Memories of September 11th and Our Friend Darryl

28 year old men are not prone to bursting out in tears. They are not likely to well up with feelings of empathy beyond the tragedies of their immediate family. That comes later. Later, after they’ve experienced life a bit, they may well up at things as formulaic as Sunday morning ESPN special interest stories of athletes that have overcome or been overcome. But when something as tragic and confusing as the attacks on the World Trade Center occur, all of these truths are replaced by the stark reality of the fragility and preciousness of life.

I lived in Brooklyn at the time of the attacks and worked on Union Square. My apartment and my employer were pretty much equidistant from Ground Zero. I experienced the day however from New England as I was enjoying some time off after the grueling and great summers where I worked in the Catskills for about 22 hours a day at a job I loved. So the early fall, the part where the calendar knows it’s changing but the air makes up its mind each day as to what season it wants to be, was always my decompressing time. And like many other years I spent it visiting in the way young people with a little cash but not a lot do. I was visiting family. I had dinner with my sister in Boston the night of the 10th and drove about half way up to my other sisters place near Portland after that before stopping at a hotel for the night. I went for a morning jog the next day, leaving enough time for a shower before checkout.

It was a sun dappled morning as I ran beneath the slightly lighter shade of green leaves than I had all summer, the type of green that happens as the life of the leaf is either burgeoning of breaking and the world was in fact perfect. When I returned to my room I saw the first tower burning. This had to be fake. I really couldn’t believe it was real. I was fairly new to New York, but I was already familiar and this wasn’t possible. And then the second plane flew through the building and we were under attack. I would have never put it together, but all the newsmen were saying it was obvious. Until the second plane all I kept thinking was what a horrible accident. New York had a shield around it and something so terrible could never happen. It had to be an accident. It wasn’t.

I showered and I dressed and I got on the road. I cried. In the shower. In the car. Everywhere. It was compassion and confusion and concern. I had a lot of friends I knew that would be on trains, if not on the street at that time of morning on such a beautiful day. I hadn’t met her yet, but my wife was walking over the Brooklyn Bridge at the time. I tried calling everyone I knew, I think I even spoke to my roommate, Jessie, and was assured that her and her boyfriend Rob (a man that had become one of my best friends) were okay. But pretty soon I couldn’t reach anyone.

I think I had a cell phone, so I don’t know why, but outside a Dunkin Donuts I called my mother from a pay phone to let her know where I was and that I was safe. That’s what I wanted to tell her, but I heard her voice as she greeted me and I just sobbed. I couldn’t breath, forget talking. I must have cried for over a minute before choking out my name and telling her I was fine, safe. Those of you that know my mother are aware that she’s the person to call when you can’t stop crying.

I returned from my travels as soon as I could. I don’t know exactly what day it was but I’d guess it was the Sunday after the Thursday. All access to Manhattan was blocked and you were diverted around the city. Coming over the Tri-Borough, once you cleared the trussing and had an unobstructed view, it was unmistakable. Still smoldering I swear I could see the form of the buildings still. Pillars of dust that were resisting their fate.

Upon return Rob suggested that we order in and set up the table and talk. It was the best thing he could have done and to this day I’m so thankful to have friends like this, even if I barely see them anymore. He knew we all needed to talk. To try to figure it out. To laugh and make asides so as to be able to return to the topic for hours, that would become days and months. City living wasn’t like the suburban life I knew and we had to actually assemble the table in the middle of the living room and we did. We had wine, we ate well and we just shared our feelings, thoughts and defenses. I cried a bit less the next day, though it wasn’t gone. Clearly there was no work or anything else to deal with for the days and weeks ahead, so you watched news. Everywhere. And it was cathartic. And we cried as a country and I suspect as a world in many cases. It wasn’t to last, and your head knew it, but it felt very much like time ceased to exist other than to go from light to dark to light to dark.

The other shoe finally dropped when I checked my email and Mike G. let us know that our friend and teammate Darryl McKinney, had been working at Cantor-Fitzgerald in the top of the towers, above where the plane hit and had passed away. I went to the freezer, removed a bottle of vodka, grabbed a glass and sat in front of the news and cried for hours, for days.

I was not inside many of Darryl’s circles at Elmira, where we both graduated. We were both basketball team guys, but he was a committed and amazing player and I was a, well the opposite. And in a small community like the Elmira College community, you can start to think that their are wildly varied groupings, but there really weren’t. It was a school of roughly a thousand students, and probably less then 400, total that were male. And everyone lived on campus. At the time I could have told you who I knew well and who I knew only vaguely, but in hindsight it was a very intimate setting and having now lived out in the world for as long as I’d lived prior to going to college I can say that even those folks i knew in passing I knew more than I’ll ever know anyone I’ve met subsequently other than my wife and family.

My first memory of Darryl was when coach let leak that one of our new players who would be coming next year was playing pickup in the on campus gym. Being good college students the guys I was with were day drinking on a Friday. Seemed a good idea not knowing we’d be called to action. But called we were. I remember seeing him and thinking, either he shouldn’t be here or I shouldn’t. He’s too good for this team if this is him as a high schooler or I’m not nearly good enough. Turned out I was a little bit right on both accounts.

When Darryl arrived on campus it was evident. He was a uniter. Not an easy title for a young African-American man on a campus that was lily white. Wonder bread white, really. But he was. You were as likely to see him with the basketball players as you were to see him with the soccer team, or the kid in his freshman dorm that veered toward theater but who made Darryl laugh. He was a friend to everyone and when he saw you he always had a smile and usually a laugh. He certain enjoyed the mischief, we all did, but he was never EVER a guy you worried about. A lot of guys you worry about. But he was fine. Always would be. He could get hot, but at that age that just comes with the territory.

I had a couple of friends from home, hippies who studied environmental ed and outdoor recreation up in the Adirondacks who would visit from time to time to hang out and party. On more than one occasion on active and social Friday nights we’d get separated and they’d return either with Darryl and his crew for the night, or with tales of adventure on campus and in the town with Darryl. I think he was amongst the people they continued to visit after I graduated. Darryl was like that. Once he knew you, you were in. I’d guess that at that age when I didn’t have the best self-esteem or sense of who I was, he knew I was a good person and always gave me the benefit of the doubt, even if I didn’t. Wasn’t something he thought about, I suspect. He knew me and I was his friend.

There are layers of friendship, and I was most assuredly quite a few layers out. There are many people I know, some who may read this who were much closer to Darryl than I. In fact, knowing who might read this who also knew Darryl, I suspect that all of them who knew us both would have been much closer to him than I. To some degree that’s the point. To know Daryl was to love him. Because if Darryl knew you he loved you. He knew some truth intuitively that it took me longer to learn. To live in a world of love you have to give it, freely and with laughter and joy. By doing so Darryl made the way too short time he had here with the rest of us a blast.

Every year the visceral memory of those strange days suffer from erosion. But the one thing that gets me, usually the evening of the tenth, is the memory of Darryl. I used to be unable to shake the picture of him running all over the top floors looking for a way out in his final moments as he searched for the solution he believed he’d find. The heartbreaking awareness that I hope he never came to that his life was being taken away. Every year I cry, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. The world lost a true human, full of love and laughter, complexity and compassion. We are worse off for this. I, one of the lucky ones, am far better off for having known him. Rest In Peace, Darryl.

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