Observances of September 11, 2001, the Dreary Months Before, and Its Aftermath by Thomas Donald Clarke

 

Well, itís been over a year now. The greatest disaster to befall my hometown in my lifetime. The bloodiest single day in U.S. history since the 1862 Battle of Antietam. It still hurts to watch those towers falling down on TV over and over and over again. It is something I would like to forget, but will never be able to. It is also worth noting that had certain events in early 2001 been different for me, I could have been very involved in what happened in the aftermath of the disaster. If this writing seems a bit like rambling, then remember that it all affects what happened to me on that day and afterwards.

 

            Shortly after I moved to New York in the summer of 1996, family friends Vincent and Joan Shovlin of Kulpmont, PA, gave me a tour of Lower Manhattan..(They also introduced me to what is now my main parish, St. Francis of Assisi in Midtown.) Of course, one of the stops was the World Trade Center. I was expecting to see two tall towers like what one would see on TV or in the movies. Instead, my first view of the World Trade Center was from below ground. Most tourists donít know this, but the biggest indoor shopping mall in Lower Manhattan at that time was beneath the two towers. It was full of high end stores, a Sbarro Pizzeria, a PATH station filled with billboards advertising the media empire of future NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a Borders Bookstore (which I ended up visiting often until the day the towers fell). This mall connected the two towers to each other. On the ground floor of the north tower was a connector to the World Financial Center (through the US Custom House). On the street level floor was a TKTS booth (a Broadway half-price ticket broker). And something I never thought much of at the time where the centrally located elevators, with security guarding the financial floors. I never did go to the 110th floor (admission was charged for the tourist areas up there); there was enough to see on the ground floors.

            An air conditioned walkway connected the north tower and the Custom House to the World Financial Center. Occasionally, there were exhibits inside the walkway. The last exhibit I saw (around late August 2001) promoted friendship between New Yorkers and the residents of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Upon entering the World Financial Center, I was greeted by a huge atrium filled with 50 foot tall palm trees called the Winter Garden. There were plenty of seats around the trees, occupied by financial workers on break or tourists that had tired of walking after realizing there was no public seating in the mall area of the World Trade Center. Eventually, an acquaintance from Brooklyn, Glenn Markowitz, would get a stockbroker job at the World Financial Center. I could go on about the marina, the bars, or the crazy earth harp project I had to cover for the Brooklyn College Journalism Program, but that would make this writing even more trivial than it already is.

            I spent several semesters at Brooklyn College. What led me to leave school consisted of financial concerns, an already high student loan debt load, disgust with my major (Journalism), and a virulent feud with the editor-in-chief and her psychotic cronies at the Excelsior student newspaper. (If you want names, Iíll name them: Aly Walansky, Scott Kuperberg, Tsippa Ackerman, and Alyson's doppelganger Danielle Renald who would later threaten my own sister on an Internet forum. Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned was in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001.) If a journalism career can be judged by how many people one has pissed off, then my journalism career at Brooklyn College was a rousing success. Not only did I upset three of my own comrades enough to get me blacklisted, I enraged the staff of a rival paper (the Kingsman), upset some faculty, angered my own roommate when I unearthed his affair with a student government leader, renamed an anti-American SG leader ďHannah Bin Laden LeshawĒ, and drew fire and threats from a staffer on WNBC Channel 4 when I wrote a television article suggesting their pathetic news-falsifying station should go the way of its radio network -out of business. (To this day, I wish I had been able to record that stafferís threatening phone calls to me so I could send them to the FCC- it could very well have knocked Channel 4 off the air long before Osama Bin Laden did.)

            Around 1999, I determined I had enough of Journalism and started looking at other career options. The one that seemed most appealing at the time was joining the New York Police Department. The pay was exponentially higher than my other employers, it utilized some of my biggest strengths, and it was the most rewarding job I could ever imagine. My first NYPD try was derailed by certain requirements not being met. But I was encouraged by my investigator, Margarita Quirinzongo, to apply again. (She bolted for the Corrections Department a few months after telling me that.) So, in 2001 after getting a decent but low-paying job at the Staten Island-based bus company Atlantic Express, I got a notice from the NYPD: I passed my civil service exam (with a score above 96) and had to endure the application/recruitment process all over again. I got a medical clearance despite my asthma, and passed a physically grueling endurance test that simulated a police pursuit and shootout. After passing the endurance test, I was told to report for the final physical, which fell on a work day. I called work to ask for the day off, and got fired over the phone. My next two phone calls were to my investigator and to the Federal Department of Labor. I am now as welcome at Atlantic Express as I am at Channel 4 or in the Kingsman office. One of my coworkers had to smuggle a paycheck out to me. My final check was mailed after another call to the Department of Labor concerning Atlantic Expressís actions and their failure to pay me the correct pay rate for weeks of overtime.

            I passed the second physical. During that physical, I met an aspiring policewoman from my neighborhood named Marilyn. (I wonít give her last name here because she did get hired and is now a beat cop somewhere in Manhattan.) I can admit it now that I did have some feelings for her, but she was only being friendly to me. At the time, she thought her NYPD candidacy was doomed and that I was a shoo-in for the July 2001 Police Academy class. But fate (or an NYPD scheduling error) conspired to doom my candidacy. Normally, the psychological evaluation is scheduled before the second physical. Mine was scheduled after the second physical- and right after I got fired by Atlantic Express. Iím sure you can figure out what happened. I am appealing their disqualification, but itís not easy when you donít have health insurance and canít afford independent psychiatric evaluations that cost more per visit than what you make in a week.

            On August 1, 2001, my fatherís cousin Pamala Stokes died. She was the only relative I had in the New York area (she lived in Monmouth County, NJ). About two years after her fatherís death (which coincidentally happened on August 1, 1996), Pam was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. By July of 2001, her diagnosis was terminal, and she spent her final days with her sister Wendy in Illinois. For some weird reason, Pam and Wendy were estranged from their siblings. Most of Pamís relatives (outside of her children) found out about her death from me. And while most were sorrowful, Pam and Wendyís mother Gladys Stokes told me that not only would she not go to the funeral, but that she was going on a long vacation to Egypt instead. So I wasnít that surprised when I got a threatening voice mail message from Pamís brother Jason Stokes. If anyone is interested in contacting this imbecile, his phone number is 248-887-7999, he works for General Motors in Pontiac, MI, and be sure to ask why he needed to threaten me or his 82-year-old Aunt Molly because we had the audacity to notify the rest of the family that his estranged sister had died. Pamís daughter and Wendy found out about Jasonís actions after Pamís funeral.

            I spent 5 months on unemployment insurance. I got the basic NYS Security Guard certificate and did a few temp jobs, but when the checks got withheld because of a clerical error in August 2001, I was forced to apply for welfare. Eventually, the unemployment error was straightened out, and I removed my name from public assistance consideration on September 7, 2001.

 

            Tuesday, September 11, 2001, started out like a typical primary election day. When I lived in Brooklyn, I did poll work on election days and got paid over $125 for each election. Now I was going to the poll like any other Republican in Staten Island, and wondered how many potential employers would answer the phones after I got back from voting. As I left for the voting booth, one of my neighbors remarked that a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center and that most of the TV stations had been knocked out.

            At this point, the polls were still open. I left quickly after voting, and headed to the Stapleton elevated train platform. There was a crowd of people viewing what was now two burning towers, with the fires easily visible from 6 miles away and smoke that looked like it was drifting straight for Stapleton. But somehow, a group of construction workers were installing new metal exit signs despite what was going on in front of them.

            When I returned home, I dusted off my old electric booster antenna and hooked my TV up to it. I was getting a few stations: Spanish station WXTV-41, PBS stations 21 and 25 (21 was from Long Island and didnít use to pick up in my neighborhood), Channel 68 (which until that day carried Home Shopping Network) and WCBS Channel 2, which I normally watched for news anyway. I remember from stories of the first World Trade Center attack that Channel 2 had a backup antenna besides the antenna on the North Tower that the other stations used. The other stations were off the air for a few weeks in 1993 until the World Trade Center was reopened.

            Some of my neighbors found out I could pick up TV signals in my room and started gathering around my TV set. Since the day I moved to that tiny residence in Staten Island, that was the only time anyone bas been in that room- thanks to a ďNo VisitorsĒ clause in my lease. By the time I could get a look at my own set, one of the towers was missing. No one on the newscast could confirm at that time what happened to the South Tower. A few minutes later, there was news that a plane had hit the Pentagon and that there were other planes unaccounted for.. By then, it was apparent that this was a series of terrorist attacks designed to take out thousands of people as well as the American Government itself.

            By 10:20AM, it was obvious the South Tower had collapsed. Channel 2 had a camera (probably from the Empire State Building) focused on the North Tower. A few minutes later, it collapsed- live on television- to the horror of the news anchors and the visitors in my room.

            Eventually my neighbors Diane, Wally, and Santos returned to their rooms. As soon as they left, I started calling relatives. I tried calling my sister Suzanne (or Suz for short). But the circuits were busy. The first relative I was able to call was Wendy. She was concerned because Pamís son was visiting Hoboken, NJ. I found out later he was not harmed, and actually saw the plane that hit the North Tower. And Wendyís mother Gladys was trapped in Egypt because the skies over America were shut down after the Pentagon was hit. The next person I was able to contact was my Aunt Nancy. I told her to notify all the relatives I have in Franklin County, PA, that I was all right. For days afterwards, the phone lines were messed up. My Aunt Debbie from Colorado tried to call me that afternoon, but couldnít get through. I was able to call her. Aunt Debbie noticed that the final plane to crash didnít hit a major target, but instead crashed in rural Pennsylvania, about 100 miles west of Chambersburg. She suspected the pilot dumped fuel or crashed purposely to keep the plane from hitting a target in Washington. I tried calling Suz all afternoon, but was unable to connect to her. She eventually called me using her husbandís cell phone (her home phone didnít have long distance). And Suz was hysterical- urging me to move out of New York, and saying that the terrorist attacks were the reason God didnít let me become a cop.

            After that conversation, I tried contacting Marilyn. When I did get a hold of her, she told me about her work schedule being changed because of the attacks. They were sending Academy students into Ground Zero for training and other work. One of the guys in Marilynís troop actually went into the burning towers on September 11, 2001. Probationary Officer Glenn Pettit didnít make it out alive.

            Around 2800 people died during the collapse of the twin towers. Glenn Markowitz was not one of them. Apparently he called in sick that day. He has since married his sweetheart Patti and moved out on his own in Brooklyn. In one of the first press conferences after the collapse, Mayor Giuliani announced there would be thousands of dead. They announced a few of the casualties. One, Ray Downey, was a prominent FDNY official. Another was the FDNY chaplain Rev. Mychal Judge. It just so happened Father Judge was also a friar-in-residence at St. Francis of Assisi. I realized I made a Confession to him one time after reading a Village Voice article on his life and somewhat alternative priestly duties. And no, itís none of your business what I confessed to him months before he died or what Iíve confessed to any other priest since!

            The news was nonstop for 6 days after September 11, 2001. There were videos of the South Tower collapsing, the Pentagon on fire, a burnt out field near Shanksville, PA, the evacuation of the Empire State Building because of a threat (which didnít keep Channel 2 from broadcasting on its TV tower), and the collapse of 7 World Trade Center, a smaller tower that until that day housed Mayor Giulianiís Emergency Command Bunker.

            By Thursday, September 13, 2001, I was tired of watching reruns of Tuesdayís terror attacks. I tried taking the ferry to Manhattan, but the Staten Island Ferry was closed. But after a scare in which a suspected terrorist evaded a police chase in Tottenville, the bridges connecting Staten Island to Brooklyn and New Jersey were reopened. I took the bus to Brooklyn and the R train to Manhattan. The trains were not stopping in Lower Manhattan, and the R train was rerouted over the Manhattan Bridge because the R train route in Lower Manhattan (as well as the 1, 9, and N trains) ran underneath the World Trade Center. But Midtown seemed to be going back to normal by September 13, 2001, even if the Times Square video screens were airing nonstop news from Channel 2 and Channel 7. Midtown got back to normal a lot sooner than Staten Island did- it would be more than a week before the Staten Island Ferry was reopened to civilian passengers and two months before local libraries got internet service back. By September 11, 2002, all subway lines in Lower Manhattan except the 1 and 9 were reopened and on their normal routes. And the 1 and 9 did reopen within a week of September 11, 2002.

            The TV picture was muddled for months. Close to 40 percent of NYC residents donít have cable, which meant that most people couldnít get any stations besides Channels 2, 21, 25, 41, and 68. Fox 5 and UPN 9 went back on the air about two weeks after their old transmitter was destroyed. WPIX Channel 11 tried transmitting on Channel 64 until Channel 11 was back online in October. WABC Channel 7, the top rated station in NYC before September 2001, broadcasted for 6 weeks out of a low power transmitter in Alpine, NJ, that couldnít pick up in most of the city. Channel 4 was unviewable (signal-wise, it always was content-wise) for two months. WNET Channel 13, the primary PBS station, wasnít viewable until mid-November. And WPXN Channel 31, the Pax Network station, still canít be picked up in my neighborhood. If Channels 2 and 41 can be said to have been the biggest media beneficiaries of the attacks, the biggest loser would have to be the Daily News Express, a free afternoon paper that stopped publishing on September 11, 2001.

            About a week or more after the attacks, I was able to contact Aunt Molly, my godmother Aunt Sally, and Suzís daughter Allie (who was in foster care at the time). The first question Aunt Sally asked after finding out I was alive was ďIs Macyís still there?Ē (Aunt Sally had an incident at Macyís when she visited there in 1999.) The first question from my then nine-year-old niece (not to be confused with the Excelsiorís Aly, who has a nine-year-old maturity level) was ďIs the Statue of Liberty still there?Ē Yes, itís still there, Allie. But unfortunately, the interior of the statue has been closed for over a year now.

 

            For weeks after September 11, 2001, another catastrophic terrorist attack was expected to follow. Would the Empire State Building be destroyed- or the United Nations? Would the terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb in New York or Washington? Would chemical or biological agents be used against Americans? Well, the other shoe did drop, and it started not with a bang but a wheeze.

            When a National Enquirer employee came down with inhalation anthrax in the fall of 2001, the officials indicated that this anthrax case was natural. Then he died. A few more cases appeared. Two dead postal workers at the Brentwood Post Office in Washington, DC. A baby at an ABC company party, secretaries and NBC and CBS, and a New York Post reporter diagnosed with skin anthrax. And deadly anthrax-filled envelopes addressed to two Democratic Senators that shut down a Senate office building for months. They say the unidentified nut job who spread this anthrax had a scientific background, was American, and probably lived in New Jersey since the letters seemed to originate from the Trenton area. Fortunately, no one has come down with anthrax in months, and hopefully that nut job inhaled his own medicine by now.

 

            I eventually got a security guard job, which provided plenty of income for the 15 weeks the job lasted. Due to a confidentiality agreement, I canít discuss details of that job, except that the security buildup following the attacks helped me get that job, and that I got a horrifying view of Ground Zero and what was left of the World Financial Centerís Winter Garden from where I got my company security ID. After that job ended, I got a job with a Zagatís rated Italian Restaurant. Unlike many New Yorkers who hooked up with strangers (or firemen or Red Cross personnel), Iíve been alone. I guess thereís nothing like getting fired, getting a psych disqualification from your dream job, getting betrayed by former friends, having  some wacko Middle Eastern terrorist destroying buildings in your town, or a no visitors clause in your lease to destroy your social life and sense of self worth.

All right, maybe itís not that bad. I still have friends (although not of the romantic variety). I have a job. I have a car thatís 9 years away from being a classic (assuming it lasts that long). And I have a computer that works well enough to download music and upload e-mail and homemade web pages. Now if only I can find an affordable shrink or Osama Bin Ladenís address so I can send him that Arabic copy of Final ExitÖ

 

Comments are welcome on this tome, although complaints from Aly Walansky, Scott Kuperberg, Tsippa Ackerman, Jason Stokes, Hannah Leshaw, Osama Bin Laden, Sheik Omar Mohammed, or that Channel 4 staffer codenamed Syracuse Peacock will be referred to my Legal Aid lawyers.

 

-Thomas Donald Clarke, September 11, 2002

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