Tuesday-- February 19, 2002—Ground
Zero Plus 161
Falling From Heaven, Or, is that Hell?
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News
GROUND ZERO, New York City, Feb. 19--You're walking down
the sidewalk in New York City, trying to mind your own business.
It's a cold evening. You're snuggled in your jacket, weaving
around others heading your way. Suddenly, from above you
hear the clickety-clunk of something falling. It
grows louder, distinct from the thousands of ambient sounds
that paint the city's aural canvass.
radar ignites, an instinct born from city life triggered when
unfamiliar noises slice through the dictionary of familiar sounds.
You freeze and glance up at the battleship gray fire escape
switch backing up the side of the hundred-year-old apartment
buildings that line the street like brick Dominos. It's
a scene from some 19th Century movie of aging stone monoliths
pressed shoulder to shoulder, their cantilevered facades of
gargoyles and romanesque art precariously perched over the sidewalks,
constantly threatening to fall on the unsuspecting.
Clatter! Rattle! Thunk!
You leap back.
A giant screwdriver lands at your feet with a clear plastic
handle and a red ring around its grip with the words ACE embossed
on it. The six-inch missile bounces, spinning
baton-like in the air, its shiny steel blade flashing against
the cab lights that zip down the narrow street. The object
somersaults up and away. You curse and expel your
anger at nearly been ambushed by a screwdriver. You shout
invectives at whomever above caused your near demise.
You forget about
the Terrorist attack on September 11 and all the horror it brought
the city. You think about moving out of Manhattan to escape
falling screwdrivers--a much more clear and present danger than
a jetliner smashing into your apartment.
what stupid idiot above would be so inconsiderate as to drop
a screwdriver and not yell a warning. You hurry home with
the screwdriver in your pocket, a battle prize, a street war
symbol of the infinite booby traps that make up Big City Life.
I wasn't the
guy walking below.
I was the stupid,
inconsiderate, *#%!*@$ guy who dropped the screwdriver.
I was the idiot
from above. I was the Reckless Terrorist.
* * *
New York City
has its drawbacks. One of them is space.
My wife and
I moved here just over two years ago from Dana Point, California
where we had lived in spacious 3,500 square foot house, endless
rooms of space, a three-car garage, cathedral ceilings, a sunken
living room and a grand backyard with a flagstone swimming pool
and waterfall surrounded by vegetation and trees galore that
created a grotto, a sanctuary, isolating us from the humanity
of Southern California.
All that is
gone. In its place is the cramped space of the vertical
city in which every move you make can affect another human being--from
walking down the street to avoid a collision to climbing the
stairs and meeting someone coming down because there's only
room for one on the narrow, winding passage to your 5th floor
I am a novice
in many ways to city living. I still think I can
do what I want in my "castle," and have the freedom
to do it. That isn't correct.
If you elect to carve a totem pole, as I recently have, there
is no place to work on your pet project except the fire escape
where the dust from your sanding drill, and the wood chips from
your chisel do not cloud or mar the sanctuary of your compressed
My wife and
I came to New York City for the experience of living near our
children and grandchildren. We often forget the
luxury we gave up--SPACE and PRIVACY!
Adapting to the new
cottage environment hasn't been easy. At first we
refused any apartment unless on the ground floor until we started
apartment hunting. Then our standards broadened in direct
relation to the price of living. Toward the end, we would
have climbed twenty stairs to find the right place that had
enough room to live in some sense of privacy. Going
from 3 1/2 baths to one was bad enough, let alone reducing the
living space to 20% of what we once had.
We felt like round pegs in square holes.
Fortunately, we found a
rent stabilized apartment with no elevator and 59 steps to our
5th floor abode. The prize was it had four private rooms,
a living room and kitchen albeit tiny) and was just a few blocks
from our grandchildren in the East Village.
But last night I forget the dangers
of city dwelling. They flashed before my mind as
I watched my screwdriver fly out of my hand and heard its descent
clacking and thunking toward the sidewalk below.
I was hanging out the window,
working on my newest hobby--woodcarving. I had chosen
to carve a totem pole for my grandson out a thick, tough piece
of wood. I was chiseling the arms of the figure,
proud that it was taking shape, unaware of the danger I was
creating for others.
It was a cold night. My hands
were numb as I hammered and crunched at the wood. I had
just sharpened the tip of the screwdriver with my Dremel, making
it like a razor tip to penetrate the grain of the wood.
As the hammer glanced off the edge of the screwdriver handle,
the tool flew out of my hand. I grabbed frantically
for it but it was too late.
I watched it tumble, and disappear in the
night, followed by sounds of its clunkering journey down the
iron grates of the rickety fire escape. I didn't
think of people walking below as it fell. My eyes searched the
dark in hopes I could see it when it landed on one of the grates
below. That was wishful thinking.
Then the panic began
to set in. What if it hit someone? Before
I could utter a word of warning, there was one final rattling
sound and a kerplunk, followed by an angry Voice yelling up
words I shall not print here. Courageously, I did
what any six-foot-four-inch two-hundred and seventy pound man
would do--I ducked back into the apartment so no one could see
me. My heart pounded like the child whose mother
caught him with his fingers in the cookie jar.
The invectives continued for
a few seconds. I thought about sticking my head
out the window and yelling: "I'm sorry! Can you hang
on to the screwdriver and I'll be right down to get it."
Then I thought about New York City. I figured whoever
it was might throw it back up like a knife, intent on sticking
it in my forehead as a lesson in city manners and public safety.
At that moment the phone
rang. It was a friend of mine telling me about the time
for Guy's funeral, my buddy who suddenly died last Friday of
a heart attack. She was telling me the address of
the funeral home and the time for the services.
It took me a minute
to collect myself. I decided to face the music and
donned my shoes and jacket--for it was bitter cold--and wended
my way down the 59 steps of our Pre-War apartment building to
the street in hopes I might spot the screwdriver and retrieve
it and make apologies to whomever I had hopefully missed.
The sidewalk was empty.
There was no blood.
I was glad I hadn't hurt
anyone, but frightened that I almost had--or, that I could have.
I had a vision of some guy walking around with a screwdriver
stuck in his head--a sight in New York City that would not bring
a second glance from anyone. Oddity is commonplace
here. If you went up to someone with a screwdriver stuck
in their head and said: "Excuse me, sir, there's
a screwdriver stuck in your head," odds are he or she would
grump at you, "So What!"
"But, it's my screwdriver.
Can I have it back?"
"No way! It's mine
now! I like it!"
My macabre humor didn't sate
the truth--I had been neglectful. Leaning out my
window, I hadn't thought about how the cold would numb my hands,
loosen my grip and create a scenario ripe for disaster.
I was thinking about was my mission--carving the wood, exposing
its inner beauty that waited patiently below the surface,
waiting for me to unearth it with my makeshift screwdriver chisel
and Dremel drills.
As I searched behind garbage
cans and flower boxes and in the gutter for my screwdriver,
I thought about all the madness in the world. There were
Terrorists in the Middle East ducking bombs and bullets, Olympic
skaters being attacked by judges who dropped screwdrivers on
their scores, madmen mowing down innocent pedestrians in the
middle of Manhattan, drug addicts sticking guns in people's
faces to get enough money for their next fix, drunk drivers
pointing steel weapons of destruction down the highways--and
me, dropping a screwdriver out of a 5th floor apartment building.
I was a part of the world's madness. I was a Terror contributor.
I was more concerned with
getting done what I wanted to get done than thinking about the
consequences of my actions. I didn't run a system check
on leaning out a window with a virtual weapon in my hand.
I didn't consider dropping it, or that it might transform from
a tool into a destructive missile dropping from the sky the
way a bomb does-- indiscriminate as to whom it might harm
when it reached its destination.
My reaction had been inaction.
As I leaned out the window with my mouth open, hoping the Ace
Hardware Steel Shafted Spear would end its fall, I didn't
switch to my Vigilant mode and yell: "Fore--Screwdriver
On Its Way Down! Danger Below! Duck!
Run!" Instead, I wimped out. I dived into the
cave of complacency.
Daily, in these Vigilance
News Reports, I promote Vigilance as though I were an
expert at it. Last night I felt more like a Terrorist
than the Sheriff of Vigilance. Unlike a real Terrorist,
I didn't have mens rea--evil intent--but I was a criminal
of neglect. I had committed the crime of Complacency.
I hadn't considered the consequences of my actions.
Under the law, I was subject the crime of reckless endangerment--a
nice word for being "stupid," or "inconsiderate,"
"thoughtless" and "selfish."
Yesterday I had written about
how hard it is to assume an attitude of Vigilance because it
requires work to think through what is right in the face of
pressures to do what you want to do, and get what you want.
Effort is necessary to think about the other person's welfare
when you do something that could affect others.
And, I had no excuse. Last summer my wife had been fixing
a screen and it fell down to the sidewalk--I could have remembered
that event. But the relationship between a screwdriver
and screen seemed very distant to me as I attacked the chiseling
of my totem pole.
Had I given Vigilance its due concern before I leaned out my
window and started to chisel in the cold night, I might have
noticed the gaping spaces in the grates in the fire escape and
thought: "Hmmm, it's cold. If the screwdriver
slips from my hand it might fall. Better put some cardboard
down on these grates to be safe." Or, perhaps
I might have rigged a piece of string or fish line from my wrist
to the chisel so that if I lost my grip it would dangle rather
than fall. Or, even better, I wouldn't have hung
out the window.
I promote that Terrorism's
ingredients are threefold: Fear, Intimidation and Complacency.
Last night I all three Fists of Terrorism hit me in the gut.
First, I was afraid of what I might have done, or nearly did.
Second, I was intimidated by an angry Voice calling me names
(which I deserved). And finally, I was complacent about
rushing down to offer my apologies, and make my amends.
For every yin there's a yang,
and the antidote I billboard to Terrorism is also a triad:
Courage, Conviction and Action. I failed those tests
also last night. I didn't have the Courage to yell out
when the screwdriver fell. I didn't have the Conviction
to tell whomever I nearly missed it was my fault, and apologize
from above. And, I didn't take the action to go down and
take my medicine.
It was, perhaps, a minor
lesson in Vigilance, but a vital one.
It made me think cautiously
about others like myself who aren't Vigilant when they lean
out a window and hold in their hands a flower pot, or a hammer.
It reminded me that walking down the streets of New York City
is taking your life in your hands. The sky can really
fall, Chicken Little!
Putting on my Vigilance cap,
I thought about requiring my wife to wear a hard hart when she
strolls with the grandkids. (She actually has one. It
was a Christmas gift from me - a genuine red, white and
blue construction hat. I purchased it down near Ground Zero.)
Then I thought about walking with them, my head arched up, scouting
for debris falling from the sky. Twisting my imagination
to its extremes, I thought about a new law I could champion
which would require bars on all the windows of all the apartments,
and special training courses for apartment dwellers on the dangers
of working on totem poles on fire escapes.
Then I smiled at myself.
At least I was thinking
Vigilance, even in the aftermath. But those thoughts drove
me to remember the Paradise I had left for the madness of New
My mind drifted back to
Dana Point, California. I thought about all that space
and freedom of Southern California living. I saw
myself sitting out on the veranda watching the sunset over the
Pacific Ocean, a warm sensuous breeze circling me while I calmly
at my totem pole, safe and secure that no matter what I dropped
it would not affect anyone below because I owned the yard, the
bushes, the ice plants, the pine needles.
I thought of the baying of the
sea lions and the sounds of the ocean waves slurping onto the
cove, and chips of wood flying into the air falling down to
the rich soil to become mulch.
Vigilance, I thought.
It can drive a guy into a new hobby, one that doesn't require
hanging out a window and hammering a chisel. It can also
make a guy wonder why he left Paradise to drop screwdrivers
off a 5th story apartment building in New York City!
To Feb. 18--Vigilance Wins Olympic Gold Medal For Courage