Today, we had a plan. Wake up, take the LIRR into NYC, see Ground Zero, meet my pal Rob Beil for dinner, and spend the night with Denise's cousin Katie in Manhattan. With small alterations, that's what happened, and a fine day it was.
We woke up, but once again we got a late start. We weren't used to the trains on Long Island—in St. Louis, the Metrolink runs every 20 minutes or so during the day—and so we didn't think to look at the schedule until it was too late. We were ready to leave the house at 1:50 pm, but when I bothered to look at the schedule in my pocket, I found that the LIRR was leaving at precisely that moment, and the next one wouldn't be showing up until 3:20 pm! Damn!
We used the time to walk to the station and find someplace to eat nearby. A pizza place was the perfect thing. We each got one of the humongous slices you get in NY and sat down to read the paper.
In order to appreciate this next anecdote, you need to understand that I have a pretty good ear, especially for voices and accents. And if I hear an accent long enough, I pick it up unconsciously. So according to Denise, when we walked into the pizza joint, I said to the guy behind the counter, 'Hey, how you doin'?' To which the guy replied, 'Fine. How you doin'?' He didn't seem to notice anything wrong!
While we were ordering, I noticed a guy plahing pinball in the back room. This guy looked like someone in Central Casting had called up and said, 'Hey, send over a generic Long Island tough guy'. He was about 5 feet, 9 inches, with jeans and a navy blue wife-beater shirt on, the kind with no sleeves and no neck. Olive skin, dark hair, and hairy chest, arms, and shoulders. Jewelry included a gold neck chain, of course. His facial expression was perrenially pissed off. When he walked, his shoulders swung from side to side, but that was all that moved; if he had to turn to one side, he moved at the waist, not the neck.
As I watched him play pinball, he lost his final ball. I couldn't hear him, but I could see him: he hit the sides of the pinball machine and mouthed 'Fuck!' before striding over to pay for his pizza.
It was perfect!
We finally arrived in NYC around 5ish. Before we could go to Ground Zero, though, we had an errand to take care of first. When we left the Empire State Building the day before, I had forgotten to get my pocketknife (if you don't believe me, go back and reread yesterday, and you'll notice that I never picked up my knife). So we went in, told the guards the problem, and they sent us downstairs to lost and found. After about five minutes of searching, they found my knife, and we were on our way. It was interesting, though, getting a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes of the ESB.
We took the subway down to Ground Zero, and I thought I was going to be ill, it was so hot. I was dripping sweat, and it seemed the perspiration wouldn't stop. Fortunately I had brought a black kerchief with me, and it was getting plenty of use, as I wiped my brow, neck, and face off every couple of minutes. Worst of all was the trickle of sweat I could feel running down my back. Gad, what an unpleasant sensation.
We arrived at our subway stop and rose to the street level. After walking a few blocks, we got near Ground Zero, the site where the former World Trade Center once stood. The first thing we saw was St. George's Church, a few blocks away from our destination.
Before I go on, let me say this. We saw Ground Zero, and you will too, but it wasn't that affecting. I hope no one takes this the wrong way, but Ground Zero is just a huge hole in the ground. It had been years since I saw the WTC, so the change wasn't all that obvious to me, since I wasn't struck by the differnce between the WTC and the hole that is there now. I was far more affected by the impromptu memorials around St. George's Church, because that brought home to me the human losses and pain that resulted from the events of 11 September 2001. There were not many reminders that I could see at Ground Zero that emphasized that over 3000 people had died there; every square inch of the fence around St. George's mbrought that reality home, in a way that was personal and immediate.
So you can see what people had done to the fence around the Church: they had turned it into a shrine of mourning, love, and, in some cases, revenge. It took my breath away when I first saw it, and Denise and I were drawn to it inexorably. As we got closer, we saw more clearly the sheer volume of memorials.
We got closer, and individual items began to appear amidst the general riot of colors, fabrics, words, and items.
We got even closer, and this time individual *lives* began to appear,
Some of those lives were memorialized in an almost unbearably sad way:
Do you see what I mean now? Looking at Ground Zero, you have to think of those who were killed in the abstract; here at the fence around St. George's, there are no abstractions, only particulars. This man, Michael Tinley, was killed. There is his face. There are the faces of his family, who miss him and have to bear that loss. That one piece of paper was far more affecting TO ME than Ground Zero was.
I am not denigrating Ground Zero. I understand that others may be affected greatly by it, and I honor and respect that. But for me, it was not so.
It was time to walk the four blocks to Ground Zero. Before leaving St. George's, let me pause to show the hucksters out to make a buck from the tragedy, right next to the memorials I've been showing you. Cynically, I guess we now know that it's a real American tragedy if there are people out to make a buck from it; less cynically, the less said about these parasites, the better.
Hundreds of people were there to see Ground Zero. There wasn't any laughing or eager talking among the crowd. Everyone was pretty somber, as they should be. Many of the buildings around the site, those that had stood during and after the attack, showed signs of damage and injury.
The Merrill Lynch building, according to someone I overheard, had been damaged by burning fuel. The windows had been replaced, but the new windows had not yet been repainted. I don't know if any of this is true.
Here's Ground Zero. As you can see, it's enormous. It might not look that large, but look at the people and the trucks.
There was a restrictured section that we couldn't go into, where fire and police workers walked about and did their business. I squeezed my camera through the fence and managed this shot:
Finally it was time to leave. We walked away quietly, thinking. We ended up on the back end of St. George's, and yes, there were still memorials. As we walked along, we suddenly saw one that drew us up short. It was a reminder from home.
Notice also how the street is still torn up, almost one year after the disaster. There will be work going on for years around this site.
In order to decompress and relax, we walked to the South Street Seaport Wharf to get a beer and sit. On our way we passed The Strand, one of the greatest used bookstores in the world. I spent a few happy hours in there in 1994, but we really didn't have time today, so Denise and I just stepped in the door and then left again. That way we could say that yes, we had visited The Strand on our trip. Next time, though, we will spend more time there, I guarantee.
There was quite a party going on on the Wharf. A Latin band was playing Salsa, and there was a large crowd of people out to enjoy the rapidly cooling early evening. The great preponderance of people were Latin, and they were having a great time. Denise and I paid too much for beers and sat down by the water and watched the waves make their gentle, timeless motions back and forth, back and forth, uncaring of all the human activity going all just a few feet away.
We spoke to Rob and Katie separately on the phone and determined to meet in about an hour and a half at Soba-Ya, a Japanese noodle restaurant in the East Village. It was Rob's recommendation, and when it comes to food, I trust Rob's judgment pretty implicitly.
I met Rob in 1985, when I came to Washington University in St. Louis. Rob was one year older than me, and he was one of the coolest people I'd ever met. Even better, he was in my fraternity, but like me, he didn't always take the fraternity seriously. Rob is smart, philosophical without being sophomoric, good without being a pushover, and one of the cleverest, funniest people I've ever had the privilege to know. I count it as one of the damn shames in my life that I only get to see him every once in a long while, due to the fact that he lives in New York City and I live in St. Louis.
New York City suits Rob perfectly, though. He's a doctor, and he's doing good work, work that needs to be done, helping people with AIDS. He's a city person, and there is no greater city than New York. And Rob happily lives with his partner Roberto (yes, it's Rob and Roberto) and their dog Bobbie (yes, Rob, Roberto, and Bobbie … eek!). He's a man in love, with a flat, a dog, and a job he loves, in a city he loves. Perfect!
Certain sayings of Rob echo through my mind constantly. I'm not even sure that he realizes this, or even remembers saying them. But they resonate with me, and they make me smile at odd times, when they come unbidden from my memory into my thoughts.
Rob on New York City: 'The great thing about this city is, you see someone almost get killed every day!'
Rob on aging: 'Rob's biological clock is striking! Bong! Bong! Bong!'
Rob on food stamps, after I suggested getting on them right after college, when I didn't have much money: 'The thing about social services is that they're therefor everyone, but it only works if only those who really need them use them.' (That made me decide not to do it, by the way.)
Rob on Cincinatti, looking forward to completing medical school: 'This piece of crap city is going to look great in my rearview mirror.'
Rob on Paul LaRoche, a fraternity brother that none of us really knew: 'What if we get to know him and decide we don't like him?'
Rob on Keith's last name, Doolittle: 'It's certainly appropriate.'
Apologies to Rob for any misquotations.
You know how we all have forks in our lives when we made decisions about what we were going to do, and how we can look back at those decisions and wonder what it would have been like if we had chosen those other paths? I'm convinced that in a parallel reality, Rob and I are collaborating on something, a movie or play or book. There was a brief time around my senior year of college when Rob and I halfheartedly worked together on a screenplay. I wish I had devoted more to that. I think something could have come of it. Then again, maybe not. But that's the beauty of those missed opportunities: you can play them out endlessly, with no danger of reality intruding.
And so, back to reality. We met Rob and Roberto at Soba-Ya for dinner, with Katie showing up about a half hour later, and it was wonderful. The food was delicious, and the conversation was even better. It was a great time for both Denise and I, one of my favorites on the trip.
After dinner, we walked around the Village, with Rob and Roberto alternately providing commentary. It was interesting how we walked and talked. Sometimes it was Rob and I, while Roberto was with Katie and Denise; other times it was Roberto and I, while Rob spoke to Katie and Denise; or perhaps Rob and Roberto and I chatted while Katie and Denise caught up. It's easy talking to those guys, and Katie and Denise felt at ease with them immediately. They're that kind of people.
I had never met Roberto before, even though I had heard about him from Rob. Let me say this: I was very, very impressed. They're a great couple, and I couldn't be happier for Rob … and Roberto.
After walking around for a hour or so, we had to split up. Rob and Roberto had to go home to get ready for work the next day. And Denise and I were spending the night in Katie's Manhattan apartment. Goodbyes were said, and we got into taxis.
And it was only then that I realized that I hadn't taken any pictures of Rob and Roberto. Dammit.
Katie's apartment is awesome. It's 600 square feet, which seems like nothing to Denise and I, who live in a 1700 sq. foot place, but hey, this is New York City. Katie's place is in a great neighborhood and it is a beautiful little apartment. She has a wonderful deck and she can even climb on the roof, which offered us a nighttime view of the City that was gorgeous. It's not like you could see for miles—she only lives on the fifth floor—but what you could see was clear and enticing.
By the way, this is the time to plug Katie's new book, *Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked*, a feminist history of the Little Red Riding Hood story. It's getting great reviews, and we're very excited for her. You too can own your very own copy by buying it from Amazon.com!
It had been a long day. We had seen the faces of dead men and women and the faces of dear friends and family. We had walked and ridden over large swaths of Manhattan and Long Island. We had eaten wonderul food and engaged in stimulating conversation. Roads, rails, subways, sidewalks … we had traveled. And now we slept.