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South Toward Hell
Remembering what real trouble looks like
Since I’m away this week, and since yet another anniversary of 9/11 is rolling up on us, I thought I’d hit you with a one-two shot from the archives, both today and tomorrow. The pieces were written a year apart. In the first, I’d headed up to Manhattan after the towers fell. And the following report is everything I experienced on the ground. Or almost everything. One aside that didn’t make the final cut is after a day of very intense reporting, I couldn’t wind down, and had an all-nighter of deadline writing ahead. I was especially wired after an essential interview tape I’d racked up that afternoon had snapped (was still using micro-cassettes back then), and I’d need to enlist the aid of a kindly hotel worker to help me split the cartridge open, re-loop it, and rescue the material.
But I couldn’t shake what I’d seen, so around midnight, I went for another walk to Ground Zero – or as close as they’d let you get. There, near the outskirts of the still smoking wreckage, I saw Liz Taylor, in a fur coat, her hair somewhat askew. She looked to be alone. It was no show-your-sympathy photo-op, no trailing media. Just her, wide-eyed and sad, taking it in. An American bearing witness to America’s fresh wound. Years later, she’d be quoted by a friend as saying it was “like looking into the gates of Hell.” Which was not an overstatement. People felt that way all over New York in the days that followed, and acted accordingly – providing help, befriending strangers, or even just bearing witness. This was also the last time many of us recall feeling like we were all on the same team, however briefly.
Tomorrow’s installment revisits a woman I’d met who lost her husband, the latter of whom worked at the Windows on the World restaurant. After a year had gone by, she shared with me all the adjustments she’d had to make, the things that had changed and the things she couldn’t shake after all the media attention had abated and my tribe was on to the next thing. (Which, as you’ll remember, was war, and lots of it.)
It’s hard to fathom that the babies who were born that year are 21 years old. They are official adults, now. Though if some don’t yet act like adults, they have lots of company among their elders. It’s why, I think, it’s important to remind all of the above what real troubles look like, the kind visited upon us from external forces, as opposed to the kind we invent for ourselves.
It doesn’t seem right, really--romanticizing catastrophe instead of just confronting its grim particulars head-on. Still, they cut quite a swath at Sir Harry's Bar in the Waldorf-Astoria, these brave men with forearm tattoos and walrus mustaches--firefighting volunteers who have swooped in from places like Danbury and Pittsburgh to shore up New York's own decimated ranks. The hotel has graciously provided free accommodations. So after a 12-hour shift sifting through World Trade Center rubble, firemen stagger into the bar like flame-retardant cowboys, still wearing their charbroiled gear. As they fill the room, I turn to a well-heeled patron, trying to summon an appropriate reference from a Peckinpah movie. "They look like somebody," I say, struggling. "Like goddamned heroes," he replies, as the fireman douse their dust-infested insides with complimentary rounds.
But the further south one travels from Midtown, the fewer morale-quickening encounters one has. On the ride down to 14th Street, I notice splintered glass embedded in the dashboard of my cab. "It flew through my open window," says cabbie John Parafestas, who was driving near the south tower when the second hijacker steered the plane through it. "I busted a U-turn on the West Side Highway. I thought, 'I gotta get home now, or I'll never get home again.'"
Below the 14th Street perimeter, non-rescue vehicles and civilians are forbidden. Lower Manhattan has been emptied by terrorists. Even the drug-dealers and nut-cake orators are on leave from Washington Square Park. And while it is just eerily silent from the Village to Little Italy, everything below Canal Street looks like Pompeii.
Even after two days of clean-up, many streets retain footprints in a light snow of concrete ash. Emergency vehicles, many of them caught in the towers' collapse, are stacked like soot-covered matchbox cars. Newcomers to the scene needn't ask directions to the heart of the wreckage--since the spot is marked by a smoky, sulfuric cloud that changes shape with the wind, but never quite moves on. Signs marking closed businesses--"Lingerie, Lounge Wear, Essentials"--seem profoundly decadent, as all that matters now (besides, as my cabbie suggests, "bringing the pain" to whoever did this) is the 20-story-high heap of broken stones and people.
On my walk down to the site, I catch up with an iron worker from Queens. He doesn't want his name used, nor does he seem thrilled that I'm interrupting his breakfast--a Budweiser tall-boy which he sips out of a slim paper bag. "I need this drink," he says. After he tells of his prior day's work, it's understood why.
"Yesterday was cruel to the system," he explains, as if the human-interest stories on the cable shows haven't quite conveyed the intensity. He spent his volunteer shift not only cutting through fallen I-beams, but also recovering human remains. Not bodies, exactly. "Everything was in parts," he says. "I filled 25 bags full of parts." The part he's seeing now--and saw last night during haunted sleep--belonged to a woman. He knows this because her toes were painted, though everything above her thigh was gone. We stop at a security checkpoint beyond which I'm not allowed. He now seems reluctant to part. "I don't want to go back in there," he says. His eyes fill up behind aviator sunglasses, but he snaps to, taking a final anesthetic swig. Still buried under concrete slabs and twisted steel are two firefighter friends and a paramedic cousin. "I just want to use my skills, cut metal, whatever," he says. "That's why I'm going back."
There are also plenty of horrors above 14th Street, and nowhere more than at the National Guard Armory on 26th and Lexington. Outside the grimy, gothic building where a surly gargoyle keeps sentry, people wind around the block in two lines. The first line contains those who are, for the first time, filling out "Personal Information Questionnaires"--not about themselves, but about loved ones who have not turned up since the Twin Towers collapsed. The second line contains people who have already filled out the painstaking identification survey (the facial hair category, for instance, contains 10 subcategories from "Fu Manchu" to "Handle Bar"), but who have more information to give.
In this second category are Elliot and Andy Waller, two Maryland brothers on the lookout for their cousin, Josh Rosenthal, last seen on the 90th floor of Tower Two. The Wallers have come to supply investigators with more information, such as hair samples they pulled from their cousin's brush. After telling me how they almost failed to secure Josh's dental X-rays (his dentist's office is near Barneys, which today received a bomb threat), they hand me a "Missing" poster describing all their cousin's vitals. While the Wallers store their posters in a manila envelope, others are less subtle, preferring to advertise missing loved ones on their torsos--as if they were wandering city streets, waiting to be recognized.
The inside of the armory represents something Dante would have conceived of if he'd possessed a truly dark imagination. Hundreds of people sit on metal folding chairs on a scuffed wood floor, while hundreds more clog the aisles. It's difficult to tell if people are crying or perspiring, as the only cooling agents are two small fans propped against televisions beaming the latest in disaster developments. Row upon row of people shrug off detectives and chaplains and oversolicitous Red Cross volunteers, who every 30 seconds or so offer anxious family members bottled water or chocolate chip cookies or Arizona Iced tea.
"They ought to give you tranquilizers instead," jokes Edlene LaFrance, a nurse from the Bronx who is waiting, along with her adult son Jody Howard and his wife, to find out what became of Alan LaFrance, her husband and Jody's father.
It's about the only joking the family does. They, like other relatives, sit in stony silence, facing the door that leads to the basement, where, 20 at a time, they are taken to see two lists indicating that their loved one has been located and is either hospitalized or deceased. After two hours of waiting--"the most nervous I've ever been" says Edlene--the family finally gets the call. They go through an archway, descend a staircase, and snake down a long hall to see the lists. One volunteer offers a final shot of Pepsi, as if caffeine can prepare someone for the worst news they'll ever get. At a basement table, a Red Cross volunteer offers to comb the lists for Alan's name. Edlene assents, then lays her head on the table like a despondent child. Alan has not turned up in any of the hospitals. Neither is he on the deceased list.
For a moment, hope is restored. Edlene clutches a wedding picture of her husband in his white tuxedo. Their twenty-first anniversary is in two weeks, and maybe she'll be able to give him his already-purchased present--a new wedding ring. But then there's the hard math. It's been 58 hours since Alan disappeared in Tower Two. Though Alan wasn't on the "bad list," he wasn't on the "good list" either. Edlene's consolation prize, it turns out, is not much of one at all. Tomorrow, the bad list will be updated, and she'll have to look at it again.
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Bonus Track: A lot of music came out of 9/11, much of it awful. But to my ear, Leonard Cohen does what Leonard Cohen often managed to do: packs an entire world of hurt and confusion into a few well-chosen lines. He’s probably also the only guy who got a Jew’s harp solo in. This is Cohen doing “On That Day.”