Monday  November 12, 2001


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One morning in mid-October, I went down to Chambers Street with a couple of friends. The police were still restricting access to the area South of Chambers and West of Broadway, which was the perimeter of Ground Zero at that time. We managed to talk our way past, however, and found ourselves in a no man's land of abandoned cars, filthy buildings, concrete barriers and chain link fences. There was a second perimeter around the actual worksite, but we made no attempt to go there.

It was sad to see blocks and blocks of closed shops in a once vibrant area. There were, however, odd exceptions. Amidst the gray riot gates a light shone brightly from a high-end cigar store. The windows were sparkling clean, the displays meticulously arranged. Inside, a well-dressed Asian man was serving a police officer an espresso. How was he able to open his shop? And why? There was no immediate prospect of customers; we were the only pedestrians inside the perimeter other than cops, construction workers, firefighters and one man walking his dog.

The smell is unforgettable and pervades everything within blocks of Ground Zero. It's the smell of a wet burned building, but more difficult to tolerate because it acts as a constant reminder of the tragedy. After two months it's as strong and acrid as ever as the pile continues to burn. Some days, when the autumn wind blows due North, we can smell it all the way on the Upper West Side.

Aside from a deli and a pizza place, the only other establishment we found open was the Raccoon Lodge bar on Warren Street. At 10 AM there were actually quite a few customers -- all construction workers from Ground Zero. Tim thought they were done with their shifts, but I suspected that more than a few were having a liquid lunch break. Their hardhats and respirators were piled up on a shelf behind them and they looked and acted like they were drinking to forget.

We, on the other hand, had just dropped our kids off at school and couldn't really imagine drinking at that hour, so we ordered coffee. AJ, the bartender, smiled sweetly and asked us if we didn't perhaps want to add something to that. I was staring at a bottle of Bushmill's and thought how appropriate an Irish coffee might be, so I suggested that we add a drop of whiskey. The boys concurred and we raised our glasses to the brave souls who gave their lives.

A sticker found on a lamppost near Ground Zero

As we sipped our jacked-up coffees, the mailman arrived. His face was completely obscured by a full respirator. With no acknowledgement of how surreal he appeared, he dropped off the mail with a muffled "Hey, AJ" and continued his rounds.

When we were within a few gulps from the bottom of our mugs, AJ approached and said that one of the fellows down the bar had bought us a round. We struggled internally, but when a guy working in Ground Zero offers you a drink, you don't say "no." We accepted AJ's addition of a couple more ounces of Bushmill's to our tepid coffees and raised our glasses to our new friend. Around then I started thinking about how little I had eaten for breakfast.

Halfway through the second drink, we shuffled around in preparation to leave and AJ again approached with the Bushmill's. This round was on her. Can you really say "No" to AJ? Call us weak-willed, but we couldn't. I think that was the first day I've ever shown up for work drunk. And on a super-caffeine buzz. Wow.

My overall impression that morning was that we will be living with the effects of September 11th for a long time. The plane crash this morning in Rockaway underscored that. Airports, bridges and tunnels closed here in the city yet again. By all accounts, there are many more innocent victims, although apparently not due to a terrorist act.

Whatever the future brings, I'll never forget that smell.

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Anyone out there wondering about EvenHand? Amidst the chaos and uncertainty, progress continues to be made on our little film. Perhaps I'll get back to the business of the movie with the next journal entry.

- Joseph Pierson


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