Some Days Before

After the first commemoration of the September 11th attacks, I started observing them with less rigor.

I’d known World Trade Center victims. Hard not to have if one was a New Yorker. Several were work acquaintances. Two were social acquaintances. Stat Man and the Michigan Guy. The first I’d known over 10 years, the second maybe 14 months at most. Yet both have settled in the same firmament of memory.

Each man worked in the city’s financial sector. The first a yeoman, the second a captain on the rise. Both occupied a transitional age in their early 30s. Neither of their faces were yet weighted by apprehension, worry, or doubt. Good posture further added an inch or two to their stature.

Stat Man was a Quaroppas boy. He occasionally tended bar at a local watering hole as well as helped compile statistics for his prep school alma mater’s sporting teams. We’d made our acquaintance through his mutual endeavors.

He served beer at the bar. He handed out cold ones in coach’s office after games. A cheerful man who dispensed cheer.

The Michigan Guy was just that. A Michigan guy. No. Really. A Wolverine.

Yearly in June, the New York City Arizona alumni chapter would join other schools’ area alum associations in chartering a party boat. During these booze cruises, some landlubbers networked while most socialized as the vessel circled Manhattan Island.

Wearing corporate rig, the Michigan Guy came across as unruffled. He effortlessly put people at ease. Who knows? He may’ve been a tyrant during his working hours. If so, he carried no trace of it with him up the gangplank. Aboard ship he shot the breeze or outright bs-ed among people whom he might’ve intimidated – intentionally and unintentionally – at his brokerage.

And yes, the Michigan Guy sported a pocket square. Maybe it served him as his cockade.

Ultimately, I knew these two men fleetingly. Superficially at least. Only through diligent reading of the daily appearing Portraits of Grief pages (brief word sketches intended to impart upon readers some senses of the individuals who’d perished at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania) in The New York Times, I never would’ve known or only have learned much later that each had been scythed on that murderous morning.

As I had for all appearing on the broadsheet’s gallery, I hoped the pair’s ends lasted no longer than the blink of an eye.

If my original work schedule had been followed, I would’ve been somewhere in Midtown or Lower Manhattan on the fateful morning. Had I been in proximity to the destruction, I hope I could’ve channeled Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis in vacating the scene.

Instead, I was spared astonishment and terror.

My manager at my then-employer was an astute woman. Remember September 11th, 2001, fell on a Tuesday. She knew the Giants played at Denver on that week’s Monday Night Football game. Had the New York Football Giants not been involved, my personal history takes on changes. Maybe I’m not even around to write this.

Aware of the NFL’s television schedule, and knowing me a fan of a hometown team, my manager pulled a smart and perhaps fortuitous maneuver. She flipped the schedule. As originally set, on Monday I ought have been in Connecticut’s Naugatuck Valley fulfilling appointments. On Tuesday I should’ve been in New York.

Well intuiting I’d be devouring burgers and wings while drowning in drafts Monday night, late during the prior week she convinced the respective days’ appointments to switch dates. The originally scheduled Tuesday arrangements were full of Type A’s. Not the people one wished to parry and riposte with a head. The original Monday ones were far less demanding.

The Connecticut company was based in exurbia. There, tree leaves might just have been beginning to hint at the coming equinox. Driving on those country lanes on Tuesday morning, one could anticipate apple cider stands along road shoulders that would soon provide the tart nectar which would ease us into autumn.

Done without friction, both parties agreed. Funny thing is I get down to the city on Monday and there are guys who’ve rejiggered their own Tuesday schedules in order to take their kids to school the next day. (Wink!-Wink!) In reality if the Giants aren’t playing that Monday night, moms are escorting those young scholars or the kids are walking to schoolhouses alone.

Apparently taking personal time off or using remaining vacation days coincided nicely with the opening stanza of the 2001 NFL schedule. Whether any of those dads suffered any undeserved remorse shall remain unknowns.

On Monday September 10th, New York sweltered. As the cliché went the Big Apple had become the Baked Apple. Scalding temperatures and soggy humidity had merged to create tropical conditions throughout the Metropolitan Area. Everywhere air conditioning labored. But weather forecasters promised gorgeous relief on Tuesday. Heralded by late Monday night thunderstorms, a system would blow through and sweep away our sweat. We would be bathed under clear bright skies, in cool degrees, and through positive ions.

It ought have been a day one wished to have been in Manhattan.

Though I’d been in New York often before the 10th, my last time in Lower Manhattan possibly occurred during July. At the World Trade Center in fact. A late afternoon get-together, one that bumped up against early evening.

Only imminent events made routine anywhere near memorable. And even that had to be dredged because these were such ordinary moments.

Did I gaze from the towers’ highest windows at the panorama around me? Of course. Doubtlessly those working in either building were blasé about the spectacular view because it had become part of their everyday. Visitors like me became tourists. We were captivated.

Driving home afterwards, the sun had set low enough on an angle to create what’s called “Manhattanhenge.” This phenomenon occurs when the sun – setting or rising – aligns with the island’s east-west canyons. Had New Yorkers been druids what augurs might we have arrived at?

If it hadn’t been for the calamity happening on September 11th, the summer of 2001 would’ve folded into previous ones – all without any urgency. But it did happen. And people wanted to draw poignancy from the silly season’s everyday occurrences then badly memorized.

For some like me there was little more than weekend parties to bookend workweeks, a la The Man With a Cocktail on the Flying Trapeze. At that time, the unconscious me must’ve known I’d overextended my permitted measure of unfettered male carousing. At 42, I still burned both ends of Friday and/or Saturday night candles with the same blowtorch begun in my late teens.

Certainly, in the back of my mind, I must’ve asked, “Okay. Where’s the throttle to this thing?”

Work I don’t remember so much. That is until after the attacks. Then our business got serious for the longest for those of us toiling there.

Still nothing poignant.

Once or twice during that summer, some festive exuberances which had me among the merrymakers reached decibels that disturbed neighbors’ nights. So loud to draw police to the address. Oh, did I mention our host occasionally had live rock bands provide window-rattling entertainment? As well as bevies of young attractive chicks who fulfilled nubile metrics.

What saved him from any nuisance summons was my presence. Invariably I’d know the responding Quarropas police officers because we’d been high school classmates.

Twenty-two years ago, Quarropas retained a lot of its small city bedroom community vestiges. In the decade since my departure, I’ve learned it now may as well be considered New York City’s sixth borough. The only thing absent? Subway line extensions from the Bronx.

Surprised at my being amid the hellraisers, not once did any minion of the law ask, “You’re still doing this shit?” Maybe, just maybe, after finishing their tours but before returning home to wives, kids, mortgages, they wished they could join me again for old times’ sake. Or three or four beers.

Again, though, nothing poignant. A highlight, though. That being ringside seats at Madison Square Garden to witness a championship fight at the start of summer. Don King provided the tickets. I’d gotten these through a springtime appearance on the Howard Stern Show.

I struggled not to inform the notorious boxing promoter about the last time I’d seen him. Outside the Southern District Federal Court in Lower Manhattan several years earlier. Why sour our jolly mood? Besides, he also let me leave the show with a prestige mark watch. Twenty-two years later, that timepiece gains appreciative glances from certain types here in Las Vegas. They recognize the understated luxury around my wrist. It could also fetch a quick easy four figures.

Plenty of jams await the wary or unwary in Las Vegas. Thankfully the Big Mayberry has a profusion of pawn shops and bail bondsmen to help the ensnared escape “situations.”

Until the morning of September 11th, the summer of 2001 seemed destined to pass in unremarkable fashion. The season offered no portent of the imminent bedlam. Nothing people sensed during the leadup which they could swear to with certainty.

Only afterwards were ashes shifted through as if these had once been tea leaves.

My contribution to fuzzy 9/11 hindsight: Sometime in August, Squire (then he was The Stooge) and I rode Amtrak to Montreal from New York. The plan was a long weekend of indulgence.

Just a few empty seats spotted our carriage. Seated across the aisle from us, a man and woman who’d met on the train. If I’d foreseen the future, I could today describe them more precisely.

He looked like a normally scruffy fellow whose scouring efforts left him nearly presentable. His seatmate was a brunette dumpling. She might’ve mentioned the purpose of her visit to Montreal. His I recall. It was interesting in a “you don’t hear that often” way.

He headed into Canada to attend a non-governmental organization conference. I’ve forgotten the NGO he represented. I do remember him saying his labors were in the Middle East. Where? A country lost to my inattention.

Although I caught a few of his words, his companion gorged on them. He spoke calmly with conviction about his projects. To clarify, he’d pulled out a few charts. With these he went into further explanations about his work, its aims.

His lecture continued until the train stopped to allow Canadian customs personnel aboard.

Then, US and Canadian customs agents barely glanced at Canadian and US documents. Other foreign nationals, though? Depended on passholders’ lands of origin.

Three Canadian inspectors entered our carriage. These men rapidly performed expected minimal inspections of those riders always automatically above reproach. On this ride there was a single traveler who received much greater scrutiny. The NGO fellow. With him authorities dropped the usual rote.

Canadian politeness vanished. With him they were brusque.

They ordered the NGO fellow to gather up his belongings and accompany them. Their single file march down the aisle into a forward carriage reminded of a military detail. One assumed this line trooped into the café car.

Whatever examination occurred lasted about 15 minutes. Grimly satisfied Canadians escorted the NGO fellow back to his seat. His demeanor had changed. It was that of a man who’d been grilled. Returned to his seat, a customs official grudgingly returned the NGO fellow’s passport.

After inspectors had gone and the train resumed its northward journey, naturally his seat companion inquired about his “treatment.” He spoke with the jittery voice of a shaken man trying to regain his composure.

On the ride north, Squire had sat to my right at the window seat. Any chatter from the pair left of us across the aisle must’ve been white noise to his ears. Yet by customs’ conduct with the NGO fellow, even he recognized that traveler’s unusual circumstances. This “special case” drew his attention.

The NGO fellow didn’t spill many beans. The ones he did intrigued.

The gist of these: his travels had taken him into corners which raised questions. Or as they’re also known, suspicions.

Customs inquired about certain people he’d met in the Middle East. Not whether he’d met them. People he’d met. Authorities already knew among whom he’d mingled. After having been ascertained, it was verified.

That was a nugget which perked up my ears. When I really considered it later, much later, in a rude way authorities let him know he’d been surveilled. Which implied he’d also be under authorities’ gazes while in Canada. As would he and those with whom he consorted.

Apparently, answers the NGO fellow had given customs agents were satisfactory. After all, he wasn’t being detained then frog-marched back to the States as an “undesirable” on the next train south.

I almost didn’t bother filing away this episode. It bore all the gravity of being an internal Canadian matter. Therefore, it meant nothing to us Yanks.

Indeed, couldn’t a globally connected security apparatus suspecting possible acts against the state unfurl a panic net that caught up a seemingly innocuous fellow who worked with an NGO?

But the incident gained prominence after the attack. In those immediate weeks and months afterwards, speculation sufficed for the Western public as information. At that time, the rogues gallery of those involved in the plot against the United States blossomed more from rumors than wilted through trustworthy verification.

I can write that now. It would’ve been mistaken as blasphemy at the start of our Security State Era. A period that began on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, at 8:46 a.m. (EDT).