Wednesday, July 3, 2002
The summer of 2002 started like this: an eighteen-year-old boy on a Kawasaki Ninja motorbike rocketed down 14th Avenue at about sixty miles an hour, popping a wheely, right as a girl with a white Jeep backed out into the middle of the intersection without looking.
We were sitting on the porch at 14th and A in Belmar, NJ drinking SoCo & Limes on the rocks when it happened.
When the motorcycle was suddenly stopped by the white Jeep, the boy riding it was not. We watched him sail through the air like a punted football, somersault forward, and land on his back with a thud. I swear you could have heard that crash and thud from Little Italy.
His helmet cracked like an egg. Motorcycle parts went everywhere. Blood spurted from a protruding rib. Legs and arms bent at strange angles. Protruding bone poked at the skin that hung to his skeleton, like Hefty trash bags full of sticks. There was a smell of grease and oil, but no burnt rubber. The son of a bitch had never even had time to break.
Roxanne, our resident nurse, ran out to give the poor bastard CPR. As she attempted chest compressions, blood splashed into her face. This kid was in a bad way. Pronounced dead on the scene bad. Gratuitous horror movie gore bad.
Coming down here for a week, all I had wanted was to have one last hurrah with the boys now that we were graduates before we were off to the races. Jobs. Families. The whole nine. The problem was, somehow, everything was turned upside down. That carefree thing that we had an infinite supply of just a few months before, was suddenly tapped out, like a keg at a college party that just started spitting foam. To be honest, since 9/11 everything had changed, and none of us really knew how or why, just that it was different now.
And making matters worse, I did not have the slightest idea what I wanted to do with my life. Still don’t. Somehow, knowing, really knowing, it could end at any time, made those choices that much harder.
Later that very night, a picture of “Jimmy” on posterboard was placed by the spot where he died. A cross was made with two pieces of hand-rolled construction paper tied in the middle with strings, anchored in the dirt by a round dowel encircled by chicken wire. Dozens of candles, notes, cards, and trinkets were strewn on the lawn.
The first candlelight vigil was held that night. There were about twenty family members, classmates, and friends in attendance.
By the end of the holiday weekend, they were more like fifty people strong. This was the immediate effect of one dumbass who bit it in a tragedy of his own making. But let’s be honest, this kid died because he was being a major league douchebag.
There was just no way to imagine almost 3,000 innocent people who hadn’t done a thing wrong killed in the circumstances of the World Trade Center—parents, firefighters, kids—you name it.
While the first night’s candlelight vigil was going on, I turned to Jerry and said, “I don’t think I am going to get a motorbike after all.”
“No shit, shithead,” Jerry said.
“Death man. It gives me the goosebumps. It’s just so abstract,” I told him. And the thing was, being twenty-two years old, death was as far off for us then as the planet Pluto—an impossibly far distance. But now, it’s right around the corner.
“We are not long for this world, brother man. Collect all the money in the world. It won’t help one bit when it’s your time to go,” Jerry concluded. This was a particularly prescient statement considering that Jerry wouldn’t see another birthday.
Ryan James studied Economics. He worked for Red Bull. And he was an adrenaline junky. I’m Jeff. I studied philosophy. I did my dissertation on the existentialists. But I am in sales. High-tech electronics. Servers and such. And Hurd had studied Business. He is in finance. Worked for Lehman Brothers. He was supposed to be in the World Trade Center that day. Saved by a stomach bug. And Harry, well Harry sold knives. Cutco knives. No shit. And banged anything that moves. Jerry studied marketing. He worked for Pitney Bowes. Sold mail meters. The poor son of a bitch actually contracted Anthrax the year before. Kid had absolutely no luck.
As we were well into our second fifth of SoCo, putting down shots at a good solid pace, we noticed Black Hawk military helicopters flying overhead, buzzing like droning bees on patrol, and a few fighter jets scrambling for no apparent reason, like big dragonflies darting back and forth with an intense and ominous humming sound.
“See that,” Harry said, pointing up, “you never noticed those before. Probably just running exercises from Fort Dix or something. But now you ask yourself if something is going on.”
“It’s like that scene in the Wizard of Oz,” Ryan James said, “where the Wizard is behind the curtain, and they pull back the curtain. It’s just a little man with knobs and shit, saying ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.’ We are all sure as shit paying attention now. I hear the brontide rumbles of a storm coming in, I’m scanning for bombs and shit. I actually reported a ‘see something, say something’ on the subway last week, for f**k’s sake!”
“There were always inalienable truths before. The American Government was going to keep us all safe from foreign attacks, businesses always report their earnings honestly, and it is none of our G**damn business what f**king Black Hawk military helicopters, fighter jets, and other birds of war are doing flying overhead,” I said, getting a little riled up and annoyed.
“In Wizard We Trust,” Jerry said.
“Here, here,” Harry said clinking glasses.
“The Wizard chose us for this life. He makes sure the buses come on time. Traffic is busiest just after 9:00 a.m. There is always a 15-minute delay at the Holland Tunnel. Suped-up Civics get pulled over first on the Turnpike,” Hurd added. “Now you can’t even get into the city on the Path Train from Hoboken. It just doesn’t have a terminus. It’s literally a train to nowhere.”
It got me thinking. Every morning we get up and read headlines from the New York Times. And the headlines read, “The Wizard is Well.” But what if the Wizard is all f**ked up? What if he was exposed to Anthrax or something? Someone might have to get him to a clinic and look behind that curtain and try to figure out what all those levers and pulleys and knobs do. How does this thing actually run? I can just see myself back there, behind that green curtain. And there’s just a flashing red button on the control panel that says “CHAOS” going off like crazy. Below are instructions: “Nothing is as it seems, no need to worry. -Management.”
“There is a Simpsons episode where a flashing warning light comes on. Instead of saying fasten your seat belts or turbulence, it says: “Godzilla.” The monster is holding the plane and the captain comes on to say, ‘Godzilla usually lets the plane go around 35,000 feet.’ That’s kind of how I feel about everything that’s going on right now, you know?” I ask.
“Right,” Harry says. “It’s Godzilla-time. You boys ready to go out and cause some trouble?”
* * *
Sunday, July 2, 2022
We didn’t know it then, but Harry and Jerry, who had been in the National Guard would head off to Afghanistan in October of 2002 and would get blown to kingdom come by an IED.
Ryan James and I are at a bar in Bayonne, NJ with a bunch of much younger girls, doing round after round of green tea shots.
“For f**k’s sake Jeff, I don’t drink like this anymore,” Ryan James says.
“The hell you don’t,” I say. “I see your Insta feed with all of those trips to Red Bull sporting events.”
“I guess you’re right,” Ryan James said.
“I know, you’ve got two young ones at home, but I’m still a bachelor,” I say.
“So are we going to the city to the Blarney Stone to throw down a few pints to remember Harry and Jerry or what,” Ryan James says.
We call an Uber to head to the Path station. Once there, we take the World Trade Center train down into the newly rebuilt World Trade Center station. They’ve turned the wreckage of the greatest terrorist attack in world history into a mall.
Stay Clear of the Closing Doors Please.
As we get off the train, I walk up the stairs and into the Oculus. There is a huge two-story Apple store. There’s a Banana Republic. Ethan Jordan Jewelers. Eye World Optical. A Marriott. I mean, you could literally come in for a latte, get an eye exam, get fitted for some readers, buy an engagement ring, and reserve a room to hole up for the night, all without leaving the Oculus.
It is one of those things that always seems off to me. Tragedy and commerce. Doing a little dance. The one growing out of the other like poppies springing up amongst the graves and headstones, row by row.
* * *
Thursday, July 4, 2002
“Hey, shithead,” Jerry said.
“You still with us?” he said.
“You know what it is Jerry. You know those little nameplates on people’s desks? [Yeah.] They have your name and a title below it. You know what I’m saying. We spend all of this time trying to figure out ‘what we will be called’ and what temperature-controlled rectangle we will spend forty years being bored inside of,” I say.
“No Jerry, I’m serious. Think about it. There’s no overriding reason to do anything that doesn’t directly benefit you—and if things go really, really well, you get to collect some money for being old,” I say.
“Collect money… for being old? You mean like a 401(k)?” Jerry says.
“Exactly!” I say. And Ryan James walks up to us.
“Can we just say, for the record, my girlfriend is the coolest chic on earth,” Ryan James says beaming.
“Why’s that,” Jerry asks.
“I don’t even understand what these girls are doing enrolling in college. My girlfriend came over today to pick up my laundry, my f-ing laundry. She’s got a 3.8 in finance, and she comes over to my dirty apartment to do my laundry, bro,” he says.
“Maybe… I don’t know,” Jerry says, “she’s trying to tell you that you smell?”
“So, you’re telling me she actually touches your dirty filthy f**king underwear, and folds it in little piles, and delivers it back to you?” I say.
“With precision, precision folds. Every shirt is lovingly wrapped with creases like blades. Go to the Gap. Ever wonder how those shirts get really, coolly, neatly folded like that? Dude, she does it just like that, amazing. There’s no college in the world that can teach a girl to fold clothes like that,” Ryan James says.
“So, you going to pop the question or what,” Jerry said.
“I don’t know,” Ryan James said.
“We aren’t going to be here forever,” Jerry said. He was right. He certainly wasn’t.
* * *
Monday, July 3, 2022
We were sitting out on Pier A. The city was lit up like a Roman candle. A light summer breeze wafted up off of the Hudson River with a fresh “how-you-doin’” attitude.
I looked across the river at the tall spire of the new One World Trade Center. It looked a bit like a lance—the kind knights used in jousting tournaments. Come to think of it, it looked more like a rocket—the SpaceX ones—enormous with oddly hard angles, ready to blast off in a rumbling roar chasing the heavens.
There were food carts along the promenade. Families with young kids had come out with the little ones sitting on their father’s shoulders, holding their mother’s hands, or being held aloft with little pink fingers pointed at the sky. People with coolers were dotted across the lawn on lawn chairs and varicolored blankets. They were drinking hard seltzers, mixed drinks, and Budweiser beer with requisite koozies. There was the smell of grease and smoke from the barbeque. A sweet acrid bite of propane and liter fluid. The clouds were floating in the sky like driftwood bobbing in the tide. The whole world was still and calm and at the same time festive.
It would scarcely occur to you that if you peeled back the wallpaper of this world, there was another world behind it, an eternal realm that no man, woman, or child on this Earth had ever seen or really knew anything about—and for twenty years now Jerry and Harry had been living there. Like the silvered linen of an old-fashioned movie screen catching the beams of a projector, catching the shadows of dust mites in its technicolor paint—you could tear it. And then the projection would just hurtle off into infinity.
I wondered if they could see us down here, from where they were, if they could see us foolishly scrambling about like the little Jack Terrier chasing a frisbee on the lawn, with no more idea what we were doing than the aimless wind that blows where it wills.
And then one day, we’d all be boarding a train to nowhere. Or somewhere. With a one-way ticket. And a final boarding call.
Some sparklers crackled and fell like hose water sprayed out of a sprinkler—kids running through it screaming like banshees. The whistle of three or four more rockets shatters the stillness of the night.
Over by the end of the pier, the Macy’s Fourth of July show is getting into full swing. Screamers are howling, then cracking and spiraling down in parabolic curves. Ruby red Catherine Wheels are cracking and bursting into apple-like red globes that fizzle and dissipate to ether.
Where do those bright flames go? Do they really fizzle out and disappear completely, or do they leave an imprint in another world, just beyond our grasp?
* * *
Friday, July 5, 2002
After a riveting game of strip hi-lo with some girls from Bar Anticipation, those of us who still have some clothes left shed them, and we all disrobe completely. Harry, Jerry, me, Ryan James, Dawn, her roommate Noel, Kelly, and Michele.
"Streak—Party!!!," Harry yells out.
Harry hands out pink and green Punky hair dye. We spray it all over each other's bodies like Indian War Paint.
The eight of us scream and howl and run naked down the block and a half to the Ocean, oohing and ahhing as we skip past passersby on the street and boardwalk. We yell each other’s names and laugh from the deep wells of our lungs, and nearly trip and fall as our feet scramble over little stones and pebbles on the asphalt.
I dive into the wake and feel the cold shock and rush of the salty water rushing past me and invading the heat of my being. I feel a clean and clear jolt of adrenaline that I can taste like metal in the back of my mouth.
Dawn swims up next to me. As she treads water, I can feel the water currents from her movements. The tide lifts us and drops us like bobs on a fishing rig. I know she is naked next to me. Inches away. I can feel the heat of her thigh against my thigh even though we are not touching. I can imagine the dampness of her.
The imagining of what is below the waves is more visceral, more real, than anything above the surface. In the chill of the night, her lips are bright and strawberry red against the contrast of the paleness of her drawn white face, painted with just a hue of rouge from the day’s sun.
Looking into Dawn’s eyes, they are slatted green gems. The tiny flecks of brown seem to me like train tracks, drawing me in toward a vanishing point in the horizon, at the end a long black tunnel, like the kind an old Victorian steam train draws through—a train to nowhere.
I always remember that night with Jerry and Harry and how we went to the International House of Pancakes at dawn after we all laid out all night in blankets and beach towels and had a bonfire on the beach.
I remember laughter. I remember the cresting waves of summer. Drawing us out to adulthood, pulling childhood and innocence forever out to sea. Creating a rift in our destinies. Sifting us like grains of sand.
Wave upon wave. A steady train of waves. An onslaught of turbidity. A murky, dark unknowing void. An endless space of life-giving possibility—a canvas of stars.
A graveyard of drowned and muffled possibilities, sunk and forgotten, at the bottom of the sea.
A crisp blade of moonlight toward the horizon drawing out a long yellow track to infinity.
The entire vastness of the sea—all-in-all.
A train to nowhere.