December 7, 2002 was a date which will live in infamy.
For three of us, that is.
That day I made a second pilgrimage to Manhattan. Five days before, I flew from Hong Kong to Edmonton, where I stayed a couple of days. I then flew into Newark via Toronto. I was picked up there by my good friend Jim McCormick, who graciously offered to have me stay with him and his family.
I'd was getting over jet lag when my feet stepped from the train and entered New York Penn Station. From there the day would see us traverse Midtown and Lower Manhattan on foot. Unlike my 2001 trip, Jim and I would be joined by another good friend, Ryan Wickstrand.
Jim and I arrived early at our agreed meeting point, Madison Square Garden. We wandered about in the crisp early-afternoon air, taking the occasional photograph and wondering at which entrance along the street Ryan would arrive. He was coming into Grand Central Station from Connecticut, and was going to walk over to the Garden. We grew chilled waiting outdoors, so we moved inside one of the entrances. I peered through the glass to see if I could spot Ryan before he saw me. Though we were friends, we'd never met in person.
When he appeared, I recognised him right away. He stood with his back to us; we tried to sneak up on him but he turned around and caught us in the act. Smiling, introductions were made all around. Jim and I are in our late 30's. We stood in our fleece hats and gloves, layered against the cold, biting wind. Ryan, 25 years old, wore a thin jacket. No hat; no gloves. I noticed his red ears and cheeks.
"Are you going to be warm enough like that?"
"Oh yeah, no problem."
As we discussed our first destination, a homeless man strolled up to Jim and Ryan. I doubted he was homeless; his clothes were as new as mine. With his hand out, he looked at Jim.
"Yo man, can you help a brother out for Christmas?"
"No, I'm not going to give you any money," Jim said with a big, sincere grin on his face. He then placed his hand on the man's shoulder. "But I sure hope things turn around for you, man."
Ignoring me, the man turned to Ryan and repeated his request.
Ryan had his hands in his trouser pockets, and said, "Sorry, I don't have any spare change." As he spoke, he shrugged. I heard something jingle in his pockets. It may have been keys, but it sounded like coins. I couldn't decide whether it had been a nervous gesture, or if he'd done it on purpose to be a smart-ass. Either way, it set the man off. He spat a curse at Jim and Ryan.
"Satan's gonna be on y'all!" he said as he walked away. Despite my assertions to the contrary, to this day Jim swears the man only put the whammy on Ryan. Later I told Ryan that the man was probably dyslexic, and in fact he'd wished 'Santa' on him. Judging from the loot he hauled in at Christmas, Ryan figures I may have been right.
Having been jinxed, we went back into Penn Station to take the subway to Lower Manhattan. Being the veteran of trips to New York City, Ryan suggested we get a one-day MetroCard, which would allow us to use transit for a 24-hour period for only $4. Once accomplished, we descended to the platform to await the train. I'd never taken the New York subway, though I'd seen it many times in movies. It was a novelty; I can now say I've smelled a real New York subway car.
Our first mission was to pay our respects at the site of the former World Trade Center. Jim and I elected not go the previous year; we'd decided against it as it didn't feel appropriate. Not while they were pulling body parts from the wreckage. But it was time go for a quiet moment.
We left the subway further up the line than we should have, but were close enough that we could walk. Being unfamiliar with the area, we stopped a couple of times to consult Jim's map (looking ever-so-much like the tourists we were) to ensure we were headed in the right direction. As we closed on the location, I was overcome with a feeling I wouldn't describe as dread, as much as a sense of foreboding. It was the weight of reality crashing in on me.
We turned a corner and beheld the gaping maw of what used to be the foundation of the Twin Towers. It had been cleared of wreckage; men and trucks moved about in the pit, preparing the site for whatever would be built upon it. To our left was a makeshift shrine covered with patches of fire and police departments from all over, as well as personal items left behind in memory of the victims.
An American flag, backlit by the sun, fluttered nearby. Turning in that direction, I noticed the building behind it still had huge chunks missing from its facade. Other buildings were filled with brand-new windows, the stickers on the glass waiting to be removed when new tenants moved in. Other buildings bore the scars, gouges and marks of that terrible day.
After spending a few minutes in silence, we took a few photographs and then walked around to the other side of the site. A building came into view with a large painting on the side that read:
The human spirit is not measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart.
When we reached the other side, a large crowd milled about and looked over the works below. Behind us, a long plywood wall ran along the path. It had been painted grey; upon it were signatures and thoughts of the many people who'd visited. Ryan produced a felt-tipped Sharpie and I signed the wall for the three of us, with our first names and the date.
Around us were hawkers, peddling photo books of September 11th as souvenirs. That turned me off, but some folks may find such a memento cathartic. What pissed me off were the sales of other items such as knock-off watches and handbags. People trading on the deaths of others are slime.
As we moved further down I noticed a chain-link fence had been covered with black fabric. Halfway down a tear in the fabric allowed me to peek. Behind the fence was Ladder Company 10's firehouse, the closest to the towers. It had sustained extensive damage and was undergoing repairs.
When we left the area I felt a palpable sense of relief. We passed by St. Paul's Chapel, the church that had been covered in concrete dust and had its cemetery filled with paper and debris after the towers collapsed. A huge sign on the front read:
Out of the Dust; A Year of Ministry at Ground Zero.
Out front were more hawkers. Sad.
We made a quick stop for coffee because I needed something hot to warm my bones. Our next mission: Chinatown.
On the way, Ryan broke out his stickers in earnest. The stickers are yellow and black, and show a sillouhette of a goat and his site's url. Ryan wasn't shy about slapping them on things, but a few times Jim and I had to encourage, coax and sometimes dare him to put a sticker on something. These stickers were designed so they could be peeled off any surface to which they're applied, except paper or similar materials. Ryan said he wouldn't put one anywhere it would be considered vandalism. He's not above self-promotion, but he does have a conscience.
We passed a statue of Benjamin Franklin, but Ryan didn't apply a sticker there. Instead he put one on a gaudy blue and yellow statue of a dog outside a college. As we passed by an NYPD squad car, we tried to get him to put one on the trunk, but he wouldn't go for it. I don't blame him. I have a feeling the cops wouldn't find it funny, and then I'd have to explain to Ryan's mother why her son was in jail. I couldn't convince him to place a sticker on a New York City sanding truck either.
I was curious about what Chinatown would look like. I wanted to compare the feel of the place to Hong Kong. There were similarities, but I didn't get the same vibe at all. It was because of the architecture: brownstones for the most part.
Yet crossing the street took us from a city filled with a variety of ethnicities to one that was predominantly Asian. In that way it was like being home. Jim and Ryan kept asking me to translate written signs, and I had to remind them while I could speak some Cantonese, my ability to read Chinese was limited. Failing that, they cajoled me to have a conversation with one of the street vendors. I did, much to the surprise of the young woman with whom I spoke. Jim insisted I get a photo of him with a Chinese delivery man, who didn't want his picture taken. Jim has a way with people; in the end the grocery man acquiesced.
The sun had almost set, and we had a long way to go before the day was finished. We crossed into Little Italy for a couple of moments before turning a different direction and heading in to Old New York. Jim wanted to see Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, the original St. Patrick's before the much larger church of the same name near Rockefeller Plaza had been built.
We came up behind a trio walking in the same direction we were headed. A minute later I noticed Ryan kept reaching out to the backpack of the woman in front of us. She'd left a zipper open, and for two blocks Ryan had tried in vain to slide a sticker into the pocket. He almost got pinched a couple of times when her companions looked behind them to get their bearings. He succeeded when we reached the intersection. We joked that he should have had business cards that read: I could have picked your pocket, but didn't.
Along the way were approached by a panhandler with a cup in his hand. The man was nothing short of gregarious.
"Put your cameras in the cup!" he laughed as we drew near. I wanted to give him some money for being a good sport.
When we turned down the street where the church was located, it was dark and the street wasn't well-lit. The three of us were carrying cameras — ripe pickings for a mugging — but I remembered Jim is well-trained in Brazilian Ju-Jitsu. I figured Ryan and I could run away while Jim beat the snot out whomever might try to jump us.
The street presented a couple of good photo opportunities, including an old car that may once have been a taxi. Outside the church was a set of iron doors set into a brick wall that surrounded a cemetery. It practically screamed album cover; I had Jim and Ryan stand against the wall, one on each side of the doors.
"Give me your best rock-star poses," I demanded. They did.
We found a set of doors which we thought would bring us into the church, but instead led us down a hallway with grimy windows that looked out to the cemetery. At the end was a small room with an altar. Jim dared Ryan to put a sticker on the altar. I didn't hang around to see whether or not he did, but I suspect he didn't.
We left the building, circled the block and arrived at the front of the church. We entered the main doors and stepped into a lobby. The rear of the church had been glassed in, as much a sound barrier as to keep out the weather. Parents with crying babies could stand there so as not to disturb the rest of the congregation. Off to the right was a nearly full-sized artistic rendering of Christ crucified on the cross. It appeared to be gesso. While I went off to shoot a few images, Jim egged Ryan to put a sticker in Christ's palm. Heretic. Try as he might, it would not adhere. Perhaps having Satan wished on him made him ripe to be thwarted by the Almighty.
From there we walked to Washington Square Park before catching the subway to Times Square. We wanted to show Ryan the tree at Rockefeller Square, as well as St. Patrick's Cathedral, both of which Jim and I had visited the year before.
We had to get all that done and be back near Penn Station by 8.30pm to meet up with some other folks for dinner.
As we waited in the subway, Jim and Ryan sat down on a bench beside a guy who was passed out. The guy appeared to have everything he owned in huge suitcases next to him. He was so out of it, Ryan put his arm around the guy as I snapped a photo.
Times Square was jammed with bodies, including dour-looking New Yorkers, gaggles of tourists and clusters of Naval officers on every block.
When those kinds of crowds are present, the nutcases come out of the woodwork. On one corner a bearded man stood with a Bible raised in one hand, a large placard pasted overtop proclaiming impending doom to all who passed by. He shouted out each word, labelling Times Square the very pit of evil, and urged us to repent of our transgressions. I looked at Ryan. The poor guy had Satan and an attempted desecration on his soul, and the day wasn't over yet. The Bible-Shouter was scary, not for what he was yelling, but for the ferocity and tireless energy he poured into yelling it. Jim, ever the smart-ass, spoke up as we went by.
"Amen, brother!" said the Bible-shouter's silent protégé, whom I hadn't noticed until he opened his mouth.
Half a block further up we came up behind a quartet of noisy Hare Krishnas. As they danced and pounded their drums and clanged their little cymbals, Jim slipped one of Ryan's stickers into the bag of one of the Krishnas. None of them were likely to go near a computer, but it didn't hurt to try. It would have been fun to see the expression on his face when he pulled the sticker out of his bag and wondered how the Hell it got there.
By the time we got though Rockefeller Square and St. Patrick's Cathedral, we were feeling the pain. The irony after all that walking is that it was nigh impossible to catch a cab in that area at 8.00pm on a Saturday night. We walked several more blocks before we found a subway station that would bring us back to Penn Station.
We arrived at the restaurant, ready to sit down for a couple of hours and kick back. I thought we'd get there before the others arrived, but they'd beaten us to the punch. One of the best parts of visiting New York is getting hugs and kisses from Lisa and her sister Randi. We were joined by Pierce, whom I first met in Hong Kong. Pierce is a nice guy, but I'm glad he didn't kiss me.
Dinner was fun, with good company and great conversation all around. I slapped Ryan's sticker on the wall behind me and it fit in with the decor. I doubted the staff would notice it was there. After dinner, we took a bunch of photos. Ryan had to skedaddle back to Grand Central Station before he missed his train, and Pierce volunteered to walk over with him. Jim and I took the hex off Ryan before he left so he wouldn't go home with a black cloud over his head. We accompanied Lisa and Randi to Penn Station. The trains weren't in yet, so we found a cozy corner on the floor and waited about 20 minutes for boarding time.
Suffice to say, we were bagged by the time we said our goodbyes and boarded the train for home. We still had about an hour's drive to get back to Jim's place. We were tired, but we felt great; we'd seen and done a lot for one day. Jim and I enjoyed Ryan's company and wouldn't hesitate to skulk around Manhattan with him again. He's a good kid.
I checked my pedometer and noted we'd logged over 15 miles. That's a long walk for one day, considering I do between five to six per day. My feet were sore, but I didn't noticed because my friends were with me, which made all the difference.
15 miles of Manhattan.
I'd do it again, in a heartbeat.
January 20, 2003
Next Tale: Toilet Trauma