Down to the Waterline

By Ed Staskus

   The summer Jeff Saghy and I went to New York City for a working weekend it is doubtful we would have gone to see the Twin Towers. They were just two more office skyscrapers in skyscraper city. We would not have gone to eat at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower, either. But we were staying next door, at the Marriott, it had been a long Saturday, so we walked over and took one of the jumbo elevators up and up.

   The hotel had been collateral damaged eight years earlier. Diehard towelheads parked a rental truck loaded with 1,500 pounds of explosives in the North Tower’s parking garage below the hotel’s ballroom. They weren’t interested in being martyrs, so they set the timer and left for snack time of halvah and qahvah. The explosion seriously mangled the lower and sub levels of the World Trade Center complex. It was more than a year before the Marriott reopened. 

   The restaurant opened 25 years before we ever set foot in it, in 1976, as a private club. Everyone not a member had to pay $10.00 in dues on the spot first before eating there. New York magazine called it the “most spectacular restaurant in the world.” They profiled the food makers and gushed about the view.

   “Every view is brand-new, a miracle. In the Statue of Liberty Lounge, the harbor’s heroic blue sweep makes you feel like the ruler of some extraordinary universe. All the bridges of Brooklyn and Queens and Staten Island stretch across the restaurant’s promenade. Even New Jersey looks good from here. Down below is all of Manhattan. Everything to hate and fear is invisible.”

   We were wearing pressed slacks and our monogrammed trade show shirts. The slacks were OK, but our shirts sans jackets were verboten. The maître d’ rustled up spare sports jackets for both of us. Mine was several sizes too small. It was loud checked, the kind George Jessel might once have donated to Goodwill.

   “All you have to do is wear it walking to your table,” the front of the room man said when I gave him an unhappy look. “Once you’re in your seat you can take it off and your server will bring it back to me.”

   I squeezed into it, enduring the snidely local yokel looks on the way to our table. It was set inside a curved half wall. The waiters wore white jackets and black pants. The dining room was large and fancy. The charge we put on the company credit card would have paid close to half my month’s home mortgage back in Lakewood, Ohio.

   We ordered a bottle of expensive wine and stepped over to the nearest window to take in the vaunted view. There wasn’t any view, however. All we saw was the inky sky above us and thick gray clouds below us, down ten-or-so floors. There wasn’t a gap in them for us to see any part of the world. We ate and drank. Jeff did most of the talking. He wasn’t interested in anything I had to say, although he was polite about it.

   I woke up in the middle of the night with an upset stomach. The booze at Windows on the World had been good, the dinner better, and dessert even better, but something wasn’t agreeing with me. It might have been something greasy I grazed on at the trade show. I dressed and went downstairs, where I drank a ginger ale. I went for a walk. It was big-city lukewarm dark. The streets smelled bad, but I felt better. I walked down to the waterline on Liberty St., ending up at Pumphouse Park. 

   It wasn’t listed in my New York City Parks Department guidebook. It was just there, next to a marina, lots of trees and flowers around an oval-shaped lawn. I walked to where there was a grove of shrubs and birch trees. I kicked back on one of the benches. In a city of eighteen million people, I didn’t see another person for the next hour, although a mean-looking black and white cat shuffled past without even giving me a sideways glance.

   Jeff and I and Chris Hayes and Doug Clarke, who was the big cheese at Efficient Lighting, landed at JFK International Airport in Queens on Thursday. Construction of the people-mover system was still going on, three years along, so we walked. We checked into the Marriot and took a cab to the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Hell’s Kitchen. It was enormous, more than three million square feet of floor space. We had come to New York City for the annual International Beauty Show.

   “Stock up on all your salon needs at show-special pricing. Top notch education to boost your skills and business. Products and tools that will boost your business and streamline your craft. Network with like-minded colleagues and professionals,” was the way the razzmatazz went.

   We were there to showcase a new tanning bed the business under the name of Ultraviolet Resources International had developed. Chris Hayes was the nominal brains behind the Sunsource. Doug Clarke was married to Kathy Hayes, second-in-command. She was the louder by far of the couple. Her other brothers Kevin and John Hayes, and sister Maggie Hayes, were the rest of the in-charge team. Maggie was sneaky mean and always bore watching. Some more brothers and sisters from the family of thirteen came and went, hardly making a dent, except when they were at each other’s throats.

   Doug Clarke had built a state-of-the-art 45,000 square-foot multi-million-dollar warehouse and offices on nearly three acres in Brook Park, next to Holy Cross Cemetery, the year before, after ten years of leasing and outgrowing space in the Lake Erie Screw building in Lakewood. It was a new building for a new millennium. The enterprise sold lots of stuff under lots of names, commercial lighting to restaurants and municipalities, saltwater fish lights, sign lights, disinfectant lighting, but its bread and butter was tanning bulbs. We sold gazillions of the fluorescent tubes every quarter, to dealers and end users. The phones never stopped ringing. Doug and Kathy built a McMansion in North Ridgeville on the back of our 800 number.

   Doug’s wine cellar at the mansion looked like it was worth more than he was willing to pay me in my lifetime if I continued working for him the rest of my life. I didn’t like it, but I bit my tongue. I was surprised the wine he poured wasn’t better. It tasted bitter.

   The trade show boomed, although we didn’t. Our last-minute space was near the back of a dead-end walkway. We spent more time talking to the other vendors around us than we did talking to prospects. The end of the day Friday didn’t come soon enough. Jeff could talk all day and night, but I had long since run out of anything to say to our neighboring nail and hair folks, who weren’t selling anything, either.

   Doug and Chris were busy with other big shots, the guys who called the shots at Wolff and Light Sources, so Jeff and I went to dinner in Greenwich Village by ourselves. We didn’t know one place from another. All of them were busy. We found a table at Pico, a Portuguese eatery. The inside was exposed brick and beams. We sat next to a six-foot tall wire sculpture of a rooster. Our waiter told us it was a Portuguese good luck symbol. 

   We were staring at our pemeiro prato, which included bacalao cakes with blood orange-radish salad, steamed cockles, and foie gras, when our waiter came back. He asked if we would mind sharing our table with two young women, since space was at a premium. Jeff said he didn’t mind and the next thing I knew there were two more chairs squeezing in at our table. 

   The women were in their mid to late 20s both blonde one of them from London and the other one from South Africa. We shared our appetizer with them while we got acquainted. The one from London was working in NYC and living at a YWCA and the other one was visiting her friend. The South African’s family had emigrated to Savannah, Georgia from the dark continent after the Afrikaners lost their argument with the African National Congress.

   The London native had been to Pico before and recommended the Segundo prato. I ordered the dish. It included duck braised in terra cotta and roast saddle of rabbit with chickpea cake. Our newfound friends told us more about themselves, and Jeff told them all about himself. Even though he and I had worked in the same office for about ten years some of it was new to me.

   We ordered another bottle of wine midway through dinner. Before I knew it, it was after eleven. We ordered coffee and sonhos, miniature doughnuts, cinnamon-dusted puffs of dough dipped into molten chocolate and fruit fondues, for dessert. Sonhos mean “beautiful little dream” in the lingo. Nobody needs to speak Portuguese to describe their goodness.

   Jeff had been looking and talking the girls up non-stop. I didn’t like the gleam in his eye, wondering if he was looking for a farmer’s daughter in the city that never sleeps. I wasn’t a back door man, though. Besides, tomorrow was another working man’s day. I hailed a cab and coaxed Jeff into the back seat. 

   Saturday was more of the same at the trade show. We finished up mid-afternoon on Sunday. We had brought our bags and were ready to go as soon as soon as the whistle blew. Unfortunately, everybody else had the same idea and by the time we were out the door the plaza in front of the convention center was swarming with people. There wasn’t a cab to be had for love or money.

   We were standing around like orphans when a black man with bloodshot eyes and wearing a black suit approached us. He was wearing a white shirt, a black tie, and a black newsboy cap. He was a gypsy cabbie, driving a four-door black Volvo. 

   “Airport?” he asked.

   “JFK,” I said. 

   “$50.00,” he said.

   “Let’s go,” I said, dragging a protesting Jeff behind me. He didn’t like the black man, the black car, and the black hole of no license no regulations no insurance of the pirate transport. The man was from Nigeria. “They call our kind of driving kabu kabu there,” he said. He drove more than sixty hours a week and drove fast. He stopped some distance from the cab stand at the airport and helped carry our bags. 

   “I got to be careful about the medallion guys,” he said.

   It was just getting dark when we took off, circling northwest back over Manhattan, the lights of the city twinkling in the dusk. We flew through a booming thunderstorm that had rumbled over Ohio an hour earlier and landed at Cleveland Hopkins, where our wives picked us up.

   The summer heated up, getting ungodly Lake Erie humid. I went to the office Monday through Friday and did my part-time work catch-as-catch-can. I would have quit my day job long since if I could have, but I needed both jobs. The office work was easy enough, and so long as I kept to myself, I could put up with my salaried co-workers. The rest of the guys and gals who punched the clock were no problem.

   My job wasn’t especially high paying since I worked for a family firm, but it was steady. Their motto was “Family First.” We had first-class health insurance, though, and I was socking money slowly but surely away in a 401K. I got two weeks paid vacation. We went to Prince Edward Island in late August, chilling on the north coast. Manhattan is 96 times smaller than PEI. The borough is home to 12 times as many people as the province. We didn’t have any trouble keeping ourselves to ourselves on the ocean shore.

   We got back the second weekend of September. I took Monday off to unpack and unwind from the 24-hour drive home. The next morning, I was in line at a Drug Mart cash register when I looked up and saw the Twin Towers on a TV mounted on the opposite wall. One of the buildings was gushing smoke and the newscaster was gushing alarm.

   “Christ,” I thought. “How did that happen?”

   By the time I got to work everybody was crowded into the lunchroom eyes glued to the LCD flat screen mounted on the wall. We found out what happened was that passenger jets slammed into both buildings. We watched the 110-floor towers collapse. The Marriott Hotel where Jeff and I stayed disappeared into a pile of rubble. It looked surreal to all of us, even those of us who didn’t know what surreal meant.

   Doug walked in looking somber and told everybody to go home. It was just after 11 o’clock in the morning. The last fires at the World Trade Center site were extinguished in December, exactly 100 days after the terrorist attacks.

   It was a sunny day, mild and pleasant. My wife and I watched the grim news on TV throughout the day. We had never seen anything like the Twin Towers disaster happen in our own country. Even Snapper our cat sensed something wasn’t right and spent the day in the basement.

   The next day I rode my mountain bike on the all-purpose trail in the Rocky River Metropark. The only people I saw were an older couple chatting strolling aimlessly. There were no fitness walkers, baby carriages, rollerbladers, runners, or any other bikers besides me. There were hardly any cars on the parkway. I could have ridden down the middle of the road blindfolded.

   I saw flashing red and blue lights of police cars on every bridge I rode under. There were military jets screaming overhead, not that it mattered. The horse was out of the barn.

   I stopped on the far side of Tyler Barn, on the other side of the small bridge there, where I spotted a fisherman going after steelhead trout. I rode through the parking lot to where he was wading out of the river. I could see fish in the creel bag slung over his shoulder. He sat down at a picnic table and started cleaning them on yesterday’s newspaper. We shot the bull for a minute and talked about the terror attacks in New York City. I told him about having stayed at the no more Marriott.

   “I’ll tell you what partner, if folks concentrated on the really important things in life, there would be a shortage of fishing poles,” he said, sucking on a Lucky Strike without taking it from his lips, a breeze blowing the ash away into the sudden early end of summer.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.