My 9/11 Neighborhood of Broken People
Capture a Picture of Time
On the Road to September 11th, 2001
Within the weave through which we’re all rippling and turning, those happy dropout days in the Sixties are nearly as fresh as smells rising up from the ocean and leaking into our apartment this morning.
The sleepless eye tracking everything calculates along the margins. Time accumulates on a razor sharp plane.
Cataloging the ramblings, dreams, repetitive meals, loves, losses and acres of words as distant memory is a convenience, the accepted method for keeping files in order, easy to access for future discussions and trials, comparing this thing to that without getting stuck in time, unconscious, but shuffling and reshuffling the deck in the search for meanings inside the web.
This goes on all the time.
All of the past is the same kind of raw material, make of it what you will.
On a Morning Before the Whole World Changed
Ten years ago, for example, just yesterday really, I climbed up subway steps grimy with the soot of a million shoes before mine.
On John Street, sunbeams came through every break in the construction.
There was never much traffic on the awkward, narrow grid downtown. I jaywalked to the other side and started downhill toward Water Street.
My desk then, clunky Wintel clone and all, sat on cheap carpet in an energetic office on the tenth floor about half-way down the slope.
DeBusschere, died on a public sidewalk from what they park on the scale of horrors as a “massive” heart attack.
One other time, on a late winter morning, I returned from an appointment uptown to find a suicide jumper not completely covered with a blanket in the middle of the street. His freshly polished shoes and fashionable socks stuck out the bottom.
Upstairs, my boss made jokes about going back down to steal the still beautiful shoes.
Grisly, but mostly, I was happy working in that neighborhood.
If you read the history, you learn that interesting developments unwound on the blocks around John Street, not so long ago when it was near the center of an emerging metropolis nobody predicted to become this New York, rich in commercial acumen, eagerly inventing money magic, ingenious profit from nothing.
Closer to the East River where it blends with the harbor, the streets invest their trust on artificial turf, built up out of fill that enriched the owners of the newly created land, gathering wealth from a foundation of trash, much like the entertainment industry does today.
Towering glass structures rely on masterful engineering to be planted securely in what used to be shallow, salty water.
Some Broken People
Dave - Broken People #2
Just like any other day, I walked by Starbucks and the florist shop where I surprised my wife, fifty miles away, by sending her flowers on our first Valentine’s Day back in New York.
On a block in transition from street level, grab bag retail to a fitness center, Dave was panhandling in his usual spot where the morning sun cut geometric patterns, beams dodging the Brooklyn Bridge.
Dave secured a warm slice of sidewalk for himself.
I always gave him a dollar, every day, even when it visibly disgusted my friend, Elliot, as we made our early run to Starbucks, and if there was time, Dave and I talked for a few minutes about current events.
Once, he disappeared for a couple of weeks and, when he came back, told me he’d been housed at a shelter out in Rockland County. Giuliani shipped him and some colleagues out because he couldn’t scare up enough beds in town.
Once in the boondocks, he had no way to return until the city lost rights to the space and had to bus him and his roommates back to the streets.
I never found out how Dave came to be homeless. We didn't dig that far into the past.
Dave’s poverty was just a fact of life, though, like a banker’s clean underwear, but his mental state was as wobbly as an old bicycle with no seat and some spokes missing. He eyes darted around constantly as if he expected an invasion, ghosts maybe.
Even at McDonalds, they‘d never let him fill a bag with fries for all those hungry customers with poor judgement. Landlords never answered his knock on the door.
So, I always gave Dave some cash and wondered why a community as rich as ours didn’t just put together the resources to embrace the broken among us and give them as much security and comfort as we had to give.
Even for the squeamish and too pure to be exposed to filth or failure, it’s a more provident way of killing your time than all the handwringing and moralizing.
Why do we have so much trouble with facts?
After all, the only time it seems like there are too many broken men, women and children is when we discard them on the street where nobody can miss seeing them.
Life Lessons for Free
On a day like any other, my boss told me that he’d watched me give money to Dave, just a half-block from our building. He followed my example.
This was during the holidays, and his religion taught him to do good deeds. Giving Dave a dollar was his for the day.
It wasn’t much, for either of us, but for my boss, it was a remarkable act because of its wholesome good intentions. He wasn’t really politically with the poor, discarded and homeless, but he had a big enough heart to say “the hell with it” and do something that defied his culture.
My boss was about as politically incorrect as you could get away with in the hobbled new century, hopelessly but also good-naturedly.
I remember he barely keep his skates on the ice when I answered, “None,” to the forbidden religion question.
We’d just got out of the elevator in the lobby and were headed for the subway and sales appointments.
It was our usual morning routine. Most of our appointments were up in Midtown. Sometimes, it seemed like I spent more hours on the Seventh Avenue line than anywhere else, which was good, I suppose, because I read books there.
That morning, my boss leaned over and spoke quietly, almost like a conspirator.
“So, what’s your religion?” he asked, violating a law I didn’t give a damn about.
“None,” I shrugged.
Most people hated that response. It didn’t leave enough room for orienting counterpoints. I’m sure he hoped I was at least a smidge, a careless wad of fate, Jewish.
“You must’ve gone to some church when you were growing up,” he insisted.
It calmed him down a little to learn that I’d been dragged off to Methodist churches as a kid. I even had the passion for a little while when I was lonely and belonging to an embracing congregation brought me a peace nothing else offered.
Churches would almost always have you. I remember how hard it was, letting that go, giving Jesus the axe, but it was necessary, something that must be done as surely wearing off cartilage or clipping your nails.
Yes, There Is a God
There is a God. Everyone knows that, like it or not.
Saying it out loud isn’t any more special than acknowledging the sun. Turning that insight into a vitality eclipsing passion is where we screw things up. Religions have a field day with that stuff.
Anyway, it’s seemed to me for a while that mathematics is, so far, the closet we have to a language of divinity, and evolution is a toolkit, as far as we’ve evolved tools, but I don’t like religions at all.
Religions take the soulful pull we all feel toward nature and whip it up as some kind of exceptional spirituality. You’ve either got it or you’re out.
That’s how the elite set up the toll road.
How would you like to nutshell that to your boss on the trail from elevator to subway?
I should have just told him I was a Unitarian. That way, you can get away without having to actually believe in God, as far as I can tell. They probably even have some atheists in there.
It's a Stream
Do memories lie?
Then, the Killing Started
When jihadists obliterated the World Trade Center, we were shut out of our business neighborhood for weeks. Desks and chairs, vacation souvenirs, pictures of the grandkids, unkempt meeting rooms, men and women, all wiped out and piled in a smoldering heap.
By the time they decided it was safe to let us come back to our dusty offices, Dave was gone.
It took a few more days to have the computers humming again, but what we returned to, although it looked the same, never would be.
What my boss called “the smell of death” filled your nostrils from the minute you got off the subway.
Walking down Broadway, a high construction fence blocking your view of hell, it was as thick as fog. The acrid odor of the burning of the World Trade Center, everything and everyone in it, just hung in the air, fed from ruins smoldering for weeks in the pit called Ground Zero.
Rain rinsed the dust that fell like burnt snow into every corner along the streets, but smoke kept curling up out of the wreckage.
Huge, bent scraps of metal, like a grotesque garden of Richard Serras, bracing piles of softer debris, couldn’t be completely hidden behind the fences.
After work one day in November, I walked by a pharmacy being cleaned up for reopening on Fulton Street. The past creeping out through the opened door smelled like dragon’s breath.
A year later, my company got out of the hazard zone, moving up to Times Square, leaving behind whatever was left of Dave, the scars and daily reminders of carnage so inconceivable it had to be reduced to news stories.
No one gets the full picture of a living hell.
Dante, the author of Revelations, Bosch — they thought they had it, but it wasn’t like this.
Their hells were ancient, more impassioned than this grinding horror.
All we got in modern times were statistics detailing technologically advanced savagery in service of primitive inspirations.
We moved out.
Gone were insignificant routines and ugly days working next to an unresolved cemetery. But the stuff of memory never dies.
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© 2014 David Stone