On the evening of the day after the towers fell, I was waiting by the barricades on Houston Street and LaGuardia Place for my friend Mags to come up from SoHo and have dinner with me. On the skyline, not two miles to the south, the pillars of smoke wavered slightly. But the creepily beautiful weather of September 11 still held and the wind blew in from the northeast. In Greenwich Village the air was crisp and clean with just a touch of fall about it.
I’d spent the last day and a half looking at pictures of burning towers. One of the frustrations of that time was that there was so little most of us could do about anything or for anyone.
Downtown streets were empty of all traffic except emergency vehicles. The West and East Villages from Fourteenth Street to Houston were their own separate zone. Pedestrians needed identification proving they lived or worked there in order to enter.
The barricades consisted of blue wooden police horses and a couple of unmarked vans thrown across LaGuardia Place. Behind them were a couple of cops, a few auxiliary police, and one or two guys in civilian clothes with IDs of some kind pinned to their shirts. All of them looked tired, subdued by events.
At the barricades was a small crowd, ones like me waiting for friends from neighborhoods to the south, ones without proper identification waiting for confirmation so that they could continue on into SoHo, people who just wanted to be outside near other people in those days of sunshine and shock. Once in a while, each of us would look up at the columns of smoke that hung in the downtown sky, then look away again.
A family approached a middle-aged cop behind the barricade. The group consisted of a man, a woman, a little girl being led by the hand, a child being carried. All were blondish and wore shorts and casual tops. The parents seemed pleasant but serious people in their early thirties, professionals. They could have been tourists. But that day the city was empty of tourists.
The man said something and I heard the cop say loudly, “You want to go where?”
“Down there,” the man gestured at the columns. He indicated the children. “We want them to see.” It sounded as if he couldn’t imagine this appeal not working.
Everyone stared at the family. “No I.D. no passage,” said the cop and turned his back on them. The pleasant expressions on the parents’ faces faded. They looked indignant, like a maître d’ had lost their reservations. She led one kid, he carried another, as they turned west, probably headed for another checkpoint.
“They wanted those little kids to see Ground Zero!” a woman who knew the cop said. “Are they out of their minds?”
“Looters,” he replied. “That’s my guess.” He picked up his walkie-talkie to call the check points ahead of them.
Mags appeared just then, looking a bit frayed. When you’ve known someone for as long as I’ve known her, the tendency is not to see the changes, to think you both look about the same as when you were kids.
But kids don’t have grey hair and their bodies aren’t thick the way bodies get in their late fifties. Their kisses aren’t perfunctory. Their conversation doesn’t include curt little nods that indicate something is understood.
We walked in the middle of the streets because we could. “Couldn’t sleep much last night,” I said.
“Because of the quiet,” she said. “No planes. I kept listening for them. I haven’t been sleeping anyway. I was supposed to be in housing court today. But the courts are shut until further notice.”
I said, “Notice how with only the ones who live here allowed in, the South Village is all Italians and hippies?”
“Like 1965 all over again.”
She and I had been in contact more in the past few months than we had in a while. Memories of love and indifference that we shared had made close friendship an on and off thing for the last thirty-something years.
Earlier in 2001, at the end of an affair, I’d surrendered a rent-stabilized apartment for a cash settlement and bought a tiny co-op in the South Village. Mags lived as she had for years in a run-down building on the fringes of SoHo.
So we saw each other again. I write, obviously, but she never read anything I published, which bothered me. On the other hand, she worked off and on for various activist leftist foundations and I was mostly uninterested in that.
Mags was in the midst of classic New York work and housing trouble. Currently she was on unemployment and her landlord wanted to get her out of her apartment so he could co-op her building. The money offer he’d made wasn’t bad, but she wanted things to stay as they were. It struck me that what was youthful about her was that she had never settled into her life, still stood on the edge.
Lots of the Village restaurants weren’t open. The owners couldn’t or wouldn’t come into the city. Angelina’s On Thompson Street was, though, because Angelina lives just a couple of doors down from her place. She was busy serving tables herself since the waiters couldn’t get in from where they lived.
Later, I had reason to try and remember. The place was full but very quiet. People murmured to each other as Mags and I did. Nobody I knew was there. In the background Resphigi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances” played.
“Like the Blitz,” someone said.
“Never the same again,” said a person at another table.
“There isn’t even any place to volunteer to help,” a third person said.
I don’t drink anymore. But Mags, as I remember, had a carafe of wine. Phone service had been spotty, but we had managed to exchange bits of what we had seen.
“Mrs. Pirelli,” I said. “The Italian lady upstairs from me. I told you she had a heart attack watching the smoke and flames on television. Her son worked in the World Trade Center and she was sure he had burned to death.”
“Getting an ambulance wasn’t possible yesterday morning. But the guys at that little fire barn around the corner were there. Waiting to be called, I guess. They took her to St. Vincent’s in the chief’s car. Right about then, her son came up the street, his pinstripe suit with a hole burned in the shoulder, soot on his face, wild-eyed. But alive. Today they say she’s doing fine.”
I waited, spearing clams, twirling linguine. Mags had a deeper and darker story to tell; a dip into the subconscious. Before I’d known her and afterwards, Mags had a few rough brushes with mental disturbance. Back in college where we first met, I envied her that, wished I had something as dramatic to talk about.
“I’ve been thinking about what happened last night.” She’d already told me some of this. “The downstairs bell rang, which scared me. But with phone service being bad, it could have been a friend, someone who needed to talk. I looked out the window. The street was empty, dead like I’d never seen it.
“Nothing but papers blowing down the street. You know how every time you see a scrap of paper now you think it’s from the Trade Center? For a minute I thought I saw something move but when I looked again there was nothing.
“I didn’t ring the buzzer, but it seemed someone upstairs did because I heard this noise, a rustling in the hall.
“When I went to the door and lifted the spy hole, this figure stood there on the landing. Looking around like she was lost. She wore a dress, long and torn. And a blouse, what I realized was a shirtwaist. Turn-of-the-century clothes. When she turned towards my door, I saw her face. It was bloody, smashed. Like she had taken a big jump or fall. I gasped and then she was gone.”
“And you woke up?”
“No, I tried to call you. But the phones were all fucked up. She had fallen but not from a hundred stories. Anyway she wasn’t from here and now.”
Mags had emptied the carafe. I remember that she’d just ordered a salad and didn’t eat that. But Angelina brought a fresh carafe. I told Mags about the family at the barricades.
“There’s a hole in the city,” said Mags.
That night, after we had parted, I lay in bed watching but not seeing some old movie on TV, avoiding any channel with any kind of news, when the buzzer sounded. I jumped up and went to the view screen. On the empty street downstairs a man, wild eyed, disheveled, glared directly into the camera.
Phone service was not reliable. Cops were not in evidence in the neighborhood right then. I froze and didn’t buzz him in. But, as in Mags’s building, someone else did. I bolted my door, watched at the spy hole, listened to the footsteps, slow, uncertain. When he came into sight on the second floor landing he looked around and said in a hoarse voice, “Hello? Sorry but I can’t find my mom’s front door key.”
Only then did I unlock the door, open it and ask her exhausted son how Mrs. Pirelli was doing.
“Fine,” he said. “Getting great treatment. St. Vincent was geared up for thousands of casualties. Instead . . .” he shrugged. “Anyway, she thanks all of you. Me too.”
In fact, I hadn’t done much. We said good night and he shuffled on upstairs to where he was crashing in his mother’s place.
By September of 2001 I had worked an information desk in the university library for almost thirty years. I live right around the corner from Washington Square and just before 10 a.m. on Thursday, I set out for work. The Moslem-run souvlaki stand across the street was still closed, its owner and workers gone since Tuesday morning. All the little falafel shops in the South Village were shut and dark.
On my way to work I saw a three-legged rat running not too quickly down the middle of MacDougal Street. I decided not to think about portents and symbolism.
The big TV’s set up in the library atrium still showed the towers falling again and again. But now they also showed workers digging in the flaming wreckage at Ground Zero.
Like the day before, I was the only one in my department who’d made it in. The librarians lived too far away. Even Marco, the student assistant, wasn’t around.
Marco lived in a dorm downtown right near the World Trade Center. They’d been evacuated with nothing more than a few books and the clothes they were wearing. Tuesday, he’d been very upset. I’d given him Kleenex, made him take deep breaths, got him to call his mother back in California. I’d even walked him over to the gym where the university was putting up the displaced students.
Thursday morning, all of the computer stations around the information desk were occupied. Students sat furiously typing email and devouring incoming messages, but the intensity had slackened since 9/11. The girls no longer sniffed and dabbed at tears as they read. The boys didn’t jump up and come back from the restrooms red-eyed and saying they had allergies.
I said good morning and sat down. The kids hadn’t spoken much to me in the last few days, had no questions to ask. But all of them from time to time would turn and look to make sure I was still there. If I got up to leave the desk, they’d ask when I was coming back.
Some of the back windows had a downtown view. The pillar of smoke wavered. The wind was changing.
The phone rang. Reception had improved. Most calls went through. When I answered, a voice, tight and tense, blurted out, “Jennie Levine was who I saw. She was nineteen years old in 1911 when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned. She lived in my building with her family ninety years ago. Her spirit found its way home. But the inside of my building has changed so much that she didn’t recognize it.”
“Hi Mags,” I said. “You want to come up here and have lunch?”
A couple of hours later, we were in a small dining hall normally used by faculty on the west side of the Square. The university, with food on hand and not enough people to eat it, had thrown open its cafeterias and dining halls to anybody with a university identification. We could even bring a friend if we cared to.
Now that I looked, Mags had tension lines around her eyes and hair that could have used some tending. But we were all of us a little ragged in those days of sun and horror. People kept glancing downtown, even if they were inside and not near a window.
The Indian lady who ran the facility greeted us, thanked us for coming. I had a really nice gumbo, fresh avocado salad, a soothing pudding. The place was half empty and conversations again were muted. I told Mags about Mrs. Pirelli’s son the night before.
She looked up from her plate, unsmiling, said, “I did not imagine Jennie Levine,” and closed that subject.
Afterwards, she and I stood on Washington Place before the university building that had once housed the sweatshop called The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. At the end of the block, a long convoy of olive green army trucks rolled silently down Broadway.
Mags said, “On the afternoon of March 25, 1911, one hundred and forty-six young women burned to death on this site. Fire broke out in a pile of rags. The door to the roof was locked. The fire ladders couldn’t reach the eighth floor. The girls burned.”
Her voice tightened as she said, “They jumped and were smashed on the sidewalk. Many of them, most of them, lived right around here. In the renovated tenements we live in now. It’s like those planes blew a hole in the city and Jennie Levine returned through it.”
“Easy, honey. The university has grief counseling available. I think I’m going. You want me to see if I can get you in?” It sounded idiotic even as I said it. We had walked back to the library.
“There are others,” she said. “Kids all blackened and bloated and wearing old-fashioned clothes. I woke up early this morning and couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up and walked around here and over in the East Village.”
“Jesus!” I said.
“Geoffrey has come back too. I know it.”
“Mags! Don’t!” This was something we hadn’t talked about in a long time. Once we were three and Geoffrey was the third. He was younger than either of us by a couple of years at a time of life when that still seemed a major difference.
We called him Lord Geoff because he said we were all a bit better than the world around us. We joked that he was our child. A little family cemented by desire and drugs.
The three of us were all so young, just out of school and in the city. Then jealousy and the hard realities of addiction began to tear us apart. Each had to find his or her own survival. Mags and I made it. As it turned out, Geoff wasn’t built for the long haul. He was twenty-one. We were all just kids, ignorant and reckless.
As I made excuses in my mind Mags gripped my arm, “He’ll want to find us,” she said. Chilled, I watched her walk away and wondered how long she had been coming apart and why I hadn’t noticed.
Back at work, Marco waited for me. He was part Filipino, a little bit of a wise ass who dressed in downtown black. But that was the week before. Today, he was a woebegone refugee in oversized flip-flops, a magenta sweatshirt and gym shorts all of which had been made for someone bigger and more buff.
“How’s it going?”
“It sucks! My stuff is all downtown where I don’t know if I can ever get it. They have these crates in the gym, toothbrushes, bras, Bic razors but never what you need, everything from boxer shorts on out and nothing is ever the right size. I gave my clothes in to be cleaned and they didn’t bring them back. Now I look like a clown.
“They have us all sleeping on cots on the basketball courts. I lay there all last night staring up at the ceiling, with a hundred other guys. Some of them snore. One was yelling in his sleep. And I don’t want to take a shower with a bunch of guys staring at me.”
He told me all this while not looking my way but I understood what he was asking. I expected this was going to be a pain. But, given that I couldn’t seem to do much for Mags, I thought maybe it would be a distraction to do what I could for someone else.
“You want to take a shower at my place, crash on my couch?”
“Could I, please?”
So I took a break, brought him around the corner to my apartment, put sheets on the daybed. He was in the shower when I went back to work.
That evening when I got home, he woke up. When I went out to take a walk, he tagged along. We stood at the police barricades at Houston Street and Sixth Avenue and watched the traffic coming up from the World Trade Center site. An ambulance with one side smashed and a squad car with its roof crushed were hauled up Sixth Avenue on the back of a huge flatbed truck. NYPD buses were full of guys returning from ground zero, hollow-eyed, filthy.
Crowds of Greenwich Villagers gathered on the sidewalks clapped and cheered, yelled, “We love our firemen! We love our cops!”
The firehouse on Sixth Avenue had taken a lot of casualties when the towers fell. The place was locked and empty. We looked at the flowers and the wreaths on the doors, the signs with faces of the firefighters who hadn’t returned and the messages, “To the brave men of these companies who gave their lives defending us.”
The plume of smoke downtown rolled in the twilight, buffeted about by shifting winds. The breeze brought with it for the first time the acrid smoke that would be with us for weeks afterwards.
Officials said it was the stench of burning concrete. I believed, as did everyone else, that part of what we breathed was the ashes of the ones who had burned to death that Tuesday.
It started to drizzle. Marco stuck close to me as we walked back. Hip twenty year olds do not normally hang out with guys almost three times their age. This kid was very scared.
Bleecker Street looked semi-abandoned with lots of the stores and restaurants still closed. The ones that were open were mostly empty at nine in the evening.
“If I buy you a six-pack, you promise to drink all of it?” He indicated he would.
At home, Marco asked to use the phone. He called people he knew on campus looking for a spare dorm room and spoke in whispers to a girl named Eloise. In between calls, he worked the computer.
I played a little Lady Day, some Ray Charles, a bit of Haydn, stared at the TV screen. The President had pulled out of his funk and was coming to New York the next day.
In the next room, the phone rang. “No. My name’s Marco,” I heard him say. “He’s letting me stay here.” I knew who it was before he came in and whispered, “She asked if I was Lord Geoff.”
“Hi Mags,” I said. She was calling from somewhere with walkie-talkie’s and sirens in the background.
“Those kids I saw in Astor Place?” she said, her voice clear and crazed. “The ones all burned and drowned. They were on the General Slocum when it caught fire.”
“The kids you saw in Astor Place all burned and drowned?” I asked. Then I remembered our conversation earlier.
“On June 15, 1904. The biggest disaster in New York City history. Until now. The East Village was once called Little Germany. Tens of thousands of Germans with their own meeting halls, churches, beer gardens.
“They had a Sunday excursion, mainly for the kids, on a steamship, the General Slocum, a floating fire trap. When it burst into flames there were no lifeboats, the crew and the captain panicked. By the time they got to a dock over a thousand were dead. Burned, drowned. When a hole got blown in the city, they came back looking for their homes.”
The connection started to dissolve into static.
“Where are you Mags?”
“Ground Zero. It smells like burning sulfur. Have you seen Geoffrey yet?” she shouted into her phone.
“Geoffrey is dead, Mags. It’s all the horror and tension that’s doing this to you. There’s no hole . . .”
“Cops and firemen and brokers all smashed and charred are walking around down here.” At that point sirens screamed in the background. Men were yelling. The connection faded.
“Mags give me your number. Call me back,” I yelled. Then there was nothing but static, followed by a weak dial tone. I hung up and waited for the phone to ring again.
After a while, I realized Marco was standing looking at me, slugging down beer. “She saw those kids? I saw them too. Tuesday night I was too jumpy to even lie down on the fucking cot. I snuck out with my friend Terry. We walked around. The kids were there. In old, historical clothes. Covered with mud and seaweed and their faces all black and gone. It’s why I couldn’t sleep last night.”
“You talk to the counselors?” I asked.
He drained the bottle. “Yeah, but they don’t want to hear what I wanted to talk about.”
“But with me . . .”
“You’re crazy. You understand.”
The silence outside was broken by a jet engine. We both flinched. No planes had flown over Manhattan since the ones that had smashed the towers on Tuesday morning.
Then I realized what it was. “The Air Force,” I said. “Making sure it’s safe for Mr. Bush’s visit.”
“Who’s Mags? Who’s Lord Geoff?”
So I told him a bit of what had gone on in that strange lost country, the 1960s, the naïveté that lead to meth and junk. I described the wonder of that unknown land, the three way union. “Our problem, I guess, was that instead of a real ménage, each member was obsessed with only one of the others.”
“OK,” he said. “You’re alive. Mags is alive. What happened to Geoff?”
“When things were breaking up, Geoff got caught in a drug sweep and was being hauled downtown in the back of a police van. He cut his wrists and bled to death in the dark before anyone noticed.”
This did for me what speaking about the dead kids had maybe done for him. Each of us got to about what bothered him without having to think much about what the other said.
Friday morning, two queens walked by with their little dogs as Marco and I came out the door of my building. One said, “There isn’t a fresh croissant in the entire Village. It’s like the Siege of Paris. We’ll all be reduced to eating rats.”
I murmured, “He’s getting a little ahead of the story. Maybe first he should think about having an English muffin.”
“Or eating his yappy dog,” said Marco.
At that moment, the authorities opened the East and West Villages, between Fourteenth and Houston Streets, to outside traffic. All the people whose cars had been stranded since Tuesday began to come into the neighborhood and drive them away. Delivery trucks started to appear on the narrow streets.
In the library, the huge TV screens showed the activity at Ground Zero, the preparations for the President’s visit. An elevator door opened and revealed a couple of refugee kids in their surplus gym clothes clasped in a passion clinch.
The computers around my information desk were still fully occupied, but the tension level had fallen. There was even a question or two about books and databases. I tried repeatedly to call Mags. All I got was the chilling message on her answering machine.
In a staccato voice, it said, “This is Mags McConnell. There’s a hole in the city and I’ve turned this into a center for information about the victims Jennie Levine and Geoffrey Holbrun. Anyone with information concerning the whereabouts of these two young people, please speak after the beep.”
I left a few message asking her to call. Then I called every half hour or so, hoping she’d pick up. I phoned mutual friends. Some were absent or unavailable. A couple were nursing grief of their own. No one had seen her recently.
That evening in the growing dark, lights flickered in Washington Square. Candles were given out; candles were lighted with matches and Bics and wick to wick. Various priests, ministers, rabbis, and shamans led flower-bearing, candlelit congregations down the streets and into the park where they joined the gathering Vigil crowd.
Marco had come by with his friend Terry, a kind of elfin kid who’d also had to stay at the gym. We went to this 9/11 Vigil together. People addressed the crowd, gave impromptu elegies. There were prayers and a few songs. Then by instinct or some plan I hadn’t heard about, everyone started to move out of the park and flow in groups through the streets.
We paused at streetlamps that bore signs with pictures of pajama-clad families in suburban rec rooms on Christmas mornings. One face would be circled in red and there would be a message like, “This is James Bolton, husband of Susan, father of Jimmy, Anna and Sue, last seen leaving his home in Far Rockaway at 7:30 a.m. on 9/11.” This was followed by the name of the company, the floor of the Trade Center tower where he worked, phone and fax numbers, the email address and the words, “If you have any information about where he is, please contact us.”
At each sign, someone would leave a lighted candle on a tin plate. Someone else would leave flowers.
The door of the little neighborhood Fire Rescue station was open, the truck and command car were gone. The place was manned by retired firefighters with faces like old Irish and Italian character actors. A big picture of a fireman who had died was hung up beside the door. He was young, maybe thirty. He and his wife, or maybe his girlfriend, smiled in front of a ski lodge. The picture was framed with children’s drawings of firemen and fire trucks and fires, with condolences and novena cards.
As we walked and the night progressed, the crowd got stretched out. We’d see clumps of candles ahead of us on the streets. It was on Great Jones Street and the Bowery that suddenly there was just the three of us and no traffic to speak of. When I turned to say maybe we should go home, I saw for a moment, a tall guy staggering down the street with his face purple and his eyes bulging out.
Then he was gone. Either Marco or Terry whispered, “Shit, he killed himself.” And none of us said anything more.
At some point in the evening, I had said Terry could spend the night in my apartment. He couldn’t take his eyes off Marco, though Marco seemed not to notice. On our way home, way east on Bleecker Street, outside a bar that had been old even when I’d hung out there as a kid, I saw the poster.
It was like a dozen others I’d seen that night. Except it was in old-time black and white and showed three kids with lots of hair and bad attitude: Mags and Geoffrey and me.
Geoff’s face was circled and under it was written “This is Geoffrey Holbrun, if you have seen him since Tuesday 9/11 please contact . . .” and Mags had left her name and numbers.
Even in the photo, I looked toward Geoffrey who looked towards Mags who looked towards me. I stared for just a moment before going on, but I knew that Marco had noticed.
My tiny apartment was a crowded mess Saturday morning. Every towel I owned was wet, every glass and mug was dirty. It smelled like a zoo. There were pizza crusts in the sink and a bag of beer cans at the front door. The night before, none of us had talked about the ghosts. Marco and Terry had seriously discussed whether they would be drafted or would enlist. The idea of them in the army did not make me feel any safer.
Saturday is a work day for me. Getting ready, I reminded myself that this would soon be over. The university had found all the refugee kids dorm rooms on campus.
Then the bell rang and a young lady with a nose ring and bright red ringlets of hair appeared. Eloise was another refugee, though a much better organized one. She had brought bagels and my guests’ laundry. Marco seemed delighted to see her.
That morning all the restaurants and bars, the tattoo shops and massage parlors were opening up. Even the Arab falafel shop owners had risked insults and death threats to ride the subway in from Queens and open their doors for business.
At the library, the huge screens in the lobby were being taken down. A couple of students were borrowing books. One or two even had in-depth reference questions for me. When I finally worked up the courage to call Mags, all I got was the same message as before.
Marco appeared dressed in his own clothes and clearly feeling better. He hugged me. “You were great to take me in.”
“It helped me even more,” I told him.
He paused then asked, “That was you on that poster last night wasn’t it? You and Mags and Geoffrey?” The kid was a bit uncanny.
When I nodded, he said. “Thanks for talking about that.”
I was in a hurry when I went off duty Saturday evening. A friend had called and invited me to an impromptu “Survivors’ Party.” In the days of the French Revolution, The Terror, that’s what they called the soirees at which people danced and drank all night then went out at dawn to see which of their names were on the list of those to be guillotined.
On Sixth Avenue a bakery that had very special cupcakes with devastating frosting was open again. The Avenue was clogged with honking, creeping traffic. A huge chunk of Lower Manhattan had been declared open that afternoon and people were able to get the cars that had been stranded down there.
The bakery was across the street from a Catholic church. And that afternoon in that place, a wedding was being held. As I came out with my cupcakes, the bride and groom, not real young, not very glamorous, but obviously happy, came out the door and posed on the steps for pictures.
Traffic was at a standstill. People beeped “Here comes the bride,” leaned out their windows, applauded and cheered, all of us relieved to find this ordinary, normal thing taking place.
Then I saw her on the other side of Sixth Avenue. Mags was tramping along, staring straight ahead, a poster with a black and white photo hanging from a string around her neck. The crowd in front of the church parted for her. Mourners were sacred at that moment.
I yelled her name and started to cross the street. But the tie-up had eased, traffic started to flow. I tried to keep pace with her on my side of street. I wanted to invite her to the party. The hosts knew her from way back. But the sidewalks on both sides were crowded. When I did get across Sixth, she was gone.
That night I came home from the party and found the place completely cleaned up with a thank you note on the fridge signed by all three kids. And I felt relieved but also lost.
The Survivor party was on the Lower East Side. On my way back, I had gone by the East Village, walked up to Tenth Street between B and C. People were out and about. Bars were doing business. But there was still almost no vehicle traffic and the block was very quiet.
The building where we three had lived in increasing squalor and tension thirty-five years before was refinished, gentrified. I stood across the street looking. Maybe I willed his appearance.
Geoff was there in the corner of my eye, his face dead white, staring up, unblinking, at the light in what had been our windows. I turned toward him and he disappeared. I looked aside and he was there again, so lost and alone, the arms of his jacket soaked in blood.
And I remembered us sitting around with the syringes and all of us making a pledge in blood to stick together as long as we lived. To which Geoff added, “And even after.” And I remembered how I had looked at him staring at Mags and knew she was looking at me. Three sides of a triangle.
The next day, Sunday, I went down to Mags’ building, wanting very badly to talk to her. I rang the bell again and again. There was no response. I rang the super’s apartment.
She was a neighborhood lady, a lesbian around my age. I asked her about Mags.
“She disappeared. Last time anybody saw her was Sunday 9/9. People in the building checked to make sure everyone was OK. No sign of her. I put a tape across her keyhole Wednesday. It’s still there.”
“I saw her just yesterday.”
“Yeah?” She looked skeptical. “Well there’s a World Trade Center list of potentially missing persons and her name’s on it. You need to talk to them.”
This sounded to me like the landlord trying to get rid of her. For the next week, I called Mags a couple of times a day. At some point the answering machine stopped coming on. I checked out her building regularly. No sign of her. I asked Angelina if she remembered the two of us having dinner in her place on Wednesday 9/12.
“I was too busy, staying busy so I wouldn’t scream. I remember you and I guess you were with somebody. But no, honey, I don’t remember.”
Then I asked Marco if he remembered the phone call. And he did, but was much too involved by then with Terry and Eloise to be really interested.
Around that time, I saw the couple who had wanted to take their kids down to ground zero. They were walking up Sixth Avenue, the kids cranky and tired, the parents looking disappointed. Like the amusement park had turned out to be a rip-off.
Life closed in around me. A short story collection of mine was being published at that very inopportune moment and I needed to do some publicity work. I began seeing an old lover who’d come back to New York as a consultant for a company that had lost its offices and a big chunk of its staff when the north tower fell.
Mrs. Pirelli did not come home from the hospital, but went to live with her son in Connecticut. I made it a point to go by each of the Arab shops and listen to the owners say how awful they felt about what had happened and smile when they showed me pictures of their kids in Yankee caps and shirts.
It was the next weekend that I saw Mags again. The university had gotten permission for the students to go back to the downtown dorms and get their stuff out. Marco, Terry and Eloise came by the library and asked me to go with them. So I volunteered.
Around noon on Sunday, 9/23, a couple of dozen kids and I piled into a university bus driven by Roger, a Jamaican guy who has worked for the university for as long as I have.
“The day before 9/11, these kids didn’t much want old farts keeping them company,” Roger had said to me. “Then they all wanted their daddy.” He led a convoy of jitneys and vans down the FDR drive, then through quiet Sunday streets and then past trucks and construction vehicles.
We stopped at a police checkpoint. A cop looked inside and waved us through.
At the dorm, another cop told the kids they had an hour to get what they could and get out. “Be ready to leave at a moment’s notice if we tell you to,” he said.
Roger and I, as the senior members, stayed with the vehicles. The air was filthy. Our eyes watered. A few hundred feet up the street, a cloud of smoke still hovered over the ruins of the World Trade Center. Piles of rubble smoldered. Between the pit and us was a line of fire trucks and police cars with cherry tops flashing. Behind us, the kids hurried out of the dorm carrying boxes. I made them write their names on their boxes and noted in which van the boxes got stowed. I was surprised, touched even, at the number of stuffed animals that were being rescued.
“Over the years we’ve done some weird things to earn our pensions,” I said to Roger.
“Like volunteering to come to the gates of hell?”
As he said that, flames sprouted from the rubble. Police and firefighters shouted and began to fall back. A fire department chemical tanker turned around and the crew began unwinding hoses.
Among the uniforms, I saw a civilian, a middle aged woman in a sweater and jeans and carrying a sign. Mags walked towards the flames. I wanted to run to her. I wanted to shout, “Stop her.” Then I realized that none of the cops and firefighters seemed aware of her even as she walked right past them.
As she did, I saw another figure, thin, pale, in a suede jacket and bell-bottom pants. He held out his bloody hands and together they walked through the smoke and flames into the hole in the city.
“Was that them?” Marco had been standing beside me.
I turned to him. Terry was back by the bus watching Marco’s every move. Eloise was gazing at Terry.
“Be smarter than we were,” I said.
And Marco said, “Sure,” with all the confidence in the world.