Thursday, September 08, 2011

Finding Ends (11/19/2001)

Fresh Kills, from the Wellcome Collection on Dirt,
2011 Exhibition, London
If I wasn't wrapped in this Tyvek spacesuit and struggling inside the breathing apparatus I'm sure I would be getting cold. The sun is brilliant but the November wind is rolling off the Jersey highlands and there's nothing at all to block it up here at the top of the pile except the remnants of the fire trucks.
We stand out here literally between sunrise and sunset. In the morning the slight glow out across the open Atlantic finds us dressing. An eternity later the last light fades behind the mountains of northern New Jersey and we wash ourselves off. We fill that stretch of time sifting through the untold tons of rubble and dust that were once the World Trade Center in this oddest of places, the special re-opening of the world's largest garbage dump. One hundred and eighty feet above the tidal marshes that centuries ago gave this place a Dutch name for clean waters, Fresh Kills, we work the crime scene of the worst single-day event in North American history.
I've been here a little more than a month now. Since they looked into my eyes and told me Ground Zero wasn't for me anymore. That was true. Twenty-three straight days in the smoking rubble and home only three times, but that wasn't rare. Most of us who could, stayed. What else would we do?
The search here is unlike the search there. There we could, at least in that first week, hold onto the vague thought that this was a rescue mission. Here, where nine thousand tons of, well everything, arrive daily, those illusions have never stood. Here where the stink of methane leaking from below mixes with the stench of human death and the salt air of the ocean. Here where we follow the gulls as they dive for the remnants of human life, then chase the birds with fireworks and gunshots so we can have first pick. Here where we keep our separate boxes for ID cards, and jewelry, and clothing, and shoes, and bone, and tissue. Here where crushed emergency vehicles mix with shattered office furniture, millions of office documents, and, in one day's discovery, a pile of tiny brass Trade Center figurines that probably came from that tourist spot just off PATH Square. Here where we hunt for evidence while desperately trying to give something back to everyone left behind.
This week I've found seven rings and four fingers, a laptop computer, two wallets-one more or less intact, part of a foot, a singed copy of Steppenwolf with a name and email address from written inside, the kind of badge-holder cops and firemen wear around their neck when off duty, six pairs of jeans from The Gap with price tags still attached, the top half of a human femur, someone's tax return, two earrings, a piece of white-painted aluminum I'll guess came from a plane, a phone message slip telling someone to "call home. 8:32 am, 9/11."
This week, as every week, people have come to the gates below us. Mothers, fathers, children, husbands, wives. There is nothing we can do for them here but they come. They come looking for answers we'll never be able to offer. They come hoping to salve unsalveable wounds. Or they come to say "thank you" and to say that they appreciate what we are doing. That is the hardest. It would be easier if they were angry.
I have worked for this department for more than twenty-one years. I have seen way too much. I have lived through way too much. Eight years ago when I worked the case of the first Trade Center bombing I realized my head was beyond full. I retreated into meaningless office work, became a researcher who happened to carry a gun. I started telling people simply, "I work for the city." I moved to the woods of outer Staten Island and pretended I was someone else. Then, on that incredibly clear day in September, drifting up Church Street, coffee in hand and late as usual, I stared up at my favorite buildings and watched a huge airliner plow into the north tower. When I pulled that shield, "Detective-Field Services Specialist, New York City Police Department, 1476" out from inside my shirt and ran across the street my carefully constructed dream world vanished. For 69 days I have been a cop again, in all the best ways, and, of course, all the worst.
It is important to know when to stop. That moment isn't now, but it is coming. I will keep driving here every day, and pulling on all this gear, and walking up to this, the world's tallest tomb since the great pyramids, and sifting the dust with gloved fingers, until we are all sure there is nothing left to find. When that is done, I will be too. I will take off the spacesuit. I will take off the badge. I will throw the gun into the harbor. I will go away to the smallest, calmest place where I can buy good coffee and sit in a good library and stare into open waters. And I will look again for peace.
(copyright 2003 by Ira David Socol)

Monday, July 25, 2011


On those hot nights when there just was nothing to do but be away from everyone and everything I'd walk in a slow drift down to the park at the water. There were no lights at all except for one in the parking lot just off the road and the glow of the 7-up machine by the padlocked restrooms and thick lines of trees blocked any infiltration from the lamps of the beach clubs that lay east and west. So in pure darkness I'd cross the enormous lawn, flowing down the hill, to the rock shore and strip off my clothes and being relatively careful of position as far as underwater rocks were concerned, would dive into the cold silence of Long Island Sound. If I needed dreams I'd swim to the abandoned fort and climb out and walk the ancient streets. If I needed hope I'd head for a little island with nothing but trees and warm myself in the glow of the stars. If I needed simply to be gone I'd crawl all the way to the lighthouse at Execution Rocks, cutting across the shipping channel with strokes at an absolutely consistent pace and breaths taken only at the point of absolute necessity. In that eternal salt water my thoughts would cease as I forced my body to fight for survival. And when I finally pulled myself up under the tower, the foghorn deafening, the strobe splitting the sky, I'd remember nothing but the swim itself.

© Ira David Socol 2006

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Electric Avenue

93 degrees. 92% humidity. Radio Car 1352. 2232 hours. 47 Precinct, Sector Eddie, which is not ours. Division 9 radio crackling, "holding 83 in the Four-Seven, anyone available?"

 The Police are on the radio. "Every Breath You Take." MTV is the thing you have cable for right now. Limelight, in that old church downtown, is the hottest club, and Liam and I know a few of the bartenders, so we get in. Imus in the morning on WNBC - "Hear the new excitement from Rockefeller Center, Sixty-Six, W-N-B-C" - and Howard Stern in the afternoon keep the day shift laughing but now we're flipping through FM, the volume loud, as if it could drown out the dispatcher.

I tell the guy I'm refusing to fight with to get lost. The sweat is pouring down my chest and back under the vest. we have no time for the kind of bullshit this moron and his buddies are trying to pull in the parking lot of the shopping center by Laconia and 2-3-3.

We climb back into the Gran Fury. Air conditioning is cranked to “max” as Chrysler describes it. The cold rushes across our faces, through our wet hair, we both shiver. Liam picks up his radio, but…

A fat beeping tone blasts through the speaker, “Any available in Four-Seven, shots fired, White Plains Road and 2-2-9, multiple calls.” “Seven Adam is going,” Liam responds, “We’re clear from 2-3-3 and Laconia.” “Any disposition?” “Uhhh, unfounded.” “OK Adam, anyone else in the Four-Seven going?” “Seven Sergeant will go Central, but we’re a long way.”

I’m speeding across 2-3-3, lights but no sirens. Never go to shootings with sirens, bad shit happens if they know you’re coming. The real radio begins to play “Electric Avenue,” our precinct’s theme song, and as I squeeze through traffic and spin left under the El a train heads south, sparks lighting up the scene in video game blue. “Down in the street there is violence. And a lots of work to be done. No place to hang out our washing. And I can't blame all on the sun, oh no.”

Between 231st and 229th there is no shooting but plenty of broken glass. Car windows, store windows. Two guys in Rasta hats and dreads lie on the east side sidewalk in a flow of blood, one face up, one face down. There are footprints leading away, someone has already snatched the guns from their hands. “Slow it down at White Plains Road,” I tell the dispatcher, “but we need the boss, and the squad, and the coroner.” And now we hear wailing. In the street an old Chevy sits crashed into an El pillar, windows open. My eyes go to the passenger door, one huge bullet hole ripped into it. Then through the window we both see the top of a kid's car seat.

Liam pushes the button on the radio, tells dispatch we need an ambulance fast. We run to the car, but we already know. 

(copyright 2011 by Ira David Socol)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Deep Green

St. Patrick's Day was a Sunday that year, and we awoke late, our bodies waiting for the overnight rain to disappear before coming to life. But even that was slow, we breathed in the stew of smells, sheets dried outside on the line, the sweat of our bodies, the peat from the fire in the next room, the salt slipping in on the westerly breeze.

"When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other's work would bring us to our senses."

I did not read her poetry, but watched her as she stood naked, silhouetted against the dull blue sky. "You haven't written a thing in three days," she said. Not a question, so I stayed silent.

She turned.

"Today?" "Not today, we need to be outside today. Tomorrow, tomorrow is Monday."

We gathered things to eat from the kitchen - brown bread and black pudding, yoghurt and bangers, cheese and bottles of beer - and walked from the house down the hill. We could hear the Atlantic breathing. We could smell the live wool of the sheep. We felt the winds of the world grazing our faces.

At the shore we lay on a blanket. There was just enough sun to allow us to keep ourselves warm.

(copyright 2011 by Ira David Socol)

In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984 by Seamus Heaney

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March Seventeenth

Eric Ascalon (c)
I said I wasn't putting a uniform on and I wasn't working the parade and while I wanted the day off that wasn't a huge deal because even if I didn't get the day off and, it's not like I'm not sensitive to the staffing reports that he needs to send in to One Police Plaza everyday, I'll pretty much be here when I'm here but that'll be between him and me. The lieutenant said, "Whatever, but what do we have on these guys in New Jersey?" And I ask, "That the Feds haven't leaked to CBS yet?" He groans. I just say, "I'm going in today. I won't go tomorrow. Thursday I'll look at the reports. I'll tell you something Friday." He says, "Friday?" I say, "Yeah," and I turn around, spilling a little of the now cold coffee from my mug onto his carpet, mumble "sorry" and leave. Then I spend the next six hours wandering through the ruins of the Trade Center garage, surprisingly hot under the hard hat though it's cold down there, but we're not finding anything important anymore, that's just the truth.

Wednesday I make token attempts. I wear an old Michigan State sweatshirt because it's green. I get to work by about 8:15 more or less, and since my day technically starts at 7:30, that's not bad, for me. I've taken the slow train in. This might mean I've spent too much time thinking. Yes. It does. I've thought about how tired I am. The last three weeks, Jesus. I've thought about how I've slept probably thirty hours since the attack in February, so, of course I'm tired. I've thought about how that's not true: that's not why I'm tired. I'm tired because I'm going nuts as a single dad and I'm tired because not only haven't I gotten laid in a really long time I can't even imagine that a woman might look at me like that anytime soon if ever again and I'm tired because I came downtown eighteen months ago because they thought I was a burnout or I thought I was a burnout and because I have no idea if I want to be a cop anymore and because I've been that tired and then, bam, some motherfucker tries to knock over the towers and then, bam, because my bosses mistake eccentricities for intelligence, I'm totally a cop again, and I wasn't ready for that. And I've thought, well, we pretty much know what's happened and we've pretty much identified the assholes involved and we're not going to get any credit for this anyway because the FBI is running a 24/7 publicity machine for themselves and besides, at some point the CIA and the DIA are gonna take over, right? Then, if all that's true why can't I just dump this task force and go back to crime trend data analysis or whatever the fuck my job is supposed to be, or better yet, just leave this city behind before… well, before whatever's next.

On the train there are lots of cops, of course. Tons of cops and fireman all in uniform all heading down to be in the parade or to work at the parade. I've done that. Not marched but worked it. I did it as a rookie, all rookies do it even ones assigned to weird deep cover stuff. And last year because they said that kind of crap was more or less the price of the detective's shield, or surely the price of getting quickly bumped from Detective Third Class to Detective Second Class when you're getting that kind of pay raise without capturing Son of Sam or something. So I've worked the parade. It's not bad, I just never liked being in uniform in Manhattan where they expect you to wear hats and have shiny shoes and stuff. If I'd done it today though, I'd meet people, and I don't want to meet people or answer questions about how I am, and so I ride downtown, hidden in a corner, the old college baseball cap pulled down over my eyes, and I make it through the pre-parade crowd un-noticed.

I make it through the day mostly un-noticed. I get in late. I drink coffee. I walk a wide lap around the Trade Center. I sit by the water. I sit in the churchyard at Trinity. I walk another lap. I have three beers and a corned beef sandwich at a bar that ought to be better on the edge of Tribeca. On the way back from the bar a fat guy seems to be having a heart attack in front of a Burger King and I drop into public servant mode and do what I can for him until the ambulance gets there. Stuck to the light pole next to where the fat guy lies on the sidewalk is a hand-lettered poster asking, "Is America Safe?" A block later I meet Ahmad who's a waiter up in Windows on the World. He walked down 106 floors 19 days ago, and he's been out of work, of course, but he seems good. He laughs cause I'm wearing green, "You guys really aren't all Irish."

At home this night I'll have a Guinness or two, but I'm not going to find a babysitter in my neighborhood on St. Patrick's Day night. Tomorrow I will spread this mountain of paperwork all over the conference room and try to see things in ways I have not before. I'll be wearing jeans and a shirt and tie and none of it will be green. Friday I'll tell the lieutenant something, but I doubt that anything I can say will make any difference.

(copyright 2004-2011 by Ira David Socol)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Finding Patrick

The sun has dropped behind the hills to the west and I have stood in the field as the sky has tumbled from a royal to a navy to an ink blue that is almost black and now the moon has risen to straight above, surrounded by an immense ring which fills almost half the heavens.

At my feet the grass turns from dry to damp and the chill settles around me, and, though it has now been more than a year since my last cigarette I pull a fresh pack from my pocket, tear off the plastic, open it, the tobacco adding to the smells of the night, and slip the Camel between my lips.

Then I pause. I do not want to strike the match. I do not want to, even for a moment, add light into this dark. Terrestrial light seems an insult to that moon and the stars which themselves wait on the edges of the ring, Orion impatient on the southwest.

Patrick is not really my saint. Patrick brings the light to Ireland, which surely, is good. But to St. David the lights in the night are harbingers of death - ignis fatuus - and are to be carried with care. So I wait as well, the silence so deep that I hear the blood coursing through the capillaries of my ear drums, a faint yet ancient beat.

(copyright 2011 by Ira David Socol)

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ash Wednesday

photo: Flickr by ionizdat
We stop at Saint Dominic’s off Gun Hill Road right after loading the guy with the heart attack on Edenwald into an ambulance. “Please guys,” we beg the paramedics, “sure he’s dead but if he’s dead here it’ll take us over an hour to get this taken care of, and you can just dump him on the E/R.” We kneel before the priest and take communion and are blessed with the ashes. Then, still deeply hungover from Fat Tuesday alcohol consumption, we run to the “shots fired” call where Edson ends at Strang, and find the kid dead in the tall brown grass of what was supposed to be a park.

The kid is maybe ten, well later we’ll know he wasn’t even, but at that moment, at the point where Colin says, “oh fuck” and I come over and see the thin body with the blood leaking from a temple, we think “ten,” not knowing that he was tall for his age.

A minute later I realize there’s a gun in the grass as well, a silver .22 automatic, and I reach into my pocket and pull out gloves and hand one pair to Colin who takes them without moving his eyes from the boy’s frozen face and I pull them on, silently because I fully believe that noise will rob this place of the desperately needed sanctity and I kneel down and and am about to lift this weapon into my hands when its location and position scream to me and I leap to my feet and start backing away, muttering, “holy fucking shit, no.”

There are no parents. No one knows where any father might be. Mom’s in jail. When we finally ask enough questions we find the place Grandma lives, a basement apartment a block away, and she is dead in her bed. It seems natural, she clearly went in her sleep.

“I guess he couldn’t take it no more,” another third grader tells us. “He was gettin’ picked on a lot at school. The teacher didn’t like him neither.” “Oh,” I say, “did he like his Grandma?” “Loved her,” the kid says, “she dead?” “I guess she must of died in her sleep,” I say without thinking about who I’m talking to. “Then that’s why, he must’a found her and give up.”

“You ok?” I ask him. “Yo, po-leece,” he says, “I’m jus’ fine.”

I look around. The cold winter sky. The low brick rowhouses. The projects towering over there. The abandoned, burnt cars near the edge of the park. I walk back to where the body still rests, touch the ashes on my face, bend down once again, this time making a tiny cross on that cold forehead.

(copyright 2005-2011 by Ira David Socol)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Timing the Night

I have no idea how many steps lead up to this place from Myrtle Avenue and that old Cathedral, but I've been told that the stone column that towers above me is one hundred and forty-eight feet high, the world's tallest Doric column for those into obscure records.
Circling around me, slightly filtered by the haze of July evening humidity, the skyline of New York rises as I struggle to regain my breath. Downtown to my left, accented by the lighted spans and cables of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Midtown to my right, with the Williamsburgh Bridge in the foreground the odd lumpy shape of the 59th Street Bridge way out there. I am anchored here, after running these massive granite stairs a dozen times down and a dozen times up, at this odd spot where the river bends and New York lies directly north of Brooklyn across the East River.
I know my history. I come to this park to rehab the knee that I now feel swelling beneath the huge steel brace, but things that are gone fascinate me. I see dead people in my nightmares but even in the waking day I see long vanished buildings and places. And this park, well, long before it was a tomb for eleven thousand Revolutionary War soldiers and sailors killed in prisons by their British guards, it was a fort that Washington had tried to defend. And a hundred and fifty years before that losing battle I know that in the bay out there, in the bay beyond the fucking Farragut Houses, beyond the ancient brick Navy Yard wall, beyond all the old buildings and pierhouses and cranes where once a whole fleet of ships were launched to win the World War, beyond all that there were marshes thick with fish and oyster reefs and migrating ducks and pushing through a narrow channel a Dutch sailing ship arrived on a barely comprehended continent and dumped hired Flemish immigrants, Walloons they called them, to populate a new outpost in southern New Netherland.
If I work on it, especially in the settling dusk, I can see the woods and the deep green prairie that stretches to the tide line. And if I wait and let consciousness slip, sparks will start to fly from mud chimneys in the tiny cluster that will begin Breuckelen. Somehow, I know it is still out there.
I get up and begin to limp around, and though the Trade Center illuminates the night over there and the off-duty gun presses against my side under the big loose shirt and I am circling a Monument not built until 1908 in a park created in the 1860s I can find the seventeenth century. I watch those first Europeans pushing along the old Lenni Lenapi trade routes and creating tiny villages, Boswyk, Midwout, Nieuw Amersfort, Nieuw Utrecht, and Gravesend. Stumpy square-rigged ships drift through the harbor mixing with giant dugout canoes. The moon rises over an empire of trees.
A gunshot echoes from somewhere in the projects below, followed almost instantly by the wail of sirens, and the late twentieth century pours back. In a single breath settlements turn to villages, villages to towns, towns to America's largest cities, those cities meld into the capital of the world. Wars scorch the earth and demand industrial force. The trees lose their place in the skyline and the water runs gray. And then I am here, a knight of these streets, a victim of these streets, a child of these streets.
I turn and walk south along a winding path most white guys would think dangerous in this now dark place. But behind me eleven thousand martyrs of the Revolution guard my back, and as the sirens fade behind the receding hill, I can start to let myself float in time again, and my street becomes new in the moonlight. As I cross DeKalb Avenue and step onto the wide slate sidewalk I find 1845 and this new suburb up the long grade from Brooklyn. Just before I begin to limp up my stoop I'm sure I hear the rattle of the horse-drawn trolley coming from the ferry.
"Where've you been?" Katie asks, looking at me with the expected mix of concern and anger, "I've been worrying." "Sorry," I say, "I guess I got a little lost."

copyright 2005-2011 by Ira David Socol

Friday, February 11, 2011


For reasons not completely clear even all these years later I rush from somewhere in the far west via Greyhound Bus (yes, Greyhound Bus) toward Chicago where I will meet my father but seventy miles short of Omaha a blizzard begins and an hour later this bus is stuck in the snow on Interstate 80 next to a Coca-Cola truck whose driver offloads huge quantities of his product to us as gifts just before the bottles and even cans start to explode in the vacuum of Midwestern winter cold, we fall into darkness and maybe even sleep wrapped in white flakes rushing past the faint odor of diesel exhaust and the soft pops of thousands of carbonated beverage packagings failing. In the morning a National Guard tank pulls us to a cleared spot on the highway and we proceed in slow parade to the Omaha Bus Station the grimy art deco space we should all have expected which is filled with refugees from the precipitation which is at least four feet deep there is not much to do there but food seems plentiful and prices through midwestern politeness have remained in check and I have enough cigarettes and probably enough joints and meet a woman who claims to be from Walla-Walla though this may be a verbal disguise who criticizes my cigarette choices, suspects me of being a junkie, drinks some of the Coke I have stockpiled and has sex with me three times in a small office the door of which I "credit card" (actually my driver's license) before the road is declared open and I begin moving east again. In Chicago I am sure my dad has pneumonia and he is sure this is not true but I make him drink much cough syrup with decongestant as I drive his car straight through to New York in one shot so he will be home, arriving at the George Washington Bridge at sunrise on a forgotten morning when I was still a kid.

copyright 2004-2011 by Ira David Socol