and it was accompanied by fear-mongering and flag-waving and freedom fries. And the crass nationalism which deemed dissent “Un-American”.
On that first anniversary, Laurie and I walked the Brooklyn Heights Promenade overlooking the East River and the pristine view of lower Manhattan. That still September evening as hundreds of Brooklynites strolled silently, facing a Manhattan island which would forever remain altered, two glorious beams of light reached skyward, claiming and memorializing our weekends from so long ago.
AND NOW IN QUIETUDE, I recall the events of ’93 and the tragedy of 2001 along with that first anniversary as parts of the whole, enmeshed, a part of the history. A part of me. In quietude, I can remember.
I can remember those lost weekends and whirring elevators and strange stories and the sun’s reflection on the Towers’ metallic faces.
And I can remember my conversations with friendly tourists and interested visitors: the quaint German man who stared up at the buildings from a bench on the outdoor Plaza on a cool fall afternoon. He said NYC was a remarkable place. I told him I’d always been fascinated with Berlin, his home, and how he probably overlooked its wonders as New Yorkers do of this particular view. As we stared up together. And the elderly woman compelled to fix all of thefloral fixtures in the lobby that others visitors had lean ed on; she asked if I was the watchman. I told her I was as I loved to see it all.
Now with eyes shut, I can see and feel the WTC Concourse with its shops, bars and train stations, occupied in equal proportions by expense-account brokers, zealous visitors, hardworking people trying to get by and destitute homeless simply trying to live. And then I can remember.
Crowds of families standing excitedly on long lines to marvel over the view from the Observation Deck, while the privileged few sparkled at Windows on the World restaurant, out of sight, far above, out of reach. Opposite poles of equal height.
The weekend-quiet halls, vacuum-like empty corridors after everyone went home. And the purple carpets and white marble and chrome of the lobbies. The seemingly unbreakable windows and unceasing structure. And the six sub-basements, the layers within. There too life thrived, but it did so in shadows.
No act of violence or vengeance can disappear the times our lives are built upon.