I grew up with the World Trade Center, literally. The complex was being built from as far back as I can remember. Construction started when I was five, and the last buildings in the complex were finished when I was 17. I'd see the rising Twin Towers as I'd come into Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry, heading to museums for school projects or, later, for part-time work. Each year I'd grow a few inches, and the towers would grow a few floors.
While I was in high school and college I worked during holiday breaks and summers at my father's deli restaurants. My family owns two places downtown. One is near the New York Stock Exchange, the other is on Trinity Pl., right up the street from WTC. I spent many a morning making deliveries, marching onto those massive elevators, bringing breakfast to our clients, including the now chillingly well-known Cantor Fitzgerald.
My three younger brothers each went into the family business, but me, I wanted to go off and become a journalist. Though the Twin Towers fascinated me as a kid, they later became a symbol of everything I wanted to get away from...and I did get far away from them. I pursued my career and moved from Staten Island up to the world far above Fulton St. I rarely went down there after that; it was part of my past ( and I have never been big on the past ) . Even when heading out to visit my family on Staten Island I'd take the subway straight down to the ferry, traveling under Lower Manhattan right to the boat.
But Sept. 11 lurched me back, filled with raw emotion. In my 40th year...a year in which you grudgingly look at where you've been and where you're going...the buildings that had been symbols of my childhood, my growth and, later, my breaking away came crashing down, ending so many precious lives, wreaking destruction.
On that morning my partner David and I were on the telephone on and off for hours with my father and my brothers. They and their employees raced to and from the bomb shelters in their respective buildings several times, as we tried to tell them what to do. The windows were shattering from the force of the impacts and the collapses; the thick smoke and soot were coming in. Eventually, they all made their way, coughing and choking, through the blackened streets to the Staten Island Ferry with hordes of others. For weeks after that I must have called them every day.
My family is both hardworking and lucky. They were back downtown as soon as they were allowed in, and even before that: my 64-year-old pop almost got himself arrested trying to get into the Trinity Pl. deli a week after the attacks, as it was in a zone that was to be closed off for another week. Their insurance covered the damage and the loss of business. And since they've reopened, business actually hasn't been that bad. Eerily, the tourists who are making grisly pilgrimages to Ground Zero have replaced the customers who used to be in the now-empty...and missing...buildings all around them. As cold and impersonal as some might think Wall Street, it can be a close-knit community, particularly after such a tragic event. I watched in the first days after my family opened the delis as customers came in and hugged one another, glad to be alive. And I heard them speak soberly about those who didn't make it.
But there's a lighter side, too...yes, even in the aftermath of the darkest, most horrific tragedy of our time. That's part of coping. My father has been telling what I call Ground Zero stories. Not the gory, nightmarish stories...though there have been plenty of those...but the more hopeful or funny stories that make you crack a smile. He particularly likes to tell the story about Joe, a local homeless guy. Ten or so years ago, Joe worked in the WTC for a major brokerage firm. The pressure, combined with an alcohol problem, got the best of him. He spiraled down, lost everything...he was fired from his job, his wife left him and he was out on the street. But he had a lot of guardian angels in the neighborhood. Some of them were former coworkers from WTC. Others were people he'd met in recent years who work in the area and who attend the alcohol rehab center he attends. They'd buy him clothes, take him to Syms for a cheap but presentable sport coat now and then, and he always had nice sneakers.
Because he had friends in high places, "Joe was never like a regular bum," my brother Vinny explains. "He didn't have a wagon or anything like that...he always had a nice black backpack." One man in particular, a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, put Joe on a tab at the Trinity Pl. deli. So, he always ate well and sometimes sat around and chatted with people...he had nowhere else to be.
After my family reopened the two delis following the attacks, they didn't see Joe. Weeks went by. They suspected the worst, since he had a spot up by WTC where he used to go sometimes to sleep. Then one day recently he showed up. It turned out that just a few days before Sept. 11, one of the building managers at a building right on the edge of Ground Zero...my brother won't let me say which building because he doesn't want to get the guy in trouble...gave Joe a space in the basement, a little corner for him to sleep in. Joe went down there on the night of Sept. 10, and because it was such a cozy spot, he overslept...he slept through the greatest terrorist attack in American history, one that tore down two 110-story towers located just one flight of stairs up from where he lay. A sound sleeper, to say the least. Some might say that Joe was better off for it too, not having to deal with the events as they unfolded, just snoozing through them.
At 2:30 in the afternoon Joe woke up, walked up the stairs and went outside. He thought the world had ended. "He didn't see any people, and he saw the smoke and six inches of ash," my father says, gesturing with his hands. "He thought there had been a nuclear explosion or something, that it was the end of the world and that there was nobody left alive but him!"
Then, through the acrid, dark gray air, as he walked farther up Trinity Pl., a figure came into view, a cop wearing a gas mask. Joe ran up to him, yelling, gasping, grabbing him by the arms.
"What happened?!" Joe screamed. "Where is everyone? What happened?!"
"Where the fuck have you been?" the cop yelled back.
"I was sleeping," Joe answered.
"Get the fuck out of here!" the cop screamed, looking at him like he was crazy.
Somehow, Joe made his way to New Jersey, where he stayed with a friend, finding his way back to Lower Manhattan just a few weeks ago. He's settled back in now, got his place in the basement of that building, and his guardian angels are taking care of him again. And he's dropping by and getting lunch at my family's deli on Trinity Pl.
"You know things are coming back a bit," my brother Vinny says with a smile, "when the bums are comfortable on the streets down here again."
Michelangelo Signorile can be reached at www.signorile.com . His column will now appear regularly in Windy City Times.