Trying to Fill a Void Left by 9/11
Some time around 4 a.m., when Rosaleen Tallon has stretched out on a cot on the bare, freezing sidewalk, a still figure appears on the corner beside her.
He is a firefighter named O’Toole, with broad shoulders and a drooping ginger-colored mustache, and he has driven down from the Bronx to Lower Manhattan a couple of hours before his shift started. He doesn’t wake her, but stands there in the dark, quietly watching to make sure she is OK.
It is Rosaleen’s eighth night outside. It is a full-moon night, clear and wind-whipped, and the cold creeps up from the sidewalk through the sleeping bag and her husband’s ski pants. The only sound is the rumble of the commuter rail as it comes into the World Trade Center station. She is a tiny figure, surrounded by skyscrapers.
News crews might be around the next morning, and Rosaleen could find an audience for the message she desperately wants to convey: that the Sept. 11 memorial under construction is dangerous and disgraces the memory of the people who died that day, including her brother, rookie firefighter Sean Tallon.
But at 4 a.m., the night seems endless. Pedestrian traffic has dropped off. Three supporters lie near her, clutching themselves against the cold. O’Toole wonders aloud, as he stands near the sleeping figures, what this is going to accomplish.
“They’re going to make their stand, their Little Big Horn,” said O’Toole, who met Rosaleen at a union rally and gives his first name as “Toolie.” “They’re going to get their ass kicked, and she knows it.”
Rosaleen is 34, and has a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old at home. Every night, she tucks them into bed and says goodbye to her husband, a builder named Rob DeRos who described himself as “100% supportive.” Then she leaves her home, a Tudor-style three-bedroom in Yonkers, and drives to a stretch of sidewalk outside Engine Company 10-Ladder Company 10 -- the fire station that faces ground zero.
Sleeping outside her brother’s firehouse is, she knows, an extreme measure. For months she has tried to rally broad protest against the memorial, “Reflecting Absence,” in a city that is frustrated with paralysis at ground zero. Three weeks ago, intent on getting out her message, she came up with the idea of a vigil. Now, every night, outside the fire station, she warns passersby that the underground memorial could bring on a new cataclysm, trapping innocent people in the event of an attack.
“It almost makes my stomach turn thinking of people pouring into the hole, into an underground cavern,” she said.
When she arrives about 10 p.m. -- swathed in woolens, impossibly cheerful -- a small group of well-wishers converge. A ground zero volunteer known as “Billy Cigars” presents her with a loaf of soda bread baked by his mother. Bernhard Goetz -- who became known as the “subway vigilante” after shooting four would-be muggers on the train in 1987 -- is chattering anxiously about the weather.
“This is overdoing it. They should have a tent. I think they should have warmer stuff. If you’re going to be out like this, you should have outdoor camping stuff,” said Goetz, who now operates a small company called Vigilante Electronics. “What are your thoughts on that? Isn’t it a little cold to be out?
“This is crazy,” he said. “Ay yi yi.”
Among the regulars at ground zero is an array of missionaries and lost souls. There are also sophisticated lobbying organizations formed by families that had lost relatives on Sept. 11. Rosaleen, a stay-at-home mom whose activism before the attacks consisted of antiabortion prayer vigils, does not fall precisely into either category.
Her companion here is the Rev. Bill Minson, a former producer from Santa Monica who broke into show business in the 1960s managing a troupe of unicyclists. Minson, 56, has been a presence at ground zero for almost five years, building a following among Sept. 11 families, who have by and large adjusted to his quirks.
This week, for instance, he is on a liquid fast, subsisting on a mixture of lemon juice, water and honey, as well as regular doses of oil of oregano. He occasionally ducks into a Chinatown office building to coat his skin with olive oil, a tip he got from comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, a former client, who said it would keep him from becoming dehydrated.
Rosaleen, a devout Roman Catholic and the daughter of Irish immigrants, confesses that she is leery of “the whole lemon thing.” But she is steadfastly loyal to Minson. “I said, ‘Bill, if this helps you in terms of talking to God, that’s your business,’ ” she said.
Rosaleen’s only sibling was in her thrall from early on. As a toddler, Sean would wander around the house looking lost if Rosaleen, three years his senior, left home for a play date. He could not get over her mastery of the button accordion or the columns of A’s on her report cards. If he was going on a date, he would ask her to check his outfit.
“He was average,” said her mother, Eileen Tallon. “And she loved him.”
Sean Tallon, 26, was in the firehouse when the first plane crashed into the north tower. The firefighters went out to the street, where debris was raining down from a black sky, and rushed around the corner to the building’s lobby. The Tallon family later saw footage shot there by a French filmmaker. Sean, said his mother, “had a very sad, worried face on him. He was so worried-looking that it rips you down inside.”
He was on the 30th floor when the tower collapsed. His body was found two weeks later with a cluster of civilians and firefighters; the firefighters had apparently tried to protect the civilians with their gear. A steel beam had fallen on his head, crushing it.
Sean’s death sent Rosaleen outside the previous boundaries of her life. She thrust herself into political activism: The family attempted to sue the city and Motorola Inc. over radios that did not transmit an evacuation order to firefighters. (The suit was rejected, most recently by the U.S. Supreme Court, because the plaintiffs had accepted money from the victims’ compensation fund.)
Rosaleen also brought a complaint -- shared by many in the fire department -- to the Lower Manhattan Development Commission, entrusted with building the Sept. 11 memorial. She said that the memorial should list rescue workers separately from other victims, because, unlike the others, they “gave their lives so the innocent men and women whom the terrorists targeted might be saved.”
The designer, Michael Arad, disagreed, saying the list of the dead should evoke the day’s randomness.
It was at a meeting to discuss the issue that Rosaleen set eyes on a model of “Reflecting Absence,” selected by a jury two years ago after a painstaking review of 5,201 entries. At that moment, she forgot about the names.
The design centers on two “voids” on the towers’ footprints, and requires visitors to descend past curtains of water to underground plazas that give a view of the towers’ foundations. The jury praised the design for “letting absence speak for itself.” But Rosaleen was appalled that it would be underground. She had imagined a monument glistening in the sun. “Reflecting Absence” made her think of falling, of the people who fell.
Hers is not a popular argument in New York right now. Late last year, Sept. 11 families succeeded in scuttling a proposal for the International Freedom Center, whose exhibits were intended to delineate “freedom’s evolution.” Its critics said that the exhibits might dishonor the site with unpatriotic messages.
New Yorkers began to say what they had not said before: that certain Sept. 11 families were obstructing progress at ground zero and should step aside. New York magazine put a group on the cover with the headline “The Bullies of Ground Zero.”
If there is a point of consensus, it is that the hole has gaped here too long. With plans to rebuild office buildings at a deadlock over financing, “Reflecting Absence” is the only plan that seems to be moving forward. On March 13, construction workers began, without fanfare, clearing gravel off the space where the buildings once stood.
Rosaleen knows the odds of halting construction are long. She was unsuccessful, she said, when she tried to rally families behind an aboveground monument. Although the Coalition of 9/11 Families has filed a lawsuit against the development commission to stop construction, it is for another reason: Because “Reflecting Absence” alters the historic footprints of the towers.
As for ordinary New Yorkers, Rosaleen said, “They are 9/11’d out. I am too.”
But the passion keeps rising up in her. She glows every time a sympathetic pedestrian comes by to talk to her. She is heartened by her new website and by the 8,500 people who have signed a petition calling for an aboveground memorial.
There are times when the vigil itself gives her a feeling of great clarity.
After a few nights outside, she was feeling so miserably guilty about leaving her children that she went to Toys “R” Us to buy them gifts. She was in the parking lot when she was flooded with the conviction that she should go forward. At the fire station, the feeling returns to her.
“I feel like I have a connection to that spot,” she said. “I can feel him leaving there, going up. He went and he faced the worst you can face. He would have been so nervous. This would have been his first real fire. I think of him and what he faced that day, and I could do anything. I could face any kind of ridicule. You feel an amazing strength. What people have factored out ... is the strength of the souls that have gone out of there.”
At other times, she is pierced by sadness, by how far she has drifted from normal.
Not long ago, she was walking through the A&P; supermarket to pick up lemons for Minson’s mixture. All around her, women pushed carts full of cereal and vegetables and hamburger meat, ordinary food for ordinary families.
“I felt like, ‘Everyone here is normal, and I’m on this strange journey,’ ” she said. At this thought, her cheerful expression went to pieces; she began to cry, homesick for that old life.
It is after midnight on Liberty Street when five people hold hands in a circle. Minson -- on Day 12 without solid food -- thanks God for giving them “hearts with fire in them.” A garbage collector, Andrew Macchio, stands on the corner and sings “Amazing Grace” in a resonant, operatic tenor before leaving to catch the last train home.
Then the streets are empty. The protesters sit on folding chairs and chat about Osama bin Laden and Minson’s snoring. Dominick DeRubbio, 20, who lost his uncle, a firefighter, on Sept. 11, holds up a can of Budweiser and proposes a toast to “all the people behind us.”
At 1:53 a.m., Rosaleen lies down on her cot and burrows into her sleeping bag. The temperature has dropped to freezing.
Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son, Christian, also died in the World Trade Center, fishes out a black fur coat from a bag of used clothing and lays it carefully on top of Rosaleen. There is no movement, no conversation. Foul-smelling steam rises out of a nearby sewer vent. Minson, wrapped like a mummy in his sleeping bag, snores steadily.
Rosaleen often does not sleep at all, she said, but lies there with her mind racing.
It’s like she has two angels whispering in her ears; “one a planner,” she said, and “one a doubter.” How many signatures would she get on the petition tomorrow? What will she say to the TV cameras? Is there any point to this at all?
Sometimes she has the feeling that this is it -- her last big push. Minson plans to leave New York in the fall and travel south to minister to Hurricane Katrina victims. The time is coming, Rosaleen thinks, when she too will no longer be on a mission.
Already, she feels some of the burden lifted.
“I will someday let it all go. There comes a point in time when you have put forth your fight, and that’s the best you can do and you can be proud of it,” she said.
At about 4:30, delivery trucks roll into the streets around ground zero, and Wall Street Journals slap down in doorways. The first few customers tug open the door at Charly’s on Trinity Place, where a tray of blueberry muffins, crusted with sugar, has been delivered. Just before 6 a.m., the streetlights flicker off.
The protesters pack up their camp and scatter.
Rosaleen will drive back to Yonkers and the warm bodies of her sleeping children, who may or may not know that she was gone.
By this time, the sky is pale blue and luminous. Light reflects from thousands of mirrored windows onto windows opposite, reflecting and reflecting until it tips into the great hole.