Life Resumes 500 Feet from Ground Zero
Frederick Kaufman, professor of
English and journalism at the College of Staten Island, describes
finding disaster and media fame in his back yard.
It took eight men in white jumpsuits and respirators five
days to clean our apartment. Cost: $8,500. The bill for dry
cleaning came to $16,500.
I live with my wife and two children just 500 feet from Ground
Zero, in the closest residential building currently re-certified
for occupation. I stood on my balcony and watched the buildings
burn. I was on the street when they came down. I was blown
out of my house for the following three months, but nothing
had paralyzed me until that dry cleaning came back. There
was every tie and towel and shirt and sheet and belt and bikini
we owned, each on its own wire hanger, encased in plastic.
I couldn't do anything but look it at all lying in piles on
the beds, the couches, the chairs, the floor. Everywhere but
in the closets.
Introduction to Journalism students at the College of Staten
Island were wonderful: no one mentioned I was wearing the
same outfit day after day. Instead, they wanted to know if
my family needed a place to stay. When class first resumed,
I asked them to vote and they decided to continue the semester
with the original syllabus. We had some reading to catch up
on and an article in arrears, but if they were determined
to focus on academics, I would try. Perhaps they understood
better than I what an optimal moment it would be to study
journalism, to grasp the visceral relevance of our printed
And September 11 did have unforeseen consequences: It threw
our class discussions deep intothe compact essences of headline,
"deck" (journalist's lingo for an explanatory subheadline),
and caption. It propelled our explorations into the glittering
surfaces of leads, the balanced intricacies of transitions,
the compressed elegance of the "nut-graph" (the
paragraph that reveals the essence of a story ). All-too-familiar
old concepts like "image"and "content"
and "objectivity"suddenly demanded our full attention.
We began to revere the transparent agency of active verbs.
galvanized student newspaper sought to articulate what our
lives had become through articles ranging from thoughtful
commentaries about loss to furious polemics about U.S. foreign
policy to a flattering profile of the President of CSI's Muslim
In the meantime I was gaining a new perspective on the art
of the interview¤what it feels like to answer rather than
ask all the questions. Every day, more reporters called. First
it was USA Today (we made the cover), then New York Newsday
(a feature), then the New York Times (front page, below the
fold). The Associated Press placed a shot of the family in
local papers from Florida to Oregon. We said yes to German
Public Radio, yes to the Amsterdam News, MSNBC, CBS, C-SPAN,
Craft on the Terrible Day
As soon as the Twin Towers were hit, John Montalvo Jr.'s
photographer's instincts kicked in. He grabbed his Nikon
and began a marathon photo shoot, walking from the Bronx
down to Ground Zero, sometimes deftly skirting checkpoints.
One angry police sergeant caught him and confiscated four
precious rolls. The powerful results have given the Queensborough
Community College major in photography and fine artshe's
also taking some City College photography coursessome
well-deserved exposure: a spread in the Queens Courier
and a show in Jersey City. Seen here are images captured
on Montalvo's 9/11 trek: a policeman with bullhorn near
City Hall, two firemen across the street from Ground Zero,
and a crane already at work at Ground Zero late in the
We said no to Inside Edition, no to CNN,
no to ABC. It got to be too much, but the calls, like the
crowds that surged around our building, kept coming. At one
point I was tempted to agree with Gerson Borrero (editor of
El Diario/La Prensa), who declared at last month's CUNY Media
Conference that he was sick of the whole story. It had made
the front page too many times. It was dead.
I wish it were so. I wish it was yesterday's news, but it
isn't. At our most recent co-op board meeting, six months
to the day after the events the El Diario/La Prensa editor
has grown so tired of hearing about, we were treated to an
hour-and-a-half lecture about the impending threat of low-micron
lead particulates, pulverized glass, vaporized mercury, and
It isn't that the City's Department of Environmental Protection
or the Federal Environmental Protection Agency won't tell
us if pollutants have exceeded standards; it turns out there
are no residential standards for indoor air. So our household
prepares for the next spate of expulsions. Out go all the
couches, all the shades and drapes and window treatments.
Every single upholstered barstool and ottoman must hit the
sidewalk, everything but the floors. Should they go, too?
For those of us who live downtown the story continues. Only
the clothes have been put in the closet.