World Trade Center, New York
December 11th & 12th

The Dakota Roadhouse is a block from the World Trade Center site. I had gone back to the site early in the evening to spend more time reading the messages and notes at the various shrines along its perimeter.

Unfortunately, you cannot just focus on those little pieces of hope, memory, encouragement, and praise. The grinding, crashing, piercing symphony of the recovery effort provides constant underscoring. Occasionally, try though you might to avoid it, the now famous twisted metal of all that’s left standing jumps at you from around a corner.

I needed a break. Up ahead I saw the sign for the Dakota Roadhouse. Prior to September 11 it would have been filled to the gills with investment bankers and equities traders. Tuesday night there were four guys from a nearby firm whose offices were still intact. They shot pool and clumsily flirted with Lara, the pretty, blonde bartender.

A little later two women and one man came in. It was a nostalgia trip for them. They had worked at the WTC. Two of them are now in temporary digs in Chelsea and one has to commute to New Jersey. Every now and then a shell-shocked tourist would wander in, have a beer, and leave.

The Dakota Roadhouse is a nice bar, the patrons were sociable, Lara mixed a mean drink and the conversation was good. David, from the UK, and I spent an hour or so solving the world’s problems. I met some construction workers from the site who popped in for their midnight lunch break. We talked about the Knicks losing to the Celtics in overtime earlier that evening.

Lara was pleased that the street in front of the place was now open to vehicular traffic. It had been too weird being down there and never seeing a car on the normally gridlocked street.

While cars could now pass through, it was still desolate.When the CD jukebox would fall silent between songs you could hear the pulse of the machinery at the site.

Sometime after midnight I figured I should head back to the hotel to crash. I bounded out the door into the eerie haunted house shadows cast by the science fiction glow from the stadium lights burning at the site. I nearly ran over an old Irishman with a bunch of fliers in his hands.

He gave me one.

“Did you work in the Towers”, he asked me.

I told him I did not. That I was from Los Angeles and had wanted to see New York after the attacks. He nodded solemnly, as if this was important information. I looked down at the flier in my hands. A young woman smiled out at me from a grainy color Xerox copy. Across the top in huge letters it said, “MISSING”.

Something in my look caused him to react.

“I know,” he said, smiling apologetically. “I’m not crazy. I just gotta find someone who knows what happened to my Baby Girl.”

He was a sizeable man in his late fifties with thinning white hair, scarred hands, and a nose that looked like it had been broken about a hundred times. He looked lost. Helpless. I wanted to do something for him but couldn’t think of what. We stood there awkwardly for a few moments.

“Tell me about her,” I said.

He lit up instantly and reached for his wallet. “That picture didn’t come out too good in the copy machine. Look at this.” He held out a wallet sized photo of his daughter. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

I thought to myself, no, she isn’t. She was rather plain, with flat hair plastered to her skull and a fairly featureless face. But to the old man she was the most beautiful thing this earth had ever seen.

“That’s my baby girl.”

He lived in Brooklyn where he’d raised her. His wife, the girl’s mother, had passed away fifteen years ago, when his Baby Girl was still a teenager. He never remarried…and never will.

“One life. One wife, ya know?”

Back when she was little she always needed to be the center of attention. When her parents had friends over she would have “concerts” in the middle of their living room. She would sing some popular song, belting it out so loud you had to listen. He said he always thought she would be a star. He held out the picture again. She had become more beautiful to him in the last few minutes.

His Baby Girl had worked her way through college and gone on to get an MBA. She ended up “a big shot with one of the big money firms”. He beamed when he said this. Though he still thought she could have been a star. “She’s still the center of attention”, he said.

Present tense.

He waxed on about all her accomplishments as we walked along. Said she was always a handful, that one. After her mother died she got a little crazy. That’s how she dealt with it. She’d always been a good girl but started acting out. “Not that she ever did anything horrible…harmless teenage stuff. Drinking. Loser boyfriends.”

He told me about when she went to her prom…how he didn’t know what to do. How he knew that it was a big deal for her but he didn’t know how to help her get all fancied up. He still carries a faded photo in his wallet of her in her prom dress. He pointed to the skinny kid next to her in the photo, trying to look cool in his bad tuxedo. “That’s the loser. I about threw a party when she dumped him. Kid was trouble.”

I didn’t ask how. I got the impression that no man was good enough for his daughter.

“Look at her. Ain’t she something? Didn’t get help from nobody. Just look at her.”

He remembered how, when she was little, she’d always hold his hand when they crossed the street. So he could keep her safe. How she outgrew that. How, as an adult, when they reached a crosswalk she would sometimes take his hand like the old days and ask him if it was safe to cross. It was their little game.

He remembered when the family was in a car wreck and she cut her head on the window. He drove his broken car like a crazy man getting her to the hospital. The cut was bloody but not deep. She wasn’t all that scared. She laughed at him because he was.

But his Baby Girl was hurt.

He remembers when she graduated from college, the first in his family to make it through. Her first job paid more than he’d ever made in his life. He told me he was proud of her and loved her even more because she didn’t want to tell him how much she made. She knew it was more than he made and didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

“Isn’t that something”, he said.

Then she got an MBA and got a good job “makin’ money like you wouldn’t believe”.

“She was a real big shot”, he said. “She had people working for her. Always got a real big bonus and raises so she musta been doin’ good.”

He remembered how he’d come up to have lunch or dinner with her and he’d walk into her office with all these rich guys and she’d introduce him around… “like I was the big deal”.

And now she’s gone.

He went somewhere far away for a moment.

“I used to hold her hand when she crossed the street…”

He said he knows she’s gone. He knows she isn’t coming back. He knows she’s buried somewhere in that pile of concrete and metal.

“I hope it happened fast.”

At first he had hoped as hard as he could that she had made it out but was hurt and couldn’t get through to him. He said it felt wrong hoping she was hurt bad…but that was better than the alternative. He knew she would call him if she could. She would know he was worried sick. Every time the phone rang for the first few days he hoped it was going to be her and she would be laughing at him for being so worried and nervous for her.

“But I kinda thought…I guess I knew.”

Her body has yet to be recovered. Her firm has been very helpful in getting him any information they can. He needs details. He needs to know precisely how and when and where.

He stared up at the wreckage of the building.

“Even though she’s a big shot, I’m still her old man…she’s still my little girl. And if she was hurt bad…or if she was trapped and hoping somebody would find her…She mighta needed me. She mighta called out for me and…”

He stopped abruptly, his breath coming in short, angry and anguished gasps. I asked him if he’d like the flier back, since I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything with it. He thought that would be good since the color copies were expensive. Getting a tough edge back.

“Anyway…I gotta be continuing on now, ya know? It’s busier down here tonight with the three month anniversary and all. Maybe I can find someone.”

He turned and moved down the street, the harsh glow of the construction lights creating a halo around him…a tiny, shining silhouette against the hulking wreckage of the Towers.

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