for the fallen,
and for the ones who helped us through
I had had a bad dream during the night. Like most of my dreams, I couldn’t remember the details, but I was left with a feeling and a few remnants of the images that had passed through my mind as I slept. I stepped out of my bedroom to my dog’s energetic greeting. Roebling had been waiting at my door for his morning walk. For us, the walk is more of a ritual than a necessity. After adopting Roebling, I had installed a dog door in our kitchen window. It was the kind of dog door you might remember from Please Don’t Eat the Daisies or My Three Sons, except in our case the door led to a roof space outside our Brooklyn apartment. Every day or so, I’d climb on to the roof to clean up the little packages Roebling left behind.
I threw on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, grabbed a couple of plastic bags and climbed out the window. There was a heavy smell in the air—a familiar smell—the kind of smell you get when you burn a grilled cheese sandwich while your misplaced plastic egg timer is leaning and melting against the pan. Bending here and there to pick up little piles, I made my way to Roebling’s favorite spot on the corner of the roof where I found a manila file folder. The folder was anonymous, like any you would pull out of an office supply closet—no papers were inside, and the tab was unmarked. The only unusual aspect of the folder—aside from finding it on my roof—was that it had been completely singed around the edges. It all came back to me. It hadn’t been a dream. The folder had been taken from a supply closet early in the morning on the day before and as someone fumbled with his label maker or picked with short fingernails at the backing of a strip of tape, an airplane drove through his office. The folder had blasted out the other side of the building, risen on a pillar of smoke and landed a mile downwind in Brooklyn.
TV commentators reported stories to raise morale. New Yorkers—a notoriously hard-boiled bunch—were showing compassion as never before. Everyone was pitching in, helping out, doing what he could to help the city in its greatest hour of need. I wish I could say I was one of these heroes, but as it turned out, in the rescue and relief effort, I was the goat.
It started early on the morning of the disaster. As soon as I realized what had happened I ran to the blood center. After donating my pint of blood, I urged the technician to poke me again and take another pint. She turned me down, hurrying me along to the cantina for juice and cookies to make way for the two hundred donors in line behind me.
I wanted to do more, but living in Brooklyn, I was cut off. The bridges were closed and the subways weren’t running into Manhattan.
“The trains are running now,” my friend Dave called me on Thursday morning. “Let’s go in and see if we can help.” With that I looked around my apartment for the gear of a laborer, but found myself ill-equipped. Sure, I had overalls and good, thick work socks, I even found the facemask I used to wear when I hobbied around with my airbrush, but I didn’t have any work boots, or real work gloves. Looking through bags and closets, I felt like I was putting together a Halloween costume. I found a pair of leather gloves and figured they would have to do.
Dave and his twin brother Chris had me outclassed on the facemask. They are both painters—real painters, oil and canvas type painters. For their day jobs they paint walls, apartments and offices in the decorative washes and faux finishes that Martha Stewart makes look so easy. Their facemasks were actual respirators with canister filters hanging on either side of the nose; mine was a glorified sheet of gauze pinned between two pieces of plastic and held in place by a rubber band. I was tempted to throw it away in the corner trash and wear a bandana across my face like the Frito Bandito.
We took the subway in under the East River. Peeking over someone’s shoulder, I saw the two-page spreads of the New York Post. It was the first time I had seen a newspaper. I had been getting my news from the television, where the camera moved and where they focused on people speaking. I wasn’t ready for the panoramic view of destruction.
We got off the train at East Broadway—at least that’s what the sign said. From every other indication, we had landed on another planet. It was like a scene from Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica where scouts from the ship visit the planet’s surface to find a civilization, not destroyed, but abandoned. China Town was a ghost town. The shops were closed and no one was in the street. The heavy smell of burning hung thick in the air. The few people we saw as we started across town wore surgical masks, or the masks you wear when you staple rolls of insulation to the eaves of your attic. I put my mask on and was hit with the fumes that had soaked into the gauze after years of sitting in a toolbox with a few cans of oil paint and turpentine. I took the mask off. I would take my chances with the air of lower Manhattan.
We walked across to Varick Street where we found crews of workmen walking past police blockades. We tried to follow them in. I stopped to talk to the police officer guarding the street. “Is this where we go to volunteer?”
“Got any ID?” the policeman asked. “What kind of ID are you looking for?” I pulled out my wallet.
It is the kind of conversation you have in New York City, but it is usually with a bouncer at a velvet rope, not a policeman at a wooden barricade.
“I guess some kind of union card,” the cop said. “Construction, iron workers, heavy machinery operator…”
“No,” I said. “We don’t have anything like that.”
“Well then,” he said, waving a dump truck past us. “I don’t think this is the place for you.”
I knew he was right and I felt foolish for trying to get through, but my friends were a little indignant. “Come on Paul,” they said. “You could have thought something up. You could have gotten us through.”
It was easy to believe that we could help, but I watched the men walking in and the men who were packed into the backs of pick-up trucks. I knew they were cut from a different cloth. On the train ride over I had convinced myself that I could move blocks of concrete, or pick through piles of rubble. Sure, I was young, strong and athletic, but my hands were soft. For years I’ve done nothing but work at a computer keyboard. How long would I last hauling buckets of debris or pulling at the hard edges of stone and twisted metal? My palms would burst like ripe plum tomatoes. Within two hours they would have to rescue me from the pile, and I would sit in an aid station with an I.V. in my arm, getting back my own pint of blood.
Dave and Chris wanted to find another way in. I wanted to get back to Brooklyn. “Let’s just get out of here and get out of everybody’s way,” I said. “They don’t need a poet and a couple of art school pansies here today.”
We decided to walk up to the Jacob Javits Center—the Ellis Island of relief volunteers, where they sorted applicants and assigned jobs according to skill. We got as far as West Fourth Street before I stopped.
“What do you think is going to happen at the Javits Center?” I asked. “Do you think they’re going to need two guys who can finish a bathroom in a faux tortoiseshell glaze? The F train is right here. Let’s get back to Brooklyn.”
Before we got on the train, I wanted to make one stop. I told the twins I wanted to pop into the restaurant I worked at to use the restroom. It was a half-truth. I wanted to stop by the restaurant for a different reason. I wanted to see Catherine.
Catherine was the business manager at the restaurant. We had worked together for about a month before my friend and fellow waiter Chris realized I had a crush on her and wondered why I didn’t do something about it.
One reason was because I enjoyed the crush. I liked to watch her walk through the dining room. I liked to flirt with her and make her smile. The crush helped me enjoy working at the restaurant. It made me show up on time. If I lost the crush, it would just be another restaurant job. The quickest way to lose a crush is to act upon it.
“Come on Paul,” Chris said. “It’s obvious you like her, why don’t you ask her out.”
This brought me to the other reason. “OK, maybe I could get a girl like Catherine,” I said. “But what would I do when I lost a girl like Catherine?”
“Don’t you think you’re being a little pessimistic?” Chris asked.
Pessimistic? Maybe. I don’t know what I’d call it at this point in my life, but you don’t live alone with your dog at thirty-four years old unless you have lost someone—unless you have lost everyone. But what the hell, the crush couldn’t last forever. I asked her out.
Catherine and I had gone out twice—once for dinner and once just for a drink. I had had a really nice time with her. She was bright and pretty with a big smile that overwhelmed her small features and a shy laugh that seemed to cave in on itself, producing almost no sound, but an unmistakable delight. I was looking forward to our next date, which we planned for Tuesday night—the day the towers fell.
I walked into the restaurant forgetting how ridiculous I looked, dressed in a baseball cap and my construction worker costume. My pockets overflowed with garbage—driving gloves, a worthless painter’s mask and my Frito Bandito bandanas. I looked like I was waiting for Monte Hall to step up and make me a deal—to offer me a hundred dollars if I had a roller skate key in my pocket.
Catherine stood in the hallway between the kitchen and the dining room. I felt clumsy. I wanted to grab her. I wanted to hold her, but it just didn’t seem right. We had only been out twice. She had held my hand when I walked her home and we had enjoyed a few goodnight kisses; aside from that, we had been low key.
It was a conscious effort—we didn’t want anyone at the restaurant to know we were dating. I kissed her quickly on the cheek. It seemed tame enough and somewhat appropriate—it is a common greeting among the artists and actors who work together in restaurants.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m…OK,” she said with a blank stare. She looked, not at me, but beyond me, or through me. It was a common response among New Yorkers in the days and weeks that followed. We all had one image stuck in our minds. We had all seen it with our own eyes. When asked, we all said with hesitation that we were OK, but we knew we weren’t. We knew we were a mess. If we had been OK, we wouldn’t cry every fifteen minutes. But on top of feeling as bad as we did, we all felt guilty for it, because we knew so many lost so much more.
None of us knew how to think about what we had lost, how to wrap our minds around it, or how to focus our grief in any way that made sense.
To people living outside the city, New York seems an expansive and impossible place, but to those of us who live here, it is much smaller and far more intimate. Yes, the streets are filled with eight million people, but you cannot walk a mile in any neighborhood without running into someone you know. There is also the belief that the island of Manhattan is stacked from river to river with tall buildings, towers and skyscrapers, but most of the buildings in Manhattan do not climb above six stories. Most of the people I know live in walk-up apartments.
Because of the smaller buildings, looking south along one of the Avenues from almost any part of town you could catch a glimpse of the towers. Returning from long car trips, or flying into New York, the towers always greeted you, telling you that you were a half hour from your bed—a half hour from home. Now the towers were gone, and though many of us couldn’t put it into words, we wondered how we would ever find our home again.
Dropping my disguise, I went to work the next day, not as a relief worker, but as myself, a waiter. I found I wasn’t needed there either. The restaurant expected few dinner guests, so after we had set up the dining room, the manager decided to let someone go home. I volunteered. I had only come to work that afternoon to get away from the TV news for an hour or two. I couldn’t imagine standing tableside throughout the evening describing hanger steak and foie gras and pretending it was important. So, with the approval of my fellow waiters, I changed back into my street clothes and headed out the door. Before I left, I ran up to Catherine’s office.
“They don’t need me tonight, so I’m going to go,” I said. “But if you’re not working late, maybe we can get together for a drink or something.”
We decided to meet at a bar a few blocks away—the bar where we had met on our first date.
Once at the bar, I ordered a beer and sat at an open bar stool, exchanging glances with the few people around me. On the television over the bar, a news commentator summed up her report by saying the events of the week had been a sobering experience for America. Not for me. I had gotten drunk every night since it happened.
I hadn’t wanted to stay at home alone, watching it over and over again on television—the collisions from different angles and the people in the streets running for their lives—so, I’d take the dog for a walks to a local bar where he is always welcome. Conversations would start slowly—usually about the dog. Voices lowered and softened, and the real conversations would begin. Who were you a week ago? Where were you when the planes hit? Where were you when the towers fell? Where will we be when it all hits the fan?
We had to talk about it. We had to hear it from the mouths of strangers. We had to know if they had seen it too, otherwise we could never be sure it was real.
“What do we do with the dust?” I asked.
For days, dust had been falling in Brooklyn, snowing down on cars and blowing into open windows. For days, I wondered what to do with it. Would I suck it up with my vacuum and throw it in the trash? Wasn’t it evidence from a crime scene? Wouldn’t someone in rubber gloves come by to sweep it up and comb through it for clues?
There was something more to the fine silt that I kicked up as I walked across my carpet, that clung to my bookcases and television. I didn’t want to disturb it. I didn’t want to dust it away or wipe it clean. I knew the dust was sacred.
“I don’t know,” said a woman sitting next to me at the bar one night. “I was down at the Promenade earlier and there was this pillar of smoke where they used to be. I had this feeling that once the smoke blows away, they’ll still be there.”
“You know,” her sister said. “I wonder if when the smoke clears, I’ll even be able to place just where in the skyline the towers had stood.”
Walking the dog home, I thought about this. I thought about the last time I had really looked at the towers, and I knew I had to make a phone call.
In this world of modern electronics and hybrid appliances—clock/radios, TV/VCRs and coffee machine/alarm clocks—you would think someone would get the bright idea to make something useful for me. I want a new telephone. I want one with a Breathalyzer built into the mouthpiece. It would save me a little embarrassment, and I don’t think anyone would miss hearing from me late at night after I have had a few drinks.
I sat down at my desk, dialed the phone, and started to search through my computer’s hard drive as the phone rang.
“Mike,” I said. “It’s Paul Hawkins calling from New York.” I thought he would like to know that he was the key. He was the way I would remember where the buildings had stood.
About a year and a half ago my cousin Michael had undergone a gruesome surgery to remove a knot of skin growing in the center of his brain. Following the operation, his wife emailed pictures to everyone to show how well he was faring with his recovery. I loved the pictures—Mike, still doped up in a hospital bed with an I.V. in his arm and his head wrapped in bandages. As a kind of get-well card, my brother Andy and I emailed some pictures back to Mike and his family. Andy and I took pictures of ourselves standing in front of different New York landmarks, leaving enough room between us for another person. Back at my computer, we doctored the photographs to make it look like we had made a life-size cardboard cutout of Mike, which we had carried around town and posed with during our photo shoot.
As I spoke to Mike on the phone, the picture came up on my computer screen—there they were, the twin towers of the World Trade Center standing proudly, just beyond the Woolworth building and my cousin’s bandaged head.
Catherine walked into the bar and sat on the stool next to mine. I didn’t know what to say to her. We had already had a brief conversation on the phone the night after the attack. We had checked in to find that no one in either of our families had been downtown that morning and no one had been on a plane out of Boston. I didn’t know how to launch the conversation to begin our third date. Playful getting-to-know-you questions and answers didn’t seem appropriate with New York on fire and warplanes patrolling the skies over Greenwich Village, “So, who did you say your favorite band was?” We talked a little bit about the restaurant and then we took turns presenting our little soliloquies on where we had been and what we had seen on Tuesday morning.
Catherine lives on the west side of Manhattan in a neighborhood known as Chelsea. Through her kitchen window, she has a clear view of the downtown skyline. She had been talking on the phone with her brother in Massachusetts, looking out the window when the first tower fell.
“I wish I’d been watching the TV instead,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, so I went to work.”
“You’re kidding me,” I said. “What did you do at the restaurant?”
“Well, Irene was there, so we decided to make food and send it down to the relief.”
The idea of it made me laugh. The restaurant we worked in was a rather gourmet affair. At times, as a waiter, I had trouble describing our menu to any but the most experienced diners. I imagined that Catherine and Irene had prepared menu items from the restaurant and sent them down to help the relief and rescue crews. I could see myself handing plates to firemen and ironworkers, explaining to each the composition of the dish, “This is tuna belly seared in parsley and garlic. Trust me, you’ll love it.”, “This is skate served over a pistou of vegetables. Now, skate is a difficult fish to describe. It is from the ray family…”
She wasn’t happy. She thought I was making fun of her. “We made sandwiches, Paul.”
“Oh,” I said. “Of course you did.”
Just then, the bartender—an attractive young woman who looked, as the rest of us did, as if she had not been sleeping well—walked around the bar, offering votive candles from a brown cardboard box.
“It’s almost seven o’clock and we’re all going outside,” she said. “And you may as well join us, because no one’s getting another drink until it’s over.”
An email had circulated that week and D.J.s had mentioned it on the radio. Wherever you were on Friday night at seven o’clock, you were to light a candle and go outside.
We walked out to the street, lit our candles and stood in silence for a while. A woman standing next to me looked up at the fire escape across the street from which American flags draped from two different floors.
“Do you know which one of those flags is hung right?” she asked. One flag displayed the stars to the left, the other to the right.
“I left my scouting handbook at home,” I said, “but as long as the flags aren’t hung upside down, I think we should let it go today.”
The woman on the other side of me became fidgety after a while. “Don’t you think we should sing something,” she said, “like the National Anthem?”
“Go ahead and start,” I said. “I’m sure everyone will join in.”
“Could you start?” she asked. “I don’t know the words. I’m Canadian.”
“Oh,” I said. “Welcome to New York.”
The thought of singing had occurred to me even before she had mentioned it, but I couldn’t start. The American National Anthem struck me as too big—it is a ballgame song, hardly appropriate for a candlelight vigil. Rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air didn’t offer the solace we craved. In ceremonies throughout the city and throughout the nation, The Star Spangled Banner had been put on the shelf in favor of the lamentation we needed and the prayer we all whispered, God Bless America. I for one didn’t know all the lyrics to that one. Sure, I could have started, but after singing, “Stand beside Her and guide Her,” I would have had to fill in with “Da-da-Da, Da-da-Da, Da-da-Da.”
I was the wrong person to lead the chorus anyway. When singing in public, I always pick a key that is uncomfortable for everyone else. Ask any member of my family. Even when singing Happy Birthday, the only way I get through it is by singing louder that everyone else, forcing those around me to sing within my range—again, not appropriate for a candlelight vigil.
Catherine’s cell phone rang. The restaurant was having trouble processing credit cards and needed her to trouble-shoot the computer system. I walked her back to the restaurant and ducked into a bar called The Stoned Crow a few doors away. I ordered a beer and listened as a song played on the jukebox. It was an older song and I was glad to hear it. It reminded me of something in the past. It reminded me of high school.
The eighties had been a relatively peaceful time, but the stress of the Cold War had hung over everything. We didn’t think much about terrorists then. We thought about the Soviets and the bomb. Our songs chanted the same message, “If it’s not love then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.” I remembered having seen newspaper diagrams detailing the effects of a nuclear attack on the New York area, circles drawn within each other like the bull’s eye of a dartboard. The larger circle represented the area that would be contaminated by deadly radioactive fallout. The smaller circle defined the blast radius—the fireball. My friends and I would argue back and forth about the only two options we could see for our future—fallout or fireball. My answer was always the same. I chose the fireball. I chose New York City.
I left my bar stool and walked to the bathroom. On my way out, sliding the bolt lock to open the door, I tore my index finger on the lock’s sheet metal mounting. Walking back to the bar, I wrapped my finger in a cocktail napkin as Catherine walked in the door. The bartender approached us to see if Catherine wanted a drink. I asked for a Band-Aid.
“Let me get a look at it,” the bartender said.
I held my bleeding finger over the napkin. The bartender turned around to dig through a box next to the cash register. He returned with a Band-Aid and a cheap bottle of vodka.
“Put your finger out,” he said. He poured vodka over my finger and handed me the Band-Aid. “That ought to do it,” he said.
For a moment I pondered my end. It wouldn’t be the fireball I had anticipated. In a week of horror and tragedy, mine would be a quiet exit. Days from now, my muscles would cramp and my jaw would lock. While men and women risked their lives searching for survivors on an unsettled mountain of rubble, I would die of tetanus from the dead bolt lock on the john at The Stoned Crow.
I walked Catherine home. Once at her door, I leaned toward her to kiss her goodnight. “Paul,” she stopped me. “I don’t think this is the right time for me to start dating someone.”
“Everything’s crazy right now Catherine,” I said. “Don’t do this.”
“It’s nothing to do with that,” she told me. “It is just things in my own life.”
I had lost Catherine. Now what would I do?
I’d like to say that I nodded, said goodnight and walked away. I’d like to pretend that I reserved a little dignity, but I didn’t. An event like this is never over until I’ve made a ridiculous overture. Maybe I have watched too many movies. In the movies a romance reaches a point that seems like the end, then something is said, something is done—something silly. A smile breaks through the storm clouds—a happy ending—roll credits.
Romantic films don’t come with disclaimers saying, “Don’t try this at home,” so idiots like me give it a try every now and then.
“OK, I’ll go,” I said. “But, if you change your mind, if you ever think that you might like to be adored, give me a call, because I will adore you.”
Not bad for a movie, but when you say something like that in real life it drops right to the ground and leaves a messy puddle. I slipped on it as I walked away.
In my head I could hear the voices of my friends, the consolations offered when dating doesn’t go well, “So you went out with a girl a few times and it didn’t work out… it’s not the end of the world.” But what if it was?
I crossed the street and walked into a candy store. “Hi,” I said to the cashier. “Could I have the first pack of cigarettes I’ve bought in five years?”In the following months, I would save up enough cigarette coupon points to buy the Marine Corps a new amphibious hovercraft—anything for the cause.
The telephone sat silently in my apartment. When someone called, I’d hear the faint click of the answering machine spinning into action and then I’d hear my outgoing message. I had turned the ringer off two years ago when I began working from home. The phone had been too much of a distraction. In the second week of September, I turned the ringer back on. It had been hard enough for phone calls to get through to my Brooklyn number; I didn’t want my friends to think I was screening their calls, or worse.
Phone calls came from all over, from distant parts of the country, from Europe, from Asia, and more surprisingly, from distant parts of my life—former business associates, high school acquaintances and old girlfriends. Time had sped by. I had filed experiences away and had begun to think of certain people as parts of my past, but as it turned out, they were parts of my life. The calls reminded me of my own little crimes against humanity, of times when I had broken hearts, and other times when I had been broken. More than anything they said, the once familiar voices on the phone told me that there was something more than hurt feelings, neglected emotions and unreturned affection. As I hung up the phone, I felt myself in something like a state of grace, like the slate had been wiped clean, like I had been forgiven.
I called my brother Andrew almost every day. He and his fiancé were planning to get married on the twenty-second of September and I knew he wasn’t comfortable—how do you invite guests to celebrate your wedding in the middle of all of this?
“Kathleen is upset,” Andy said. “Ten people have already called and said they won’t be coming.”
“You can add one more,” I said. “My date cancelled on me.”
“OK,” he said, “I’ll tell Kathleen.”
“You know what,” I said. “Don’t tell Kathleen anything. I’ll find a date, and we’ll dance at your wedding.” I got off the phone with Andrew and dialed another number.
“Michele,” I said. “In the spirit of our President, I’m calling in the Reserves. I need you to put on something pretty and be my guest at my brother’s wedding.”
Michele and I had dated about seven years ago. She knew my family well and was crazy about my brother Andrew. My call may not have been the nicest invitation she had ever received, but it was great to see her again, and to dance with her at my brother’s wedding.
When Matt called, I was baking.
Matt had left New York the day of the attack. He drove down to Philadelphia where his daughter lived and his wife Tracie was in rehearsal for a musical. He returned two weeks later and was not having an easy time with it. He wasn’t the only one.
Several of my friends had been out of town for the month of September, working in regional theaters in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Rochester. They thought they might return unscathed, that they had missed the worst of it. Maybe their time out of town, they thought, would help them return with a different perspective, a freshness, a strength they could offer the friends of theirs who had witnessed calamity. When they came back in October, they were hit just as hard, but they were isolated—the city had moved on to a different stage of grieving.
My friends walked through familiar streets to find the aging shrines we had built a month earlier, browning bouquets of flowers and candles warped from fire and rain. On lampposts and the boarded perimeters of construction sites they found the images we had grown somewhat used to—the photocopied snapshots of neighbors, the pictures of the missing, the faces of ghosts. They wanted to talk about it, but found that the rest of us were all talked out or that we spoke in half sentences and codes, leaving out words we couldn’t say anymore. We didn’t sound like news commentators. We didn’t say things like “September Eleventh,” “World Trade Center,” or “Ground Zero.” We’d say “The Big Bang,” “Nine-One-One,” or simply, “ever since.”
“I’ve talked to so many people today,” Matt said on the phone, “and I told them that I’d remember them in my prayers, but then I come home and I don’t pray. I don’t think I know how to.”
Matt knew some prayers—he had gone to Catholic school through the twelfth grade. He knew the Our Father, the Hail Mary and he could probably say a Rosary while standing on his head, but prayer is something different: Prayer is thoughtfulness and action; Prayer is humility and service. Matt didn’t want to light candles and chant incantations; he wanted to do something bigger. I knew what he was talking about. It was the same feeling I had had the day I tried to work the rubble pile.
We all wanted hard work—effort with a purpose. At the end of the day we wanted sore muscles, ripped hands, blisters and bruised bodies. We wanted something to shock the pain from our cores and bring it to the surface, because the slow, dull ache was unbearable.
Barred from the heavier work, we looked for something smaller to do. Like I said, I was baking.
My baking didn’t surprise Matt. He knew it was something I liked to do. I had worked in restaurants most of my life, where although I had been surrounded by wonderful food, I usually had not been allowed to eat any of it. So, I began to bake banana bread, into which I would pour a half-pound of chocolate covered espresso beans. The result was like rocket fuel, zapping the central nervous system, keeping a waiter on his toes through the dullest party or the most grueling Saturday night.
I had introduced the staff of the new restaurant I was working at to the banana bread sometime in August, a few weeks after I had taken the job. We had been scheduled to work a rehearsal dinner and I feared it might drag into the night with speeches and toasts. Bananas were turning brown in my kitchen anyway, so I mashed them up with flour, sugar, eggs, and of course, the chocolate covered espresso beans. After staff meal, I broke out the bread. My colleagues carved it up and gobbled it down like prisoners. With mouths full, they thanked me and I smiled. I smiled for their appreciation, but I also found it funny. They couldn’t see what I was doing. They thought the banana bread was for them. It wasn’t. I had baked three loaves of banana bread that afternoon—two large and one small. The large loaves I offered to the kitchen and the wait staff. The smaller, individual sized loaf was for Catherine.
On my days off, I would bake, and I began to expand my repertoire beyond banana bread. When apples came into season I made apple pies, and a smaller apple tart for Catherine. I would bring in a Junior’s cheesecake, one of Brooklyn’s great delicacies, and a mini cheesecake for Catherine.
When Matt called I was baking for the Fire Department. I decided to bake them lasagna and a large loaf of banana bread. Of course, I made a smaller loaf too, for Catherine.
“Have things changed?” Matt asked. “I thought you said you guys weren’t dating.”
“We’re not,” I said, “but I figured, why stop now?”
“Well,” Matt said. “When do you think you will stop?”
I thought about it for a moment. “I guess I’ll stop when she calls the police,” I said.
The police would never get involved. It wasn’t a problem. I wasn’t assailing Catherine with baked goods. I wasn’t offering her gifts to make her feel uncomfortable or to try to win her over. I was compensating for something I found lacking in my life. During those weeks, I needed someone to care about; I chose Catherine. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t chosen me.
My new, humbler effort toward the relief didn’t go any better than my others had. I almost blew up the kitchen, owing to my oven’s faulty electric pilot. I also burned my thumb pretty badly tap dancing around my dog’s anxious investigation of what I was pulling from the oven. But finally, after three near collisions on the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway, I found the firehouse and parked the car.
I could have delivered the food to one of my local firehouses, but I chose a house in Woodside Queens because I knew a firefighter who was stationed there. I had graduated from high school with Steve Mickiewicz and had seen him at my brother’s wedding. Steve was a member of Rescue 4, the only elite rescue squad left in New York City.
I held a pan of lasagna in one hand and with the other I knocked on the door.
“I know a lot of food is going down to the relief, but I didn’t know if you guys had enough to eat in the station,” I said to the firefighters who opened the door.
“Hey thanks,” one said, taking the pan of lasagna. “That’s real nice of you.”
“I have another three pans just like it in the car,” I said.
“I’ll give you a hand,” the other firefighter said, stepping out of the garage and following me to my car.
We returned with the three pans of lasagna and the banana bread. Just inside the firehouse stood a shrine of flowers, candles and photographs. As I passed, I tried not to look at it. I didn’t want my emotions to take over. I wanted to be a good will ambassador, like Bob Hope and the U.S.O. I wanted to say thanks and get the hell out.
“You’ll have to come in and have a cup of coffee with us,” the firefighter said, leading me back to the kitchen.
I stood in confusion in the kitchen of the firehouse. Part of me was like a little boy. I wanted to ask them if I could try on their coats and helmets and climb on the back of the fire engine. Another part of me staggered with the inequity of it all—these men would walk into a burning building for me, but they all wanted to shake my hand and thank me for a couple of pans of pasta.
“Hey, how do you take your coffee?” one called to me.
“Ahhh, milk and sugar… whatever, fine,” I stuttered.
The room was distracted. I turned to look at the TV. A wrecking crew was tearing down a large structure at the site. Just then, I was handed a cup of coffee. The room was silent as the structure fell. The man on my right turned to me, “You know, they’re going to start issuing death certificates tomorrow.”
The coffee burned my tongue and throat as I gulped it down. I had to get out of there. I didn’t want the firemen to see me cry.
I was finishing up my time at the restaurant. I had given my notice. I had gotten some calls about web site design work I could do from home, and the restaurant’s customers were beginning to get to me. When I had first gone back I had pepped myself up with the thought that people needed restaurants—they needed to be around other people. There were still birthdays, anniversaries and quiet events to celebrate. People needed to get away, to go out for a few hours and pretend they were normal.
Normal—normalcy, these were the words of the hour, the slogans of the leadership, the mantra of the television. I could pretend for a few hours, but the idea of going back to normal horrified me. I had wasted my life in a fog of TV game shows, top forty music, and “news” items about Hollywood starlets being exhausted and depressed. I remembered what normal was like. Normal was empty and numb. I thought we could all do a lot better.
Sometime in the middle of the night, a table of four sat in my section. The guests had hardly been shown to their seats before the party’s host got up and sauntered into the kitchen. “I’m going to go talk to the chef,” he said.
Not having much patience for this type of thing that night, I figured while he was in the kitchen he could ask the chef if there were any specials or additions to the menu, because when he got back, I certainly wasn’t going to tell him. The man returned to his table and began to joke loudly and rudely with his dinner companions, another man and two women. When I approached the table for their dinner order, the man barked odd commands at me, “Tell the chef I want…” he proceeded to order items that were not on the menu, and were probably not in the restaurant. “And see if he has any of this back there; tell him to sprinkle that on top.”
Had he really been in the kitchen talking to the chef? The same chef I talk to? You don’t go into a kitchen and tell a chef anything. You certainly don’t tell him how to prepare his food, not in this type of restaurant. It would be like going to a Broadway theater and expecting the cast to sing requests shouted out by the audience.
I knew it was all a show for his guests. I could feed him anything. A man like that had no appreciation for cuisine, and would be embarrassed to let his guests find out that the waiter and the kitchen had not twisted themselves into contortions to satisfy his every whim. I nodded at his requests and decided to order the closest things we had on the menu—no modifications.
As I was leaving the table, the man stopped me. “So what’s going on here?” he asked. “Where’s Russell?” he looked around. “Where’s Russell?”
He was talking about Russell, the Maitre d’. Russell had been fired, or let go, or had quit. I didn’t know. No one had told me. I thought he was on vacation.
“As far as I know, Russell’s on vacation,” I said. “His family lives in San Francisco. I think he hasn’t been able to get a flight back yet.”
“Are you sure?” the man asked. “Are you sure he didn’t get a job at Windows on the World?”
It was the kind of thing that, if I had heard it told in a story, I would have thought, if someone said that to me, I would have taken a swing at him. But I didn’t swing at him. My defenses were down. I walked away, shaken.
Until he said it, I hadn’t thought of Windows on the World. Maybe it had been a defense mechanism, but I hadn’t thought of any of the restaurants in the towers.
I had worked as a waiter and manager in New York restaurants for the last ten years. Over that span I have moved from restaurant to restaurant and watched others as they had grown and moved on—a prep cook becomes a line cook becomes a sous chef—a busboy becomes a runner becomes a waiter—a waiter or a bartender becomes a manager. Friends joked that I couldn’t go into a restaurant in New York City without running into someone I knew. It is not always the Maitre d’ or the owner; sometimes it is a woman working coat check, or the back waiter who serves the coffee and petit fours at the end of the night. A restaurant the size of Windows on the World could not have gone down without taking someone I knew with it.
I thought about the widowed spouses on TV who, through tears, would say how their husbands or wives loved their jobs as firefighters, police officers and bond traders. Then I thought about the widowed spouses of people like me, who didn’t love their jobs, but used them as a means to an end. They had fallen in love with poets, actors and artists and had watched them die as waiters, bartenders and busboys. Their grief, my grief, was the punch line to a joke.
Go back to normal if you want to. Forget that there are people around you. Look away from the faces you pass on the street. Move on. But one day something will happen, something small—your shoelace will snap or a passing cab will splash you in the rain and you will shatter into tears and crumble. Without apology, 3,000 neighbors who didn’t come home from work that Tuesday will lay their full weight upon you.
The message light on my answering machine was blinking when I came home from work that night. I lit a cigarette and played back the message.
“Paul, are you there?” I heard my brother Peter’s voice. “Oh God, I was hoping you’d be home. I didn’t want to leave this on your answering machine…” Someone else was gone.
At first, I had felt lucky. I had grown up on suburban Long Island and most of the guys I went to high school with had become New York City firefighters or police officers. They had all been accounted for—they were all safe. But as days passed, notes would come by email and phone messages like Peter’s would break the silence.
“The number is more than we can bear,” the mayor had said. The number…
A blackboard hung on the wall of my kitchen. Every time I heard the number on TV, I wrote it down. As they went through the list, crossing off duplicate names and matching nicknames with real names, the number became lower. I remembered when it was 4,315. Last week it was 3,835. This morning it was 3,045. I used to think about the size of the number, the thousands. Now, what struck me most was that the number always ended in a five—I knew those five people. I hadn’t seen any of them in years, but when I knew them, we had been close enough to drink out of the same soda can.
I wrote the names on my black board and thought about them as the days went by—Timothy O’Brien, Kevin Cleary, Timothy Byrne, Scott Bart and Heather Ho. The men had been friends of my family, friends of my brothers. The woman, Heather, I had worked with at Gramercy Tavern. Heather was a bright woman who quickly worked her way through the stations of the kitchen. She lost her life as the pastry chef at Windows on the World.
I guess it had taken a while for the naval battle group to move into position, but the bombing had begun in Kabul and Kandahar. We listened to the radio as we set up the restaurant.
“Paul, do you know what time it is?”
I looked across the room, “Catherine, you’re wearing a watch.”
“I know, but the battery’s dead,” she said. “Sometimes I put it on like it’s jewelry and sometimes I put it on to remind myself to get it fixed.”
“It’s four fifty-two,” I said, walking over to her.
“Oh, it’s four fifty-two.” she said.
It is something people tease me about; when I read the time from a digital watch, I just read the numbers off. I don’t see the point of rounding up or down to the next five-minute mark just to pretend that I’m nonchalant about the time.
“Why don’t you give me the watch,” I said.
“Give me the watch and I’ll put a new battery in it for you.”
“No, really Paul,” she said. “That’s OK, I’ll get the watch fixed.”
“All right,” I surrendered.
The night had gone fine, but we hadn’t broken any sales records. We figured people had stayed at home out of concern over some type of retaliatory strike in response to the United States’ military activity. There hadn’t been much foot traffic on the streets; after a stretch of warm weather, it was a cold, damp night.
Diners who had been experts in international terrorism a week before were now well versed in military policy and operations. They spat out what they had heard on CNN and pretended it was their own conversation.
“Well, you know we have air superiority,” I heard from one table as I passed.
Air superiority—why would that even come up in conversation? From what I knew about Afghanistan, I imagined we were up against a flock of trained pigeons and a box kite.
We talked just to fill the time. We were all waiting for something else—something big. Two great boots had fallen in lower Manhattan and we were all waiting for another shoe to drop.
Far from being on everybody’s mind, Anthrax was almost a forced conversation. It wasn’t pervasive enough. It was like the tingling music in the background of a horror movie. We sat, ate our popcorn and Milk Duds and waited for the next big scare.
We closed the last few checks, put the chairs on the tables and sat at the bar for an end-of-the-night beer. Catherine came down from her office after finishing her paperwork and locking away the night’s receipts.
“I’d love to hang out for a bit guys,” she said, standing next to me, sipping a glass of wine, “but I’ve got to be back here at nine tomorrow and I’m working a double.”
“You’re going to be in the restaurant all day tomorrow?” I asked, reaching for her hand.
“Then let me have the watch,” I unbuckled the leather strap from her wrist. Too tired to fight, she let me take it.
Chris and I walked Catherine to a cab and flagged down a second cab for our trip home to Brooklyn. We rode Broadway down to Canal and Canal over the Manhattan Bridge. Once in Brooklyn, we turned on Tillary and passed the entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge. We had gotten used to a heavy police presence on the bridge and around the city’s other landmarks, but now the National Guard joined the police in the heavy Hum-Vee trucks that movie stars drive.
“Did something happen?” I asked Chris.
“I don’t know.”
The cab pulled to the curb on Atlantic Avenue. Chris and I got out. A policeman stood in the doorway of the shop on the ground floor of my building, bracing against the cold, his turtleneck shirt pulled over his mouth and nose like Mort from the Bazooka Joe bubble gum comics.
“What’s this all about?” Chris asked in a low voice. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He nodded his head toward the doorway.
“Oh,” I said, “the cop?”
“Ever since,” I shrugged.
If you look around my section of downtown Brooklyn, you’ll find the shop signs and awnings are written in Arabic. The few logos printed in the western alphabet read, “Damascus Bakery,” “Yemen Café,” and “Near Eastern Imports.” During the day, women walk along the sidewalks with their heads covered and their faces veiled. Men clothe themselves in ankle-length, dress-like shirts and wear fezzes and turbans. Here, in my jeans, J. Crew sweaters and my closely shaven face, I stand out—the Lawrence of little Arabia.
A police officer had been standing on my block, in my doorway for a month, not to rouse the sleeper agents of hidden terrorist cells, but to protect the neighborhood from anti-Arab backlash—to keep Americans safe from other Americans.
Chris shook my hand, crossed the street and headed home. I walked to my door.
“Cold tonight, huh?” I said to the policeman.
“Yeah,” he said. “Not too bad though.”
“Could I get you some coffee or something?” I offered.
“Nah,” he waved his hand. “My replacement should be here any minute.”
“You sure?” I said. “I’ve got to take the dog out anyway, so you might as well tell me how you like your coffee.”
“No thanks, really,” he said. “I’m OK.”
I walked up the stairs and put on a pot of coffee, cleaned out my Thermos and poured in a little milk and a few spoons of sugar. I put Roebling on a leash and headed downstairs.
“Here,” I handed the Thermos to the policeman. “Maybe your replacement will want some coffee.”
Roebling and I walked a few blocks then circled around for home. Sure enough, the replacement had come—a new sentry guarded the block.
“You must be the guy with the coffee,” he said. “Thanks so much—that’s very nice of you.”
“No problem,” I said. “When you’re done with it just leave it in the doorway. I’ll get it in the morning.”
“You sure it will be OK there?” the policeman asked.
“There is a cop here twenty-four hours a day,” I said. “I don’t think anyone’s going to run off with my Thermos.”
We talked for a little while about the attack, the mayor and the funerals. We talked about Anthrax and the war that had begun on the other side of the world. We talked about our neighbors and our families and the haunting thought that it might all get much worse before it got better.
It wasn’t the type of conversation I like to lay my head upon for a sound sleep, but it was late, so I shook his hand, said goodnight and turned toward my door.
Years from now, children will write reports for their history classes. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews will ask me where I was when the sky fell and the roof caved in. Though I would want to tell them that I had risen to the call, that I had made a difference, that I had been a hero—that is someone else’s story. Instead I will tell them of the small consolations, the solace offered in single servings. I will talk about emails and telephone calls, about banana bread and hot cups of coffee, and about tears shared with strangers over cold glasses of beer.
Patting the fronts of my pants to find where I had put my keys, I felt an odd shape on my left side. I reached into my jeans to find something I had forgotten about. Maybe it meant nothing in a world where subtlety is lost in the smoke of grief and horror, but I had Catherine’s watch in my pocket—hope enough, for another day.
Paul Hawkins 2001