Bike Messengers at the WTC
"Total chaos - a condition we're
used to" (3)
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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.