Bush, Grannies, Nuts, ‘Path’ and remembering how to laugh


By Lincoln Anderson

President Bush standing solemnly outside the Pitt St. firehouse next to a fire engine door battered at Ground Zero as subway trains rumble by on the Williamsburg Bridge. Antiwar protesters carrying a flag-draped coffin chanting “Bring them home alive now!” An East Village church incorporating 9-foot-tall replicas of the World Trade Center in its Sunday service. The “Nuts on the Highway” returning to the “Hero Highway” median to cheer on passing vehicles, just as they did after 9/11. A community board member wanting to pay her respects at Ground Zero — but finding it all too depressing. New fears over lung damage from the toxic brew of 9/11’s fallout. Firefighters, widowers and widows of loved ones lost in the attack finding the strength to carry on. Punk musicians in Tompkins Square Park giving the administration the figurative finger.

Spanning the spectrum from solemnly reverent to completely irreverent, these were just some of the images and events of the fifth anniversary of 9/11 in Lower Manhattan.

Bush was at “Fort Pitt” — home of Engine 5, Ladder 18 and the Seventh Police Precinct — which literally does resemble a fort, early Monday morning. While 18 Truck was crushed in the collapse on 9/11, the ladder company’s men survived. But the firehouse lost one member in the attack, Battalion Chief Matthew Ryan.

Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, wearing a black suit, stood silently to the side of the former Ladder 18 truck’s scuffed door, flanked by police, fire and Port Authority brass. Scanning the area with binoculars, rifle-toting snipers were perched atop the stationhouse, a van on the Williamsburg Bridge and the rooftop of one of the Grand St. Guild Houses towers.

A Jewish chaplain from the Fire Department, a Catholic chaplain from the Port Authority and a Protestant chaplain from the Police Department read scriptural passages. Bagpipers played patriotic tunes. Twice — 17 minutes apart — the bells of St. Mary’s Church on Grand St. pealed in the crisp morning air, marking the times when the two hijacked jets hit the towers.

Before the ceremony, Bush had joined the firefighters and officers for breakfast inside the firehouse. He personally thanked Police Officer Brian Little, 35, of the Seventh Precinct, who recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, where he led Iraqi police units.

“He approached me and extended his hand and thanked me for serving,” Little said. “We are fortunate to have leadership to stand up to make sure that what happened won’t happen again.” Asked how he felt about criticism of the Iraq War, Little said, “I think they should remember how they felt in 2001. They should find the resolve to step up and finish the mission.” Asked if he thought Iraq was really responsible for the 9/11 attacks, he said he thought he’d already answered that. A police spokesperson standing nearby added the questions were getting “political.”

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the Fire Department chaplain, said the Torah he read from during the service had been read in Iraq for Jewish soldiers — in the former palaces of Saddam Hussein.

Raging grannies

The day before, the tone had been defiant at an antiwar protest in which 150 to 200 marchers, including the Grandmothers Against the War, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall for a rally. Carrying black balloons with “Bring Our Troops Home Now” written on them, they then wended their way to the Trade Center site, where they met up with 9/11 Truth members, a group that believes the attacks were an “inside job.”

An Iraq War veteran, Michael Harmon, came with his 85-year-old grandmother, Ann Landri.

“I’m not the same person,” Harmon said of life after his 13-month stint as a medic in the war zone.

Marie Runyon, a former state assemblymember and, at 91, the oldest of the Grannies, rose from a wheelchair to criticize money spent on the Iraq conflict.

“Let’s bring those trillions home and help the people here,” she said to cheers.

Over the course of the afternoon several protesters were approached by people who blasted them for their antiwar message. At one point, a large man in sunglasses began yelling at one of the protesters, Laurie Arbeiter of Park Slope. After several minutes of their yelling at each other, Port Authority police interceded and separated the two. The man walked away. Police asked Arbeiter to leave. She declined, choosing instead to read aloud the First Amendment. She was arrested for disorderly conduct.

As the afternoon wore on, the Grannies stood in a semicircle, reading the names of people killed in the Iraq War.

Joining the antiwar protesters were Councilmembers Rosie Mendez, Gale Brewer and Melissa Mark Viverito.

Four of the Grannies — Betty Brassell, Lois Schlessinger, Vinnie Burrows and Lucille Carasquero — live in Mendez’s Lower East Side district. Two were arrested at a protest at the Times Square recruiting station last October.

“Through the years, each one of them and I have worked together,” Mendez said. “Sunday was Grandparents Day,” she noted, speaking on Monday. “And today is 9/11. What many of the Grannies have been saying — and it’s true — is there’s no correlation between 9/11 and Iraq and it’s time to bring the troops home. It just brings it home: Five years later, we’re still there, so many kids are dying. And it has nothing to do with 9/11…. And Osama bin Laden is still there.”

Firehouse gatherings

In the West Village at the firehouse of Engine 24 and Ladder 5, firefighters welcomed the families of the 11 firefighters who were lost on 9/11 for a breakfast, followed by a Mass at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott St., and a lunch back at the firehouse. However, the firefighters ending up missing the Mass when they had to respond to a two-alarm fire at 26th St. and Fifth Ave. On Sept. 11, 2001, all nine men in the ladder company who responded perished when they were helping a woman down the stairs on the 34th floor of the North Tower and it collapsed.

“Five years went awful quick,” said Firefighter Mike Simon, an eight-year veteran of the W. Houston St. firehouse. “It’s hard to believe. I think it was yesterday. It doesn’t get any easier. It actually gets harder. We lost a lot of great guys.”

For the firehouse, Sept. 14 is as important a date as Sept. 11.

“It took us four days to find them,” Simon said. “They were in the pile of the North Tower.”

Although a new Mt. Sinai study reports a high percentage of first responders at the World Trade Center suffered lung problems, Simon said he’s been all right. He didn’t wear a breathing apparatus on 9/11 because he was off duty and there were only enough for those on duty. He grabbed his gear at the firehouse and went down without a mask to help put out the fires.

“I feel that we could lose more people than we did on that day, from illnesses,” he said. “I’ve been good so far.”

Family members of the lost 11 — most of them smiling at the warmth and friendship they felt from the firefighters — were trickling out of the firehouse as Simon spoke.

“They’re great people,” said Simon. “They’re strong people. And they helped us get through it.”

Feel like a Nut

Also in the West Village, on Monday, the self-dubbed “Nuts on the Highway,” who cheered on the rescue and recovery workers streaming back and forth from Ground Zero after 9/11, were back on the highway median at Christopher St. Dog activist Lynn Pacifico said she was walking back from the Leroy St. dog in Hudson River Park when she saw them, some dressed in red, white and blue.

“They became close and hang out and go out for drinks together,” she noted of the Nuts, one of whom lives in her building.

On Friday, a ceremony at the New York City Fire Museum in Hudson Square saw the area’s local elected officials turn out. Red buttons with the stark black number “343,” the number of firefighters who perished in the World Trade Center — more than one out of 10 of the nearly 3,000 victims — were handed out to the crowd.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn recalled how her grandfather was a Fire Department battalion chief, and that one of his duties was to take Mayor LaGuardia to watch firefighters battling blazes. Borough President Scott Stringer said that after 9/11, many New Yorkers came to know better “these red houses” and the men and women inside them.

“We pray that we never have to feel your pain,” Assemblymember Deborah Glick told family members at the ceremony.

Tompkins square unplugged

The anniversary of 9/11 and its aftereffects were also felt at the annual squatter concert in Tompkins Square Park.

Before he started his acoustic set, John Donlan apologized for his guitar’s lack of amplification, noting his battery pack had been confiscated in customs during a recent trip out of the country to perform.

“They thought it could blow up the plane,” he said.

“Let’s face it — you all wanted Bush and Cheney to be president because you’re afraid of everything,” he told the crowd of punks, tongue in cheek.

Bill Di Paola, founder of Time’s Up!, the East Village environmental group that promotes the monthly Critical Mass rides, swung by on his bike to check out the scene.

“People are upset about 9/11, but they’re not happy about what the administration is trying to do on the right to assemble,” he said. “Free speech and the right to assemble have nothing to do with 9/11.” Di Paola said Time’s Up! is working with a coalition of others, along with Councilmember Alan Gerson, on adopting new parade permit rules in New York City based on those of Washington, D.C., which Di Paola said prioritize the right to free speech and assembly.

Speaking of free speech, Barrett Gross, a political singer/songwriter living in Soho, said he recently answered an ad on craigslist by the Korean equivalent of MTV looking for someone to do an anti-Bush song. He got the gig.

“You can’t do this in Korea — mock your leaders,” Gross said on Sunday. “So it was very patriotic — that’s the basis of the culture,” he said of America, “that you’re supposed to be able to disagree with and mock the people in authority. Because they have the power right now, and all I can do is mock them and try to convince people that they shouldn’t be in power anymore.”

Bumpy ‘Path to 9/11’

The flap over the ABC “docudrama” “The Path to 9/11” not surprisingly made waves Downtown. Tobi Bergman, president of Pier Park and Playground, or P3, said he was appalled that Scholastic, which is located in Noho, had a major deal to provide student discussion aids for what Bergman derided as “right-wing propaganda.” Bergman said he used to see Scholastic’s president, Dick Robinson, who lives in Soho, when his son was involved in local youth sports leagues several years ago.

“Downtown businesses and residents should have a special understanding of the importance of being truthful and not politicizing the attack,” Bergman said. “Scholastic makes its home here and should withdraw its participation.”

But a Scholastic spokesperson, speaking last week, defended the company’s involvement in the embattled TV film, noting that the teaching points had been quickly revised by “one — or a couple of” staffers who had actually viewed the film. The new aids encourage discussion, for example, about how movies interpret or take liberties with historical events.

However, Bergman said, “That’s baloney about making it a study of news versus dramatization. It’s still promoting the garbage.”

Bob Kerrey, president of New School University, also weighed in on “The Path to 9/11,” criticizing Tom Kean, chairman of the federal 9/11 Commission, for consulting on the project, which Kerrey slammed for its revisionist history of the commission’s 9/11 Report. A former senator, Kerrey was head of the Senate Intelligence Committee during most of the period portrayed in the film.

“I think the world of Tom Kean, but I think he made a mistake,” said Kerrey, also a member of the 9/11 Commission. “Even though they put a disclaimer at the beginning, you can’t put a three-hour documentary based on the 9/11 Report and call it fiction. It’s an entertaining story, but I don’t think it’s a balanced story — because I don’t think it adequately describes the congressional situation at the time. There was Democratic support for a censure [of President Clinton]. But instead we spent four months going through a trial…. It was a congressional decision to impeach…. But overall, they’re right that the federal government from Clinton through Bush wasn’t aware enough of what was going on.”

Although Kerrey supported invading Iraq — feeling it would stabilize the region — he says Bush has mishandled the war. A glaring error is the fact that the U.S. has never declared war on Al Qaeda, he said, adding this would clarify the war on terror.

“President Bush hasn’t made that declaration and I think it’s a fundamental mistake,” he said.

Air was black

Although there was a plethora of 9/11 remembrance events, memorials, concerts and readings, many chose to observe the day quietly on their own. Carol Yankay, a member of Community Board 2, had the urge to head to Ground Zero on Monday, but it didn’t quite work out. She rode the bus down, got out and walked a few blocks, but didn’t stay and quickly caught another bus back home to the Village. New fears over the toxic air from 9/11 may have affected her decision. She noticed she was starting to cough as she neared “the pit,” and recalled how on the evening of 9/11 she and the late C.B. 2 district manager, Arty Strickler, had attended a board meeting on Houston St.

“It must be psychological that I go down there and I start to cough,” Yankay said. “It was just too sad.

“Walking back on 9/11, we were under some kind of black cloud, and Arty said, ‘What are we doing?’ ” she recalled. “You know there had to be something with the buildings gone like that.”

Others joined together through religion to deal with the enduring impact of 9/11, and to renew hopes for peace. At Middle Collegiate Church on Second Ave. and E. Seventh St., models of the Twin Towers were incorporated into the service on the eve of 9/11. They were made of black cloth, with spotlights illuminating them from inside.

“It was beautiful, very powerful,” said Reverend Jacqueline Lewis, the church’s pastor. “We had the lights shining up through them, so we had the light shining through the darkness.”

Lewis read a text from Mark that she admitted was “hard” in which Jesus, a Jew, insults a Syrophoenician woman.

“Racial, ethnic and religious conflict is as old as time…. A gentile woman gets dissed by Jesus, and she changes his mind,” Lewis explained. “It doesn’t sound pretty — but even Jesus, the humanity part of him, was bound by his own ethnicity and religion. And how many bombs have been dropped and fingernails pulled out in the name of religion?”

Laughing again

Charles Wolf, former head of the Bleecker Area Merchants and Residents Association, who lost his wife in the attack, said the victims’ family members and loved ones are indeed pulling through, and — at least from what he’s observed — starting to emerge at last from their grief.

“The mood — I checked with other family members — the mood was a little lighter this year,” he said. “There was laughter. The balm of time is helping to heal. I’ve met several women who have boyfriends now. They’re happy. So this is happening.”

Often people are scared off when dating a partner of one of the victims, though, and can’t deal with it, he said.

“It’s tough being a 9/11 widow or widower,” he noted.

Wolf’s wife, Katherine, was working at Marsh & McLennan on the 97th floor of Tower 1 when the plane struck. On Monday, Wolf attended several memorials, one for British victims with Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York — since his wife was Welsh — and another for Marsh & McLennan family members.

He was also down at Ground Zero on Sunday and said he was awed by a huge contingent of motorcycle clubs from Harlem who showed up to honor the memory of 9/11.

“They came in two by two. They were cool to show their respect,” Wolf said. “I’m proud to be a member of this damned exclusive club. But I think I’ve learned this year that this is bigger than just us families or the companies that were affected. We have been in one of the biggest things that has happened to this country in the last 100 years. And we are in the middle of it, and yet our lives carry on.”

With reporting by Jefferson Siegel