Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Reflections of Strike One - Lunch

The First World Trade Center Attack: Friday, February 26, 1993

Part One - click here

Part 2

Of all the streets in New York City famous in their own right, Trinity Place isn't one of them. It's practically the back door service road for its far more stellar sibling, Broadway, another block east. Some office buildings and restaurants which feature prominent entrances on Broadway literally have their back doors on Trinity Place.

Indeed, as dowdy Trinity Place parallels the part of iconic Broadway slicing through the world's financial capital, it provides the quiet yin to Broadway’s teeming yang.  Even its traffic flows in the opposite direction: north.

Its name comes from the grand old Trinity Church, consecrated in 1846, which faces Broadway at the head of Wall Street, and whose historic graveyard – including the remains of Alexander Hamilton and steamboat inventor Robert Fulton – looks out over the suitably quiet roadway as it links Battery Park to the eastern flanks of the World Trade Center (WTC).

On this dreary February Friday, I walked up Trinity Place, past the solemn stone wall buttressing Trinity Church’s cemetery, and past what was then the American Stock Exchange.  Usually the only people I ever saw on this walk were traders from the exchange, outside on their smoke breaks, always in shirtsleeves, no matter the weather.

Business as Usual?

Before 9/11, the WTC complex consisted not only of the Twin Towers, but also a collection of much shorter buildings scattered around the feet of their much taller siblings.  They were squat, odd things clad in black metal, surrounded by a parking lot that I only ever saw used once – during a marketing promotion for new Ford Probe sportscars.

When I turned the corner at Liberty Street, my gaze passed over the WTC complex there in front of me, and apart from all of the emergency vehicles lining the street, I couldn't see much that didn't look normal.

In New York, it's not unusual to see what civilians might consider to be an inordinate number of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances at the scene of what turns out to be a minor emergency. You can't really complain when dozens of first responders turn out for a dumpster fire in a city with so much unpredictability.

In addition, the snowy skies obscured the towers' upper reaches, masking the smoke which, by now, had begun billowing out of their tops as if they were two cigarettes (which I had always thought they looked like anyway).

Things almost looked placid enough for me to go on into the WTC's underground mall and have lunch in their food court. But that was back before the Port Authority started modernizing its public spaces with national retailers and better restaurants.  Unless you liked tasteless hotdogs, or dining in a plastic wood ambiance of vintage 1970's diner kitsch, for all of its wonder, the Twin Towers were gastronomically disappointing.  At the very top, both literally and figuratively, sat the multi-star Windows on the World restaurant, where my office used to hold its annual Christmas dinners.  And then at the bottom - and I do mean the bottom, near a yawning cavern lined with escalators descending to the PATH station - were those dimly-lit, decidedly non-gourmet offerings for the masses.

No, I didn't feel like walking much further for greasy fast food when Burger King was right here, and their chicken sandwich was actually quite tasty. So as I turned the corner onto Liberty Street, I ducked into the two-story Burger King which still stands today.  This very same Burger King narrowly missed being destroyed on 9/11, and the police turned into their temporary command post on that fateful day.

Everything seemed normal at Burger King.  I got my order, and walked upstairs to their main dining area.  Looking out a window facing Liberty Plaza (now called Zuccotti Park), munching away, I figured that with everything appearing so routine, our concerns about the brown-out, the smoke from the WTC’s garage, and the emergency vehicles still parked all over the place seemed overblown.

Not Everything is Normal

Then I started glancing around the dining room at my fellow customers, and at the next table, I noticed several young women huddled over hot teas and coffees.  They had no coats on this frigid day, and their blouses were dingy gray.  Come to think of it, their hair had fine soot on it, and their faces looked like they had been hastily washed, maybe in Burger King's bathroom?  They were talking in earnest about the PATH commuter trains to New Jersey being diverted from the Trade Center.

So I interrupted them, and asked if they were from the WTC.  Yes, as a matter of fact, they had been evacuated from one of the towers, with not even enough time to go and get their coats from a nearby closet.  They had perspired from trudging down what seemed like miles of emergency stairs, they had frozen when hustling across the open plaza at the base of the towers, and they were coughing from all of the soot they’d inhaled both inside and outside the buildings.  To cap it all off, they’d learned that both the commuter trains and the subways with stops in the basement of the WTC were shut down.  This was before regular passenger ferry service had been established between Jersey City, Hoboken, and the World Financial Center (near the WTC).  How were they supposed to get back to their homes in New Jersey, across the Hudson River?

Well!  Here were three beautiful young women with a problem I could help solve.  I rarely get such an opportunity.  I assumed as much of a knight-in-shining-armor pose as I could muster, and I shared with them my admittedly well-honed knowledge of the other local subway stops they could try.  They’d probably be able to catch the Lexington Avenue line or the N and R and go up to 42nd Street, then hike over to the Port Authority bus terminal for any number of bus lines into the Garden State.

“Oh, I’ve heard bad things about the bus terminal,” one of the young women cautioned.  So I assured them about how much safer the bus terminal is during the day than it is at nighttime, and how if they stick together, they should be fine.

So with that, these damsels in distress decided to hit the restroom one last time before striking out on what might be a long commute back home.

My work being done at Burger King, I decided that before I headed back to the office, I’d just stroll around the WTC one last time to see if anything at all exciting was taking place.  I bundled myself up – wondering if maybe I should make a chivalrous gesture and offer my wool coat to the damsels... but then thinking that plenty of stores were nearby where they could buy their own coats if they really wanted to.

Chivalry isn't dead, but sometimes it can be over-done!

Figures in Coal, Shuffling

I stepped out into the raw, snowy air, and made my way past all of the fire trucks and ambulances idling silently along Liberty Street and the southern edge of the WTC complex.  Huddled in my overcoat for protection from the biting wind, I walked down to the Bankers Trust tower (demolished after 9/11), which had an elevated mezzanine looking over Liberty Street to the entrance to Tower Two.

Throngs of people had gathered on the mezzanine, looking to the Trade Center, with faces marked by bewilderment and pensiveness.

I turned to follow their gaze.

And there I saw them.

Long, shuffling lines of gray and black, some people wearing coats, others coatless, but all covered to varying degrees in soot.  Coughing, but otherwise silent, without expression or vigor.

These were the evacuees from the Twin Towers - thousands of them.  About 50,000 people worked in and visited the WTC daily.  Take the entire population of Biloxi, or Ames, or Sheboygan, and funnel them out of two 110-story towers, four shorter buildings, and a shopping mall, one by one.  It would be quite a sight, even in the best of circumstances.

They moved like a line of insects in a cartoon, or more morosely, like the ill-fated lines of prisoners being herded to the gas chambers. Although not deathly, the mood was somber.  And quiet.

And so utterly still.

Part 3 - click here

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