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Monday, April 5, 2002

Bike Messengers at the WTC

"Total chaos - a condition we're used to" (3)

By Rebecca Lambchop Reilly

In the courier community, if a courier runs into trouble on the street, another courier might see the situation. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or if you know the guy, you stop and you help. Then when there is nothing left to do, you continue delivering your packages.

In January of 1999 a bike courier named Brad was run over by a semi when he tried to avoid the opening door of a car. Within an hour, every courier in NY knew what had happened. It was the middle of the day when a courier I never saw came to me and told me that Brad had been killed. I had met Brad on an elevator the day before. That courier I had never met, that courier who had never known Brad, had eyes filled with tears. He grabbed my arm and told me to be careful. I grabbed his arm and I told him to be careful. Then we parted and went about the business of delivering packages.

In my years as a courier, I’ve seen couriers put their jobs aside to come to the aid of strangers in need. I wasn’t always so confident that I would do the same, but I had a decade of watching people do the right thing when the right thing needed to be done. I’ve known people who risked their lives to save people’s jobs, save a lawyer thousands of dollars, all for the pride of doing the job right and doing it on time for a measly $5.

Months after the attacks on the World Trade Center, I went to NY when two couriers got married. There were about a hundred people at the reception in Bed-Stuys and Danny smiled to me on the stairway.

“How you been man?” I asked him.

He said he was OK, he asked how things were in DC.

I told him considering the fact that white powders had become all the rage, things were basically alright, none of us had anthrax after all.

“Yeah things just ain’t been the same since the eleventh,” Danny said, his mouth slack, eyes suddenly distant. “I never saw shit like I saw down there.”

It suddenly hit me, this was the Danny that was at ground zero. When Ho said two guys were down there, staying as long as they could, Danny was one of them.

Danny and Yac were hanging at the “courier bar,” the Village Idiot. It’s in the meat-packing district, close to the West Side Highway. Like everyone there, they were hanging out, glum from the events of the recent days.

Danny was standing by himself when a grizzled man came up to him. “You’re a mole,” he declared looking at Danny.

Danny didn’t know what that meant. Being half Japanese, his looks might be construed as Arab. “What are you talking about man?” Danny responded, curtly. Danny’s buddies picked up his tone and Yac came over to make sure that something racial didn’t break out.

The man continued, “You can get into places … am I right? Places no one else can get in. They’ll tell you no, you can’t go, but you, you get in, am I right?”

Danny thought about that a minute. “Yeah,” he nodded.

Yac was still listening, but now he was more intrigued than protective.

“You can get in there, I know you can, I know you want to … you should go.”

Danny looked at Yac and without a word they left the bar.

They got on their bikes outside and decided to break the perimeter at Little Italy. They didn’t know how exactly they’d do it, but they were going for it. They slipped in, at the darkest street they could find, and by the time a cop noticed them, they were racing down an alley, where they hid for a while until they were sure the cop had given up on them. They parked and walked the rest of the way.

Danny described the devastation, the dust that drifted like snow, the pieces of paper from offices that were once in the sky. The air was difficult to breathe, the stench overpowering. What seemed to disturb Danny the most was the quiet. In all the hundreds of thousands of times he’d been on Church St, Chambers, it had never been so quiet, so eerie. People were around but they were ghosts.

It didn’t take long to get completely covered with soot. They helped for hours, handing out sandwiches and water, not paying attention to the time.

Danny told me it was a life-altering experience.

I asked him why on earth he’d want to go down there, to hell. Why on earth would he take the chance at being arrested or possibly killed by a collapsing building so he could go down and help.

He was thoughtful and he smiled weakly. “You know when you’re on the Brooklyn Bridge, on the footpath. There are pedestrians, men, women … on their way to work. You know, no one in NY looks at each other, but sometimes there are really powerful winds up there. It’s enough to knock someone down. You know, that lady, if she gets pushed by the wind, you’ve got to help her, you just do it, you don’t think about it, you just, you know, do it.”

Fear didn’t seem to register with Yac and Danny until later, after they’d spent their five continuous days at ground zero. At one point, walking around haggard from lack of sleep, Danny almost ran into a fireman and the fireman asked him if he needed help. “I couldn’t believe it,” Danny’s eyes moistened as he remembered. “I told him, no man, that’s why I’m here, to help you. You need a sandwich or something?”

Danny and Yac had been down at ground zero that Friday when we decided it was too cold and wet to bother going into the city. “I heard there were nice places to sleep downtown for the volunteers,” I told Danny.

Danny shook his head.

Deep in my heart, I already knew.

“No man, we couldn’t sleep there, we didn’t want to get caught and kicked out.” He started to laugh, that old familiar messenger sense of humor coming back. “Are you kidding, me and Yac slept on the benches in Battery Park. It was OK most nights because it was warm. It was just that one night that it rained.” He laughed again, “We had found some plastic bags earlier and when it started to rain we covered up with those, so we mostly kept dry.” Mostly dry, and a little muddy.

After the wedding I got my car and told everyone that I was heading back to Washington. I had just come up for the day to do the wedding and go home. I drove straight to the Brooklyn Bridge. I imagined the roadway crowded with people as I’d seen in magazine pictures. It was night and the city was twinkling. The fire had finally gone out at ground zero and the cloud over it was no longer there. There were lights warming the air around the site. They were still working around the clock three months later.

I went to Broadway and parked. Then I took my bike off the car and looked north. Traffic purred along and there were new barricades blocking side streets heading toward Canal. National Guard stood, not so much guarding as waiting for something bad to happen, to keep gawkers moving. There was nothing to see here.

I rode down Broadway and saw the church that stood across the street from One Liberty, a building they were almost sure would fall with the other four in the area. I cringed thinking about the building, stressed and not completely safe anymore. It looked sad, its two big brothers no longer across the street. I read a few of the things posted on the paper maché church. I wondered how they kept it all dry when it rained, all of the posters, love letters, pictures, and mementos. I rode around and saw where local business owners spray-painted crude advertisements for their struggling restaurants on new plywood. Gawkers were staring at the pile. It wasn’t a pile anymore. I looked, but wasn’t moved. I didn’t know what I was looking to find, but looking at the pile wasn’t it.

There was a cop at the perimeter. He had a Staten Island accent. He’d been pulling a lot of overtime at the pile, keeping people out of places they shouldn’t be. His station, West Side Highway, was south of the towers. We chatted about things while cleaning staff showed their ID’s to him so they could walk over dirt and plywood to the remaining Trade Center buildings. They were mostly Hispanic and they purposefully tromped past the panorama of destruction. Every once in a while a businessperson would come through and have to prove that they actually lived in Battery Park City, the condos with a spectacular view of the rubble.

I found a curb.

I’d seen such a curb in Paris, in the morning. I saw this curb two years before. It didn’t look like this then.

The curb was illuminated by a high-powered lamp. It was one of dozens that surrounded the site and gave another reason why NY is called the city that never sleeps. As the cop recounted picking up pieces of people, I remembered Danny telling me about the arm he found. He had been so devastated by that arm. As the cop talked about the parts he pulled out, stuffed in body bags, he seemed almost elated that he’d been lucky enough to help.

The curb was a trigger for me. It was out of place. “Man tell me about this curb, what the hell, it’s really clean.”

He nodded, “Yeah, they came in on cranes and washed everything. This street here,” we were about two blocks from the site, “this street was up to my knees in ash, it was crazy. They came in here with street sweepers and everything and cleaned the place up.”

In some of the cracks there was still dust. Just like when you’re riding your bike and all of a sudden it doesn’t feel right. You know your bike like the back of your hand. Maybe better. You can take your bike apart and put it back together blindfolded. So you know, even though everything looks alright, something is loose. That was the weird thing the day after in DC. A lot of people said it was a loss of innocence. “Things will never be the same again,” everyone seemed to be saying. But that dust has settled on human consciousness.

There’s a man named Dexter. He’s a messenger in NY and he has one leg. He’s still in NY. He’s had to be very deliberate about every step he takes, every move he makes. That doesn’t mean he’s slow. He could probably kick a hole in a cement wall with his leg and he regularly outrides messengers that are half his age.

Somehow, he survived, then he coped, after that he adapted, and now he thrives. I have a feeling the rest of us will too.

In 1996 Rebecca Lambchop Reilly came to San Francisco to help organize the Cycle Messenger World's Championships in that city — the first CMWC in the USA.