As I write this, I am sitting in a Manhattan cafe, sipping a cup of hot chocolate, listening to a Seal song piped in over the speakers. Everything is so normal and average, as if it were just another day in the life of New York City.
Obviously, it isn’t.
Seven years ago today, I was driving through the streets of Manhattan when I looked out my window and saw a hole in the side of the World Trade Center. At first, the four of us in the car all thought a small plane had crashed into the tower. In hindsight, that sounds ludicrous. But, in a sense, we didn’t know what the early stages of the nation’s greatest tragedy would look like. To me, tragedy as an image was RFK on the floor of a kitchen; a gun to the head of that Vietnamese man; the space shuttle exploding.
Now, seven years later, I know what tragedy looks like. Sadly.
As a New Yorker, 9.11 touched me in many ways. Like nearly all of the city’s denizens, my wife and I volunteered in the days and weeks that followed. As a social worker, she tried helping people cope. As a skill-deprived writer, I served food to the Ground Zero employees. Little stuff that made us feel useful at a useless time. That was one of the sad ironies of 9.11’s aftermathâ€”everyone wanted to be of service, and yet, in the end, there was so little we could do. People were dead, and nobody could bring them back to life.
Through the horror of those days and weeksâ€”the smell of rubble coming through our windows; the nightmares; the vigils in Union Square Park; the longing for reason in a reason-void timeâ€”one thing stands out. Sports Illustrated wanted to put out an issue the following week that focused on the tragedy, and how it impacted athletes. I was initially appalled by the idea, butâ€”upon further contemplationâ€”decided it was righteous in intent. Hence, I began Googling the names of victims and came across Tyler Ugolyn, a 23-year-old employee of Fred Alger Management, Inc. who worked on the 93rd floor of Tower One. Tyler, pictured above (ignore the ME text) had played college basketball at Columbia for two seasonsâ€”one of those excellent high school ballers who loved the game and wanted to continue on at a higher level.
I still remember calling Tyler’s father, Victor, and telling him what I was trying to do. It was an extraordinarily awkward call to make, and Victorâ€”understandablyâ€”said he’d rather not talk. “Of course,” I said. “I understand.” A few moments later, my home phone rang, and Victor said, “Is this Sports Illustrated?”
“No,” I replied. “But I write for the magazine.”
“Oh, right,” he said. “Well, what if I just tell you a little about Tyler. I don’t know if I want you to use anything, but can we just talk?”
For the ensuing hour or so, Victor told me all about his wonderful oldest son, alternating between tears and laughter. I was 29-years old at the time, unfamiliar with the meaning and ramifications of true, profound, unbearable grief. I had endured the losses of three grandparents, all of whom passed in their mid-to-late 80s. Those were tough losses, but not tragedies, per se.
Victor ended up allowing me to write the story, which is here. I’m not sure it’s, technically, the best thing I’ve ever written, but it isâ€”hands downâ€”the most meaningful. I am happy to say that Victor and I remain good friends. He is a man I have come to admire and love for his steadfast desire to turn a tragedy into something powerful and useful. His pain remains as palpable as it was that day seven years ago, and I wishâ€”1,000 times overâ€”that I could take it away for him. This is something he and his wonderful family live with every day, and it never goes away; never leaves. It hangs over Victor like the worst imaginable nightmareâ€”only it’s not a dream.
Technically, I never knew Tyler Ugolyn. But when people ask whether I lost any friends on 9.11, I say, “Yes, I did.”
A good one.