Giving Voice to the Unspeakable

Of all the horrific moments and indelible images, what stood out most to me were the words of the man from Acme Exterminating

By Ciro Scotti

The warm sunlight on 57th Street in the indestructible city of New York was starting to sear on the morning of Sept. 11 as the man in the damp white shirt waited. A string of Fire Dept. vehicles screamed by toward the West Side. A minute later, four or five patrol cars with "Sheriff" emblazoned on their side wailed toward the East.

On the sidewalk, four young workmen with sleeveless shirts, close-cropped hair, and tough-guy tattoos talked animatedly on their cell phones. "I told her to get the hell out and get home," said one to the other.

People rushed to the subway a few steps away, only to trudge back up the stairs moments later. "They're shut down," one New Yorker would tell the next.

The man in the white shirt continued to scan the scene as the passersby seemed increasingly panicky. Across the street, a grim-faced woman and a little girl -- the littlest girl on all of 57th Street appeared -- finally. They dodged their way across the hot, dirty asphalt before the man could yell: "Hold that goddamn cab."


  The tear-stained eyes of the woman held the man for a minute before he grabbed the child in his arms and threw a bag with her bunny and diapers over his shoulder. "Hurry," he told the woman as she rushed away. He watched her go. She had to go to work.

At Columbus Circle, the man and the little girl joined the river of humanity streaming uptown. It seemed like one of those charity walks that he had never done -- people of all stripes chatting but moving quickly. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of feet passed the little girl's purple sneakers.

Just beyond the entrance to Central Park, a model, a photographer, and his assistant were complaining to each other. Perhaps the light was too strong, for it was a bright and glorious day that will forever be remembered as a dark and evil day. A few benches beyond, a homeless couple was just waking up. The man, still wrapped in a blanket, stared straight ahead. The woman was scratching.

The little girl finally turned and cornered the man in the white shirt. She raised her pale fingers in an upward motion until he finally tossed her onto his shoulders. Then they fell into the pace of the human river.


  When they finally got home, the little girl spent the rest of the day amusing herself with books, musical toys, and an inflatable Pooh bear that had no air. The TV that the man watched intently kept repeating pictures of their city falling to pieces in a nuclear cloud of dust and hatred. He spent his time cursing the phone that wouldn't work, that wouldn't assure him that those he loved were safe.

Hours later on the boulevard near their home, the masses that had streamed uptown, away from the carnage only miles removed, sat in outdoor cafes like it was a Sunday, swilling beer and clucking. The horror would set in, but it was still early.

When the little girl finally slept, the man felt the need for a stiff one. He thought back on the day, and the scene that stood out wasn't the World Trade Center crumbling like a miniature prop in a Grade-Z action movie. It wasn't the sister-in-law who miraculously escaped from the mad bombers. Wasn't the wooden President who couldn't muster more than the boilerplate of tragedy.


  The image that wouldn't leave his head was of a working-class guy in dark blue pants and a dark blue shirt with his name embroidered over the left pocket. He was standing in front of the subway stop on West 57th Street telling a woman headed down the steps that the trains had stopped. That New York and America had been humbled.

"Kill 'em all. Kill all those SOBs," he shouted before he turned and walked away. On the back of his shirt it said: "Acme Exterminating." The waiting man couldn't help but think as he gratefully filled his glass that most of his fellow New Yorkers could be forgiven this one time for thinking exactly the same thing.

Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht