My Life As a Gay Man – 9/11 and Sam: Part I
Anybody remember Y2K? The possible end of civilization as we knew it when we hit January 1, 2000 and all our digital clocks and computers, not programmed with “20” would close everything down and reap havoc on us all?
Well, I spent New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1999 at my hospital on Staten Island, NYC’s forgotten borough, as did all us senior execs just in case the monitors went haywire and life support machines and ventilators attempted to snuff out a few lives at the stroke of midnight and the new millennium. Boy, were we relieved when nothing, absolutely nothing happened.
But our collective euphoria was short lived. Just a year later, in February of 2001, we were taken over by our bigger sister, St Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan’s West Village, and while I survived the merger, I suddenly had a new boss who slept her way to the top, politically at least, and knew one tenth of what I knew about the business.
Three months later, George’s trading house on Wall Street went belly up and at 55 he found himself almost unemployable. He begrudgingly put his pride and ego aside and accepted a job at my place that I had been able to finagle – as a security guard.
Then came September 11.
It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, and I had a corporate meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. at St. Vincent’s in Manhattan. I would usually take the Staten Island Ferry into the City if I had business, but that morning I instead drove my car over the Bayonne Bridge which connected S.I. to New Jersey and took the PATH subway system which had recently opened a station in Bayonne on the Jersey side. It left me off right on Seventh Avenue and 14th Street, a short walk to the hospital, and I decided to kill time having an overpriced cup of java at one of the coffee shops on Seventh. Then, at about 8:50, I began my walk to St. Vincent’s, a few blocks away.
Up to then there had been no sounds or commotion, but as I strolled briskly to my destination – Seventh and 12th Street – I noticed more and bystanders looking up. “Why?” I thought until I looked up too. From this vantage point, the World Trade Center towers usually resembled a picture postcard that tourists from London or Peoria would send to the folks back home. Only now, there was a gaping hole with billowing black smoke right smack in the upper third of one of the towers. Funny, but in person and real time, it looked fake, like a Grade D sifi movie from the 50’s, and actually appeared more real later when I saw the moment replayed again and again on TV.
When I got to our corporate PR offices in the hospital, my colleagues were glued to the television although we could all see what was transpiring right outside our office window. Everyone probably thought the same thing I did, that a traffic helicopter or small private plane had gone bad. After all, the Empire State Building had been hit by a plane in 1947. But after the second jet plowed into the other Tower, we all knew this was no accident, and our corporate PR boss immediately mobilized us into action teams. St. Vincent’s was the closest hospital to Ground Zero and our job for most of that terrible day was to control the media circus that soon converged at our doors.
Seventh Avenue which fronted St. Vincent’s was closed, the blocks surrounding it barricaded, and ambulances, physicians, nurses, and other healthcare personnel waited patiently for victims that never materialized. For the most part, you either walked out of the towers or you were dust. It was there, keeping the press outside at bay, that I witnessed the collapse of the two towers. From that point, ten or so blocks from Ground Zero, there were no sounds of destruction. A thick cloud mushroomed from the site like an atomic bomb, then nothing. It was easy to forget people were still in those buildings.
Later in the afternoon, I was assigned to staff one of the tables that had been hastily stationed just outside the hospital entrance, manned with lists of who had been brought to our place. Like zombies out of “Night of the Living Dead,” people who were searching for family or friends in the chaos listlessly came up to our tables to see if we had their loved one. And here, right behind me, on St. Vincent’s brick facing, they began posting those heartbreaking “Have You Seen…” notices that would engulf the City in the weeks ahead.
At about 7, I was released, but because the PATH system was out of commission – the WTC station had been obliterated in the disaster – and there were rumors the Staten Island Ferry terminal had been turned into temporary morgue, I left a message for George on our home phone that I was stuck in the City and that I would see him when I saw him.
On the week of my father’s wake, I was in the baths almost every night (George thought I was with my family). So mayhem or no mayhem, I was determined to turn this national catastrophe into a personal – read sexual – opportunity.
My Plan B was the hit the baths on the West Side, walkable from the Village, but my first target was a gay guest house in the Twenties off 8th Avenue. My guess was whoever was there would be open for some distraction. Distraction I needed bad right now. If not, it was a place to spend the night.
Friday: Sam- Part II