March 2, 2014

Why was Bikeman written this way?

The question arises often, why was Bikeman written in this way? 
“Why write it in verse?” I am asked.  “It sounds like poetry to me,” I’ve been asked,  “is that even done any more?”
Well, we’ll start with the question: is it poetry?  The short answer is, yes.  It is in verse. It was in fact written originally as a narrative poem and adapted as a play.
The longer answer starts on the morning of 9/11, 2001. The play (and the original book) tells the story of what happened to me during and just after the collapse of the towers.  But not what followed.
After my escape and my walk with the other survivors out of that hell, I rode my bicycle back to the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street where I worked.  I appeared on the set with Dan Rather recounting the fall of the south tower. It was the first eyewitness account on television.
I then went up to my office. First I washed up a bit (I was still coated in ash and dust).  The next thing, I called home and left a message that I was okay and called my daughter who was at college then. 
Then I wrote up the events of the morning.  If you are at all like me, then you probably forget the details as time passes.  I wanted to get it all down on paper (or in the computer) before I forgot any of it.  What the military calls a data dump.  Nothing fancy, just one recollection after another.
I set aside those pages for some time.  In 2005, I pulled them back out.  I had recently left CBS and now had time to read and write.  I was actually re-reading Dante’s Inferno which I had read in high school.  I remembered it fondly but didn’t remember it well.  So I pulled out my high school copy and began it once again. At that time, I also pulled out those pages of details from the morning of September 11th, having not looked at them for more than three years.  I reviewed the notes and thought about writing the story.  I don’t think I asked myself what form it would take.  That happened because of the unplanned and co-incidental timing of the re-reading of  The Inferno.  Every morning I rode my bicycle for about ten miles. For exercise.  What happened during those morning rides was the two stories began to merge.  I began to tell the story of 9/11 in Dante’s voice…or more accurately, I began to hear the story of 9/11 in Dante’s voice as I rode. After getting home each day, I went directly to the computer and wrote out the lines I had written in my head.  It was in poetry and uses many of the poet’s devises: Metaphor, allusion, rhythm, alliteration and many more that I couldn’t even tell you the names of.  But it was the right way for me to tell what happened.  Take for example the collapse of the south tower and what it looked like. It was a huge cloud of black dust moving quickly from the collapsing structure and headed down and out towards me.  But how to best describe it so that the readers (and now those in the audience) could see it better in their minds.  I have Dante to thank.  He wrote in the first person/present tense.  So do I.  What that does is draw the readers/audience into the story completely.  It becomes their story. And then I used the poetic devices to help give a more vivid description:

It is a boiling brimstone avalanche cascading from the tower, billowing up toward me, a blaspheming wave, a tumbling wall of darkness. It looks as if thousands of horses and millions of soldiers are stampeding across a desert, threatening clouds rise at their hooves and heels, pushing the frightened air ahead.

It took two years to complete the poem.  It is a demanding style.  First writing an initial draft and then re-writing and re-writing and re-writing and on and on.  You get one line right and the next is a stinker.  You get one canto right and the next is terrible. Every word, every bit of pace demands attention. But in the end, it is a most satisfying result.  I am asked if I ever regretted writing Bikeman this way.
The simple answer is: No.  That’s the longer answer too: No regrets at all.

February 6, 2014

Bikeman-A 9/11 Play opens

Bikeman is now an off-Broadway play! It is directed by Michael Bush, featuring Robert Cuccioli. And it is now a part of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. The theater is the Tribeca Performing Arts Center at 199 Chambers St., just a few blocks from the Memorial site.
In a recent interview, I was asked about why do a play about 9/11 now in New York City.  Part of the reason, I think, is New Yorkers weren't ready until now. Here is part of that interview:

Why now? 
Why now is a very important question. I think it goes to the heart of New Yorkers’ reaction — to this day — towards the events of 9/11. I see it in the audience. For a long time, what is it more than 12 years now, I have found New Yorkers to be reluctant, even fearful of re-visiting that day. It is a wound still. But I see them beginning to approach 9/11 more now than they have since that morning. As they watch the play, I see them begin to open up to it emotionally. By the end, they are living it. The emotions they show come from inside them. It is their story now. One they have re-lived, and they seem finally, after all these years, ready to embrace.
What do you hope people take away from Bikeman: a 9/11 Play
Just that. It is a report, an accurate account of the morning. But so much more. It is an opportunity for each person who sees the play to have the experience of 9/11. 
- See more at:

September 15, 2009

The London performance

I am back from London and over jet lag. The Westminster Theater Company did two shows of the play based on Bikeman, on September 10th, 2009 and September 11th. The moving force was Chris Barton who devised the play using the poem as a script. Chris calls it: 9-11 A Survivor's Tale. And it was moving.

Both nights were sold out in the theater near Westminster Abby. Chris gave spell-binding performances that had the audiences in tears. To me, the parts that I still struggle with when reading them had me struggling in the theater too. But it had the same effect on those around me too.

Where will it go next? That is a good question. Chris would like to bring it to New York at some point. I would like that too of course. It strikes me as interesting that there hasn't been a play about the events of 9-11 in New York, or if there has been one, I am not aware of it.

This play was wonderfully received on tour this summer in South Africa and I can report that it was very wonderfully received in London as well. Why not here in New York?

Is the wound of that day still too raw? Is it a subject that New Yorkers, who are all survivors in effect, still do not want to live through again? Perhaps.

But there will come a time when this play, as emotionally wrenching as it is, will be something that everyone will be able to see. Beyond that, I believe it is a story that all should see.

Time will tell.

You can see a few clips of the play and Chris' wonderful performance on You Tube. The site also includes an interview with me, part of a CBS News production.

(You may need to cut and paste the address)

September 9, 2009


I am off to London today for something special. Chris Barton, a British actor and director has taken Bikeman and made it into a play 9-11 A Survivor's Tale. He plays the role of Tom Flynn. Watching someone play you is going to be interesting. It opens tonight in London at Millicent Fawcett Hall at 29 Tufton St. It will be the first time I will see the play but not the first performance. Chris and Dee Shulman, who directs the play, took it to South Africa this summer. It won wonderful reviews.

One newspaper there opened its review this way: "If I only had the space to write a one-word review of this production, that one word would be 'Wow.'" Nice.
You can click on this for the full review:

There will be two performances this time, a special memorial to 9-11. Tonight, Sept. 10th and tomorrow night, Sept. 11th at 7:15 PM. Chris is hoping to bring it to a full production in the future. In addition to the audience at these performances, CBS News London Bureau is planning to shoot the show for a piece to air this coming weekend on either Saturday's Evening News or Sunday's.

I'll be back Sunday and will update my thoughts on the performance then. Stay tuned.

April 28, 2009


How long ago was 9-11? About 30 seconds ago. Or so it seemed yesterday morning when it all came rushing back for me and thousands of others in New York. I was on my bike riding towards lower Manhattan in the morning. It was cool next to the river where the bike path runs but it would become warm later. As I approached Stuyvesant High School, which is just north of where the World Trade Towers once stood, there came a roar...the unmistakable gunning roar of a low flying jet plane. The sound came first then the vision that I and others had never hoped to see again. The low flying plane revealed from behind the lower New York skyscrapers and nosed out over the Hudson River. Along with it, like a mosquito buzzing the large bird, was a fighter jet with it's different sounding but equally threatening roar. Something again was wrong. My insides knew it before my mind did. I got off my bike and walked the few short paces to the river's edge, watching the planes as they circled over Jersey City, across the river, and headed south. What was going on? Was it another attack? This explanation was not only the most fearful but also the most logical. No one would allow a plane this big to fly low over the city so wounded that it shook again in fear with its arrival. And to add credibility, here was a fighter jet hawking the plane, protecting us. Was it going to shoot down this invader before it could attack us again? Was the fighter pilot in radio contact with those in the big jet, warning it away from the city? Was the fighter jet armed and just waiting to get over a less populated place to shoot to kill it? All of this went through my mind as I watched in horror as the plane circled around again over the south bay, over the Statue of Liberty and come at us a second time. Was this the moment it would crash into us again? No. The plane circled as it had the first time over Ground Zero, over the buildings on the west side of lower Manhattan, and again over the river. The nose was a light blue, I noted, the rest of it's body silvery. It had the knobby front end of a 747. It could be a passenger plane but I did not recognize its colors as a familiar airline company. Perhaps it was a cargo plane or some exotic foreign flight. It still made no sense to be doing these circles over us. I headed south, toward Ground Zero where I found thousands of workers outside looking up, many on cell phones. No one knew what was happening. Many were frightened. Some were in tears. Again the plane came, a third time, same route, headed toward us from almost the exact same direction as the second plane that attacked on 9-11, swooping from the south. That day it hit the south tower. Where was this one headed today? At one of the new towers now sprouted here? Thousands of us watched and wondered the same thing. It came in, low and without care. I saw the one fighter jet but reports say there were two, which, if I had known that, would have convinced me this was an attack. On 9-11, two jets were scrambled from Oits Airfield on Cape Cod to shoot down those attackers, alas, too late. Then I looked up and saw, just to our north, a military drone, an unmanned plane used for surveillance or stealth attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clearly, the military was on alert but why was this plane still airborne? Why not shoot it down over the water, where it had passed several times? Again it passed low and loud over us. People were scared out of their minds. One man I spoke to said he worked on a high floor in the NYMEX building near the river and said it looked to him, from that perch, like Air Force One, the presidential plane. he immediately fled the building as had most of the others who worked there and in the other financial buildings all around. Again, the jets swooped across the river, turning low over Jersey City, where people were just as frightened, and headed south. They did not return again. Did the fighter jets finally shoot it down? I did not hear that kind of explosion. Did they force it to land at an airport? Finally, several minutes passed and police cars, lights flashing, started to roll through the riverside parks and the streets of Ground Zero. The police were announcing something through loud speakers but it was hard to hear at first. Finally, a consensus grew that the words were, "Go back to your buildings, that was a military flight." Or something like that. Confirmation that it was a U.S.-sponsored action came and the questions followed. Why? Why would they do that? No one has given a satisfactory answer to that question yet. All the healing for many here over the past eight years may have been shot down by this flyover. We walk today a bit more afraid.

November 9, 2008

After Election Day

A thought for Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama.

Note that is in alphabetical order, the way my second grade teacher, Miss Shaw, had us. I was next to Terry Field who died in a car crash with all his family that year, the first time I had known someone who died. I have often thought what would have become of Terry. He was a good kid who had the best handwriting in the class.

Later that same year, my grandfather died. I began to understand that life brought death and with it sadness. And in those days after the deaths and loss, it was a comfort to have family and friends close. So it must be for Mr. McCain and for those who wanted to see him president.

So this thought for both Mr. McCain and and for Mr. Obama as well as for all who voted for each of them, rooted for either of them, as we move ahead.
It comes from Bikeman Canto 37, A Soft Peace:

We are one now,
we must look out for each other,
care for each other. We are one now,
fellow citizens in a city
crushed by anguish and agony.
We are one now, kin in the chaos
as we silently scuff along.

October 8, 2008


I have been invited to be a guest speaker at the New York State English Teachers conference to be held on Thursday October 23 in Albany, New York. I look forward to this for many reasons.

The first is: I adore English teachers. At every opportunity, I tell those who gather that Bikeman would never have been written without my having taken Francis X. Nash's English class. We called him FN or simply, Frank. More on Frank in a bit.

The second is: I grew up in Albany, New York. It is an interesting side note that Frank taught me and my schoolmates at the Albany Academy, not far from the Desmond Hotel where this conference is to be held. And I do plan to go over to the school at some point.

And perhaps the most important is this: I will get to talk to the very people who will take Bikeman to one important audience I have long hoped to reach--the young reader. The high school student.

It is no coincidence that we hoped Jim Dale would read the audio book of Bikeman. He read all the parts of all the Harry Potter audio books. The young people know his voice and it was very much part of the plan to get this book to those readers. Jim did, of course, read Bikeman and it is special, I can tell you.

I received a note from an old friend of mine who is a an English teacher. In fact, Dennis Paoli teaches creative writing at Hunter College in New York. He too agrees that this is a book for high school students. I shall read his note at the conference, but here is what he wrote:

"Your book would be good for high schoolers, too, because, though it's grueling at times, it's written lucidly about a watershed historical event in their lifetimes. And it can be taught academically at any level--one can follow the separate skeins of imagery--the references to classical epics, especially the Dante, but also the domestic, almost rural Americana imagery of rag dolls and straw and boxcars and blackberry patches and animals that reaches out from the urban/New York audience to make it a national poem. And it has classic epic structure--the seeking out of adventure, the descent into darkness, and the revival at the river."

If I may, Dennis notes, " their lifetimes..." This story is their story. If they are over the age of 10, they lived it in some way, most likely through television. So it's not some ancient tale that takes place in some foreign land with odd character names. This is a relatable story that will take them to a place they know in a language they use, but different, a hightened language. They will learn through this accessible story. Perhaps some one of them, or some few of them, will go on to be writers or English teachers (or both, as Dennis is).

Back to Frank. I give him credit (I sometimes joke that I blame him) for becoming a writer. He had us read Moby Dick which you will note, I am sure, in Bikeman. More than that, I learned about an American epic poem in his class. He had us read John Brown's Body, by Stephen Vincent Benet, written about a hundred years ago.

And here is the real oddity. Many consider that the last epic poem published by an American before Bikeman. We both went to that same school in Albany New York: The Albany Academy.

I would like to have met his English teacher too.