September 17, 2008

So what happened to the Bike in Bikeman?

Over the past week, I've done a number of interviews and many of the interviewers have a question...they say, "I have to ask you, what happened to the bike?"

In fact, Larry McShane, who did a terrific feature in the New York Daily News on September 7th, asked that first, before anything else. Ron Kuby, during the interview I did on 9-11 on his lively Air America broadcast, also wondered what happened to that bike. Many folks at the readings I've done also ask about it.

For those of you who may not know, the bike in Bikeman is a central icon. It was also the thing that I would not let go of even as the South Tower collapsed on us. The medics I was with called me "Bikeman" because of the bike, of course. None of them knew my name. And I believe to this day that holding onto the bike did get me out alive. I can't explain why. But it is what I believed when I was nearly trapped on 9-11 and I believe it still to this day.

The bike was a green Trek that I had bought at a Metro bicycle shop on 6th Avenue not far from my home. I used it to ride to work at CBS on 57th Street when I was in town. It is the best way to get around in this city. Bicycling is cheaper than any other form of transit, far more healthful and it is a pleasure especially when compared to being stuck in a traffic jam in a taxi or bus or worse, stuck in a sweltering subway station.

I'm guessing but I'd bet that bike was maybe two or three years old at the time I rode to the World Trade Towers on 9-11. It was a good bike, sturdy and reliable. Nothing fancy and it wasn't hugely expensive.

After getting out alive, I rode to the broadcast center on the bike which more or less confirmed what I had believed. The thing would get me out. Everyone who was near the towers when they collapsed was covered with ash and dust. So was everything. That included my bike. I parked it in the CBS garage across from the studios and headed in to work where I appeared on air with Dan Rather to describe my eyewitness account of the morning. (You can view that on this website.)

It wasn't until after leaving the studios some 12 hours later and retrieving the bike that I noticed how much dust covered it. Infused it, really. The gears looked like a small furry animal so covered were they. The chain looked like clothesline. Every working part was ash-packed. But it still worked. I rode home in the dark (it was midnight or so) and pedaled through a nearly deserted city. It was eerily quiet. That's another thing about riding a bike. It produces no noise. So if you are on a peaceful country ride or in a deserted city, you will hear the quiet.

It took some time to get through the military checkpoints set up on 14th Street but I finally got home. I locked the bike up for the night and headed for a shower and bed. The next morning I worked to clean up the worst of the ash and dust and rode back to work. That bike served me well through the winter and into the spring of 2002. It never broke down, never gave me any trouble.

What happened? I was near my home and needed to grab something at a local deli. I locked the bike at a parking meter and went in to the deli. After I paid, I came out of the store and headed to the spot where I had left the bike.

It was gone. All that was left was the clipped lock scattered at the base of the parking meter. I looked around but it was gone.

I am sorry about that. I did need a new bike. That one did have lasting damage from 9-11. But I liked it and it did work well enough. David Mehegen, who wrote a special piece on Bikeman in the September 8th Boston Globe, asked if it wasn't a bit sad that I didn't have the bike any more. I hadn't thought about it until David asked in that way.

The answer is: I do wish I still had it, though not to ride any more. I feel about that bike the same way I feel about the dogs who have been a part of my life and are gone. They were friends I could count on. They were good companions and true. And I cared for them. I wish they were all still here.

September 15, 2008


The Rev. William Tully, rector of St. Bart's Church on Park Avenue, holds a noon service each year on the anniversary of 9-11. This year it was on Thursday. At this past Sunday's Rector's Forum, at which I was Bill's guest, he told the congregation that he struggles with the question of what to do each year, how much to make of the anniversary or how to begin to minimize the remembrance. He wonders if his congregants, including the firefighters of the nearby 8th Batallion, are ready to move on, taking less and less note of the day.

"This year," he told us Sunday, "we had the largest turn out ever."

What does that tell you?

I think that rather than getting past the remembrance (a painful remembrance at that), Americans are just beginning to open up to the events of 9-11. I have thought for some time now that the feelings inside us have been locked away. Somehow we have moved too quickly past the morning of 9-11 into a 9-12 world. Individually, we've gotten back to work, back to raising the family, gotten back to life. As a nation, we zoomed into a new geo-political world and took on the added burden of changing our way of life for new security.

What we really did though, was avoid the effect that 9-11 had on us. I see it coming out now. I hear it from those who read "Bikeman" and who want to talk about the feelings they have, many expressing those feelings for the first time.

I think that's what The Rev. Tully was seeing when his church was filling up more than ever for his service on the anniversary of 9-11. I suspect it will continue to grow for some years to come.

September 10, 2008

A Sky of Memories

The other morning dawned with a blue sky the color of that September morning seven years ago. It is a soft blue born of a humidless sky that is left from a great storm. It is like a corn flower blue or a robin's egg blue but not that soft. It brought back the memories and more.

The other evening I met many people at the English Speaking Union where Jim Dale read excerpts from Bikeman. He is a powerful reader which you can hear on the audio book. Afterwards, I spoke to many people most of whom talked about that day from a personal perspective. One woman worked at the Seaman's Institute not far from the site of the attack. She said she too recalls that it was "Less than night and less than day" as I recounted from my journey just a few blocks away after the tower fell.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a woman in Chatham, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Her brother was one of those killed in the attack. "We never found any of him to bury," she told me, "not even a finger nail."

But she recalled the goodness from the horrible days that followed. He had left behind a wife and family. What the pain must have been for them. In Bikeman, I speak of "Goodness that flourishes too." The sister whom I spoke to said that to this day, the goodness from then was greater than the pain. It came from neighbors and from the country at large. Some women in Georgia made a quilt for the surviving family and delivered it to them. How wonderful a memory is that. How great a gift.

So many people tell me stories that I want to stitch them all together for you to read.
There was the staff photographer for the Boston Globe who, in his Boston home, heard his wife scream while watching television on that morning. The first plane had just hit. This journalist's thought, like mine and so many others, was, "I have to get there to tell the story." But first, he thought, "I'm going to take a shower. I might not have another chance for a while." He drove to New York City but it was closed. It took him another day before he worked his way to ground zero which is remarkable.. The city was an armed camp those early days and no one could get in. He did. And the Globe's readers were able to see the devastation because of his and other's efforts.

After the event at the English Speaking Union the other night, my wife and I came home to our apartment in Greenwich Village. That morning which had started with the same blue sky of September 11th, now closed with the lights. For the first time this year, twin shafts of lights rose into the dark sky from Ground Zero where the towers once stood. The sky is filled with memories for me.