By Matt Benedetti
As the autumn leaves briskly fell on the brick courtyard in the early evening, I waited and sipped my can of Miller Lite. Not the best beer granted, but it was cold and that forgives a lot of sins.
As if on cue, the screen door gently opened and closed in the measured increments of screen doors everywhere.
I turned to see my new friend, sporting a goatee, descend the steps in the deliberate manner of someone closer to 60 than the approximate 35 I had estimated. Wearing a dark blue hooded sweatshirt, he extended his hand and readily accepts my cold offering from the depths of the cooler. I forget his name but then remember that such details are unimportant.
Most of the backyards in Morris Park feature a canopy of vegetation grown over many years in a likely nod to old-world traditions. Unlike transient Manhattan, residents of this Bronx borough are generational, claim deep roots and some actually speak Italian.
I am an outlier.
Although a dialect of the English language, my Boston accent might as well be Afrikaans to the auditory sensibilities of the denizens in this insular neighborhood.
A cool breeze prompts me to zip my sweatshirt as I sit on the second stair.
My friend cracks the can and takes a healthy gulp. He seamlessly lights the Marlboro Red in a practiced fashion. I never smoked but admit it seems gratifying to those who do.
“I quit last year,” he quips from under his hood. “that and vawdka.”
I smile and nod in a gesture of understanding.
“No muttah how many times I shower..I can’t get the bleepin’ dust off me,” he says.
“We looked all day for somebody….the dawg was going crazy so we just kept digging,” he continued. Taking another sip, he placed the empty at the edge of the stair.
After lighting another smoke, he sat two stairs behind me.
“I can’t imagine,” I offered.
Candlelit vigils adorned the neighborhood. Flags seemed to mark every brick bungalow and vehicle. Missing posters, typically associated with wandering pets, are affixed to most telephone poles featuring the firefighters, police officers and smiling civilians that have yet to return from work. Through these missives, forlorn families appeal to all in vain hope of locating their Dad, Mom, son, daughter, brother, sister, wife or husband.
It is September 18, 2001, and I am listening to my upstairs neighbor, who I had not spoken to until this week, share his experiences as a US Marshal during recovery efforts at Ground Zero in the rubble of the World Trade Center.
We opened two more in what had organically developed into a nightly ritual.
I met him late on 12th as we were both coming in. He explained that he wasn’t able to speak with his wife about anything and his 10-year-old daughter had so many questions he simply could not answer.
So we talked for an hour.
Actually, I listened as he attempted to describe and process the horrific scene that had suddenly become his place of work.
As Mayor Guiliani echoed the sentiments of stunned Americans on every radio or TV, we both tried to make sense of the incomprehensible. My friend explained the process of finding body parts and the diligent efforts to match the parts to ensure a proper burial by first responders. He described the smell, heat and dust. The dust that settled in his ears, nose and throat.
I never saw my friend again.
A few months later, I found myself standing on a drill pad at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma surrounded by strangers with Southern accents, bracing against the prairie wind. My military career had begun signaling a turning point and departure from all that I knew.