I loved hanging out in Sephora on the World Trade Center concourse. I could have stayed there all day long.
On the afternoon of the Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary “Victory” concert, I debated whether to walk over to the WTC, where a large Sephora shop was located, to mess up my face and splash on the latest Italian fragrances. That would damn sure get me ready for Jacko or, if he was not personally to see and admire me, at least my friends who were picking me up at six. Just three blocks from my office, Sephora offered a fun and free way to cheer oneself up mid-day, with groovy music and smiling shopgirls garbed in black smocks. They handled jars of cellular eye cream like religious artifacts, but so did we, their customers. The samples were abundant — one day when I’d been sneezing furiously, I walked over and redid my entire face from start to finish, beginning with glycolic acid cleanser and finishing up with $24 lip glaze in a high-tech pump. The sales staff were lovely, hired both for their spot-on knowledge of the difference between various dermatologically-formulated products and their exotic good looks. The music was only slightly less hip than what was played a few kilometers away in the Soho Sephora, but it was sure good enough for the Financial District. I wouldn’t mind hearing it right now. The $24 lip glaze was luscious, but on my way back to the office, I would usually stop at the crowded Duane Reade drugstore near the Vesey Street exit, where they sold the finest lip gloss in the world for just a buck. The soft-spoken cashiers who had immigrated from Bombay and Bihar quietly passed packages of cigarettes across the counter to impatient shoppers stocking up on Maalox and Pepperidge Farm cookies for the long afternoons back at their desks upstairs in the towers. “Matches. Can I have some matches with that?” the customers yelled. The cashiers remained unrattled. Right now I wouldn’t mind if they accidentally overcharged me for my Skittles.
Sometimes my brother would accompany me to Sephora and the other shops. “Hey, don’t lose track of time. I’ve got appointments, let’s go,” he used to say, while sniffing men’s fragrances or splashing powerful exfoliants onto his face by mistake. So we went. Up the escalator and a few feet down Church Street to the World Trade Center’s newest street-level attraction: the Krispy Kreme place. Standing and looking through the glass storefront, my big, dieting brother pointed out to me how the donuts came down the conveyor belt to undergo a coating of white sugar syrup. Methodical. Relentless. A calm woman in a hairnet and gloves gingerly lifted them off the belt and took them to the counter staff. My brother looked like a kid with his nose pressed up against the glass. We laughed and laughed, but finally we just had to go in and sit down, have a cup of coffee and a donut amidst all the turistas poring over their maps of downtown. Maybe they were coming from the TKTS booth on the roof of Tower 2, disappointed that they couldn’t see “The Producers” that same evening. Tourists! Didn’t everybody know they couldn’t see “The Producers” for months on end? Nathan Lane — sheesh. “Don’t they know anything?” I complained often that Krispy Kreme donuts were just gobs of fried fat and tasted like it too. I’d relish one now, though.
Although it was impressive and well-stocked, I used to get angry inside the expansive Borders bookstore under 5 World Trade Center, on the corner of Church and Vesey Streets. Its merchandise took up three spacious floors. An author I admire, the Irish writer William Trevor, was shelved high over my head with the T’s in fiction. “What the hell?” I would mutter. “Do I have to use a ladder every time I want a book?” I considered not shopping for books there again; I am congenitally lazy. But it was convenient and glossy, and they had everything. I wish I had to use a ladder to reach William Trevor’s novels right now; I wouldn’t squawk. It was only with an insider’s knowledge that one would use Borders’ restrooms on its second floor instead of the public ones scattered throughout the World Trade Center concourse. Right now I wouldn’t mind washing up with the masses, though.
If we were there in the afternoon, we were able to catch the free concerts at Austin J. Tobin Plaza, right in the middle of those sunlit buildings. Struggling salsa artists, country, world musicians, jazz bands on Tuesdays, all summer long. Walking through the revelers, I felt the streetbeat I remembered from my city youth; I just had to move. Right now I wouldn’t mind the fact that Mark Anthony is not on the bill; I’d stay till the end of the show and dance with anyone who asked me.
It was not until the evening of Wednesday, the day after the attack, that I even remembered that my father had worked inside the World Trade Center during the ’80s. There was a wonderful model of a container ship, painstakingly crafted and built to scale, right on his shiny desk, the S.S. Pelkinson, of Panamanian registry. The sun beat down from the skies over New Jersey, flooding his office with late-afternoon light. Barges steamed along the Hudson. Life was good. Windows on the World was a showy restaurant but perfect for the 80’s and we dined there many times before it became more of a tourist imperative — Michael LoMonaco, the restaurant’s owner, stopped into an optical shop on the concourse to get his glasses fixed before taking the elevator to work that morning — that’s why he survived. They served cocoanut shrimp with Indonesian dipping sauce in those days; it probably hasn’t been on the menu in years. Wish I could find out tonight what is, though. Right now I wouldn’t mind being surrounded by hordes of awe-struck out-of-towners clamoring for window tables. The view was great from the bar too; I wouldn’t begrudge those tourists their tables. I’d bless them for coming to the greatest city in the world, craning their necks to ogle through the spotless glass at their last view of the New York City skyline.
And now Michael Jackson is gone too. For more than two years. All gone. It is ten years since the two planes brought war to my hometown. The city that felt itself invulnerable, as did its residents. It was a ‘new kind of war,’ they said. Undeclared, with an inchoate, nameless enemy you could not get into your sights. Water poured down the streets for weeks. The Army and National Guard set up command posts down the block from Broadway, across from my office.
After the first week, trucks headed for a landfill in the borough of Staten Island to cart away and bury the rubbish. If you stood on the corner of Church and Murray Streets, you saw them regularly, heading for the Lincoln Tunnel, throwing off so much dust that men stood on corners all day long hosing down the streets and sidewalks. That’s why you could not wear good shoes to the office. Everything around was wet, puddles oozing out of the sewer drains as though there had been a tremendous storm. And the dust – with its unspeakable particulate matter — made us stare with eyes already swollen from shock and weeping. Unmarked white trucks rode north on Church Street, as it turned into the tunnel, one after the other, carrying away the wreckage of what only a few days earlier had been a thriving neighborhood with its own zip code, full of the living. Now the dead were disguised in their catafalques. The Department of Transportation must have had a great many of these trucks, we thought, because they never seemed to stop. One by one the trucks rumbled past. And not speedily either. There were always more, just about every twenty minutes … they just kept rolling, to turn west into the landfill, to dispose of the indisposable, the inviolable, the precious remains. Nothing in my life has ever affected me like the sight of those dumptruck cum hearses driving up Church Street, passing the stony men wrapped in rubber suits who lowered their heads as they sprayed the streets clean until the next one approached.
Right now I wouldn’t mind not being reminded of those relentless days.