Thursday, September 01, 2011

Teardrop on the Fire


Tomorrow I'll be releasing an updated edition of my book, Dead Star Twilight, as a pay-what-you-want download. As I've said quite a few times over the past couple of days, the download itself will be free; what you want to donate through Paypal beyond that is entirely up to you. My goal is simply to get as many people to read it as I can.

This will be the final excerpt from the book here this week and it's one that hasn't appeared on this site before.

The following takes place on the Friday evening after the September 11th attacks. After working non-stop for two days, I was sent back to the hotel to get a little sleep and a shower before my shift early the following morning. I decided instead to make a stop at a bar in Midtown Manhattan -- because it seemed like the necessary thing to do given the situation. The city was still suffering from shock. I was just numb.


September, 2001: A Common Disaster


“Do you think they knew what was coming—ya know, at the end?”

The weight of the words hangs in the air for a moment, but the question is just too gargantuan for me to even get my head around right now.

“I have no idea,” is all I can come up with.

“The people on the planes? They had to know,” someone else answers.

For a fraction of a second, an image flashes through my mind: Raw, unstoppable horror. The final seconds in slow-motion. A wall of fire that moves like liquid from the front of the jet’s cabin to the rear, consuming everything and everyone in its path. For those who close their eyes against the impending doom there’s only the sound of crushing metal. The screams. The advancing heat. Then nothing.

Take another drink, folks. Anything to kill that image. Alcoholism’s gonna become the national pastime after this.

I’m sitting in a bar: Kennedy’s on 57th Street, in Midtown Manhattan. It’s a darkened, pleasantly appointed enclave of deep woods, deeper greens and gold fixtures. I like it because it reminds me of the pubs in London and Ireland: Intimate and inviting. A relative calm amid the storm of the city outside. I realize that if Mark Furio saw me here he’d drag me out into the street and publicly run down the AA mantras for me in my ear: Work the Steps, One Day at a Time, The Serenity Prayer, 90 Meetings in 90 Days and so on. I’d be forced to return the favor by finally making appropriate fun of his wardrobe in public.

When your kid gives you something ugly for Christmas, you smile, say, “That’s nice, honey,” and put it in your fucking closet. You sure as hell don’t actually wear it.

Furio’s instructions were simple enough: Put your recovery first. Go easy on yourself. Don’t take on a lot of responsibility for a while. Spending the past two days awake, working non-stop at the epicenter of the worst tragedy in American history probably falls under the heading of “behavior to avoid.” Now at the end of those two days there isn’t a hot shower and a warm bed, there’s this: The unhappiest happy hour ever. It’s almost seven o’clock. I’ve been here since about four-thirty. The place has filled up in the past couple of hours. I haven’t moved from my seat at the bar. I may not be ready for sleep yet, but my ass is way ahead of me: I can barely feel it.

“My brother’s a Port Authority cop. He was right there,” a man sitting two seats down from me says. I’ve never heard respectful, Northeastern tough-guy reverence in person before, but I figure this must be it. He continues without prompting from anyone else at the bar, talking to no one in particular.

“You know what he said was the worst thing? The falling bodies. He said they were just raining down—then—” he pauses, looking for the right word to convey the enormity of it, “—disintegrating. Just gone. He said they were coming down all over the place.”

“How’s he doing—your brother?” the guy sitting next to me asks.

“He’s alive.”

Right now, that’s enough. A whole lot of people aren’t. I know this firsthand because I’ve spent the past forty-eight hours in the close company of their anguished wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.

The guy next to me pulls out a cigarette, lights it, takes a deep drag and exhales the smoke. He turns his attention to the TV over the bar. Television is a constant unifying element throughout the city right now, if not the country and the world. This evening, no one at the bar seems to be able to pull away from its ongoing barrage of jarring images. The station on, coincidentally, is MSNBC. Despite my new job, right now I watch not as a news producer but as a regular viewer. Just like anybody else. Everybody else.

The smoker shifts on his stool and flicks ash into the ashtray in front of him. He’s probably in his early 30’s—a big guy with a shaved head and a goatee that went out of style right around the time Kurt Cobain blew his face off and Seattle went back to being famous for little more than coffee and rain.

“Now she’s hot,” he says, motioning to the TV with his head.

Curious to see the catalyst for this odd non-sequitur, I look up from the half-empty pint glass of Guinness I’ve been aimlessly rotating on the bar with my hand. On the TV screen, MSNBC’s Ashleigh Banfield is interviewing a New York City firefighter. At last confirmed count, the FDNY had lost more than 300 men, including its chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, and its chief, Pete Ganci. Ashleigh’s rambling—the staccato cadence giving her words a menacingly manic tone. The guy next to me is right, though: She does look good—exhausted and in need of a shower, but damn good. Her trademark eyeglasses lend her the air of intelligence and gravitas I’m sure she hoped they would when she bought them. She’s been down at the Trade Center site since the morning of the 11th and has gotten some truly fantastic stuff. If she plays her cards right, this will make her a star.

My barmate’s comment gets a low chuckle out of me. He blows a cloud of smoke into the air and looks my way, leaning over and hitting me once in the shoulder with the back of his hand in a show of camaraderie. Let the male bonding ritual begin.

“Hey—am I right?” he says with wide eyes.

“Yeah. She’s cute.” I smile, but I’ve already gone back to looking at my beer.

“Cute?” He feigns offense, saying the word a second time for emphasis. “The girl I took to my high school prom was cute. This one’s just raw fuckin’ sex. What’s her name again?”

“Ashleigh Banfield,” I say.

“Right! Banfield.” I could swear he actually said Bang-field, which I wouldn’t put past him.

He’s laughing out loud. Under normal circumstances, it’s right around now that I’d make up a story about how I just swallowed my blotter acid and needed to go find a quiet place to watch the walls melt, allowing me to get as far away from this guy as possible. But for some inexplicable reason, I’m smiling in spite of myself. It’s been a hell of a week, and right now a little working-class charm is truly welcome. Wade waist-deep in the worst kind of human misery long enough and honest laughter sounds like the music of the spheres, even if it’s coming from a guy who’s got the word stereotype tattooed across his forehead in bold letters. My first impression is that he makes Andrew Dice Clay look like James Lipton.

“I’m Chris.” He offers his hand.

“Chez.” I offer mine back. We exchange a strong handshake. I’d expect nothing less from him.

A trip to a bar by myself doesn’t happen often. The couple of times that it has, though, there’s always been a pretty standard certainty: I arrive alone. I remain alone. I leave alone. Nothing against anyone, I’m just not the social type. This is why it’s surprising that I now find myself continuing the line of conversation with this guy instead of just shutting it down by clamming up or walking away.

“All this death and destruction on TV and all you can think about is how hot she is,” I say with what I hope passes for a smile.

“Hey, first order of business in times of great tragedy—keep the species alive.”

This gets a laugh out of me.

“Yeah, right. You and Ashleigh riding along a beach on a horse, coming across what’s left of the World Trade Center sticking out of the ground. You can yell God damn you all to hell!” I say, shaking my fist like Heston in The Planet of the Apes.

For a second I wonder if I’ve sprung a pop culture reference on this guy a little prematurely, but my fears are put to rest when he throws his head back and laughs so loudly that everyone else in the place looks our way. It’s a completely alien sound at a time like this and no one seems to know what to make of it—like hearing someone bust up at a funeral. In this case, at the funeral of the century.

“I guess the situation isn’t that dire yet,” I say through a tired smile.

He’s wiping tears out of his eyes, trying to compose himself.

“Ya never know,” he says, barely getting it out. “Things are pretty fucked-up right now. It feels like the end of the world.”

He’s absolutely right. That’s exactly what it feels like.

“Well, I’ll have to tell Ashleigh that you and she are the last hope for humanity. She’ll want to get in contact with you as fast as possible so you guys can begin propagating the species. Do you have a number where I can have her call you?”

He’s still trying to pull himself together. “Don’t tell me you know her.”

I may have just made a friend for life.

“Actually, no. Not yet. But I guess I’ll meet her eventually,” I say, taking a drink of my beer. “I work with her—as of a couple of days ago anyway.”

“No shit.” He seems genuinely impressed. “What do you do?”

“I’m her pimp.” Not waiting to see if he takes this for the joke that it is, I quickly give him a straight answer: “I’m a producer at MSNBC.”

“As of a couple of days ago,” he says.

“As of a couple of days ago,” I respond, nodding.

He lifts his pint glass off the bar in front of him, the coaster it’s sitting on clings briefly to its bottom, then falls away back to the bar. He holds the glass up.

“Well then—to new jobs.”

I repeat the gesture and answer his toast. “To new jobs.”

We both down a mouthful and replace the glasses. Chris is already motioning for the bartender.

“Conor, two more,” he says, then turns my way. “What are you drinking?”

Not nearly enough.

“Guinness.”

He looks back to the bartender. “A Harp and a Guinness.”

As he pulls his gaze back across the bar, it’s once again stopped short by the TV. Ashleigh’s interview is over and they’re back to showing familiar scenes of the disaster that’s going on just a couple of miles away from where we’re sitting right now. Chris takes another drag off his cigarette.

“Things are pretty fucked-up right now,” he says, barely above a whisper—repeating his assessment from not more than a moment ago. A lifetime ago. I already miss those days. The laughter felt good. For a brief second, there was no World Trade Center wreckage just blocks away. No heroin addiction. No estranged wife. There was just us—two regular guys sitting in a bar talking about a woman.

“So I guess I don’t need to ask what you’ve been doing since Tuesday,” He says, still staring at the TV. I can see the distant look on his face reflected in the mirror behind the bar.

“Well, actually, Tuesday I was in Miami—watching TV like everybody else.”

His reflection raises its eyebrows and turn its head toward me.

“Then I guess I don’t need to ask what brings you to New York,” he says.

“I wanted to see The Producers.

He smiles. “Sorry, pal—you’re shit out of luck. Broadway’s closed,” he says, then apparently remembers something and adds: “Come to think of it, so’s the airlines. How’d you get here?”

“I drove.” The bartender has already returned with our beers. I take a swig of mine then set it back down. “Made it in under twenty hours,” I say with pride.

“You drive straight through?”

“Pretty much.”

“Damn.”

I’m obviously leaving out a lot of the ancillary details of my trip and the decision to make it. I’m still debating just how much of my past I want to edit or erase completely in favor of creating a new identity for the consumption of the general public. I’m fifteen-hundred miles from Miami. Three-thousand miles from L.A. and my wife. I’m a stranger in a strange land. I can be anyone.

“I worked at NBC for a while in L.A. and Miami. I got the call from MS right after the attack happened. They told me to get the hell up here—that they needed everybody they could find,” I say.

Step one in the creative editing process.

What I just said is essentially true, but it isn’t half as important as what I left out. I already know that my story will be adjusted over time—some facts included, others deleted—usually contingent on who I’m talking to and what kind of mood I happen to be in. I doubt many people will ever get the complete and unadulterated truth.

“I’ll bet. So have you been down there?” Chris asks.

I’m sure he means the site of what used to be two of the tallest buildings in the world. It’ll be a few days before this piece of property is universally referred to as “Ground Zero.”

“Only for a few hours. I’ve spent most of the past couple of days at 25th and Lex—at the armory—with the families.”

There isn’t a proper way to explain to Chris or anyone else just how glad I am that my visit to what’s left of the World Trade Center—now fittingly known by rescue crews simply as “The Pile”—was mercifully brief. The experience was nothing short of nightmarish.

Choking smoke.

Wreckage—ten stories high.

Ash.

Human remains.

Death—the smell and taste of it everywhere.

Last night a rain came through the city like no downpour I’ve ever seen. It was a deluge. It turned the tons of powdery ash into thick gray mud, and created a cloud of hissing, angry steam as it cooled the twisted mass of white-hot iron. Firefighters, cops and work crews—an army of thousands—removed their helmets, wiped their exhausted faces with their sleeves and looked skyward, letting the torrent wash over them in the hope that it might rinse away the death. I couldn’t help but imagine a dark river of blood being pushed along the gutters, down the storm drains and into the sewers deep below—blood pumped back into the heart of the city, fertilizing the roots of the constantly evolving skyline of concrete and steel above.

“You okay?” Chris says, I guess noticing my momentary drift into near-oblivion—leaning in with what seems to be genuine concern.

“Yeah, thanks.”

He’s either reading my thoughts or he simply understands that hours and days of staggering loss multiplied by thousands will take its toll on anyone. I down another swallow of my beer. I’m talking now. Not specifically to Chris—just talking.

“I don’t know how to put it into words,” I say. But I catch myself and realize I’m speaking to someone who actually lives here and gets it all too well. I’m just visiting at this point. “Have you been there, to the armory?”

My voice falters as I turn and look at him.

“It’s indescribable. All those people. Every one of them’s hurting so bad. Every one of them’s lost someone they love more than anything. They feel like they’ll never be the same. How the hell do you stop that kind of pain?”

It occurs to me that this is not a rhetorical question. It occurs to me that I’m hoping that this man, whom I just met in a bar, actually will be able to provide me with an answer. It occurs to me that I want to know—for myself.

It turns out he does have an answer—the only answer:

“I don’t know,” he says, thick creases suddenly appearing across his forehead.

Make no mistake, the most excruciating human feeling is and always has been helplessness. It’s at the core of almost every kind of agony—and there’s plenty of it to go around right now.

On that note, I think it’s time to finally go to the bathroom and drain at least a portion of the three pints of beer I’ve nursed over the past couple of hours. I excuse myself from my place at the bar and head for the restroom, feeling only mildly lightheaded from the combination of alcohol and exhaustion. After pissing, I push my way through the moderately dense, post-work crowd—everything from yuppies to blue-collar types—back to the bar. Life must go on, after all. Something’s happening, though. The mood in the place has changed. As I retake my stool, Chris leans over and hands me something. I glance down at it.

Small.

White.

Cylindrical.

A candle.

I turn it over in my hand, momentarily confused. It’s then that I notice the crowd thinning—moving slowly but purposefully toward the exit.

“Come on, man,” Chris says, putting his bulky arm around me like an old friend—this guy I just met.

We move with the crowd toward the front door. A surprisingly quiet procession, especially for a Midtown bar at seven o’clock on a Friday evening. As we approach the exit, I can see through the front window to the city outside—and I begin to realize what’s happening. My reaction is involuntary, coming from a place so deep inside me that I couldn’t pinpoint it if I tried, nor could I contain what is now emanating from it. It would be like trying to hold back a tidal wave. It spreads throughout my body, flooding every extremity. My hairs are standing on end. My eyes are beginning to water. My jaw trembles. When we finally reach the front door and a young woman looks at me with tears streaming down her cheeks and holds her burning candle to mine—lighting it—I’m on the verge of breaking down.

I step out onto the sidewalk. Out into the open air of the city. I am awestruck.
The logical side of me tries to figure out how I didn’t know about this. I’m a TV news producer. I’m supposed to be aware of these things, aren’t I? It doesn’t really matter. Everyone else apparently knew what to do and when to do it. They’ve come out by the thousands. The hundreds of thousands. The millions.

They’re lining the streets.

Packing the sidewalks.

There are tears.

There is sadness.

There is consolation.

There is defiance.

A show of strength, solidarity and mutual support and comfort.

An unbreakable spirit.

As I turn and look down 57th Street, it’s glowing with thousands of pinpoints of candlelight—my own candle blending seamlessly into the mammoth vigil. The city is startlingly, reverently quiet.

Once again, Chris puts his arm around me.

That’s all it takes.

I let go.

I begin sobbing, the dam-burst of emotion pouring from that unknown place inside me. Chris pats me hard on the back and tightens his grip around my shoulders, effectively holding me up.

Years from now, when someone asks me when I first knew that I was in love with New York—the city and its people—I’ll probably say this moment. For right now, though—after hours and days of the anguish of others, and months of my own—I’m content to simply cry.

3 comments:

Marc McKenzie said...

Thanks for this, Chez.

corey said...

This part of DST in particular has always stuck with me. Reading it again this morning made me cry, too.

Madeline Amy Sweeney, the flight attendant on Flight 11 who called in the info about the hijackers, was from my Boston suburb. My mom worked in the elementary school her children attended. The decision was made to keep the news from all the students at the school and let their parents explain it to them, so the teachers had to pretend nothing was wrong all day. They all took turns crying in the hallways.

A friend of a friend had just adopted an infant boy from Korea with her husband that August. Then her husband got on Flight 11. I got to know her pretty well over the next few months, and we cried together quite a bit.

There are always a lot of tears surrounding this time - tears that seem to encompass the best and worst of human nature. Thank you for capturing that moment so beautifully.

Bill Bush said...

OK, OK, I'll buy the book. But I'm waiting for the print edition. Best thing I have read on the pit of helplessness we all were in. The mingling of purpose and coincidence is what got me.