Copyright 2001 The New York Times
New York Times Magazine, October 7, 2001
Within three days of the attack on the World Trade Center, everyone wandering the streets of Manhattan knew the face of a victim. And whatever the face, we knew it intimately: we looked twice at people who resembled it, irrationally searched for it in crowds. We knew these faces because the photographs of the missing were everywhere, obscuring the windows of pizzerias, clinging to street lamps, overlapping one another on bus shelters. The victims we knew were the ones who had caught our eyes, the ones we had first stared at.
Everyone seemed to lock on to one face in particular. One friend of mine fixated on the posters for Giovanna (Gennie) Gambale, with that dazzling smile and the exhortation "We Need Your Help" that hovered over her in large, urgent script. Others bonded - there is no other word for it - with Nestor Cintron. On his poster, Citron was seen decked out in a tuxedo while a female hand, owner unknown, reached from out of frame to adjust the carnation on his jacket. His own hand, the poster informed, bore a birthmark in the shape of Puerto Rico.
Even before I knew the "Missing" posters were some kind of phenomenon, I knew a face. I had seen it down in Lower Manhattan, at the silent firehouse on West I 10th Street and taped up around St. Vincent's Hospital. During the nationally publicized Friday night candlelight vigil, my eye was drawn to him time and again And this was a communal phenomenon. When I mentioned "the happy older man" to a friend uptown, she didn't pause a beat before replying, "Right - the white whiskers guy."
The man's name was Mark Rasweiler. I didn't need specifics. I never inflicted a personality onto him or sought some resemblance to a loved one I had lost in life. It was just Mark, a guy I knew by sight. Neighborhood fellow. Icons of flame and rubble made no sense to me, and there was enough smoke in the air to bewilder anyone. But his face made sense. I couldn't have known Mark less or liked him more.
The poster for Mark, it turns out, was the very first of its kind. His family created the flier on the afternoon of the attack. This hastily designed poster, a gesture born of panic and love and mad hope, became part of an improvised outpouring of grief that encompassed everything from scrawled poems to children's drawings to spray-painted declarations of rage. This September, New York cloaked itself in every symbol of mourning it could remember - and even invented a few. And none of it was enough.
The punishment for American diversity is that we are denied the warmth of shared ritual. We have no common text for bereavement, no outstretched hand from the ancient world upon which to rely as a truly single culture. We've been winging it: secret sharers who cobble our rituals from a very recent history.
The symbolism of American grief, of course, has been refined quite a few times in the past decades. Back in the days of the Challenger disaster and any number of solitary deaths---John Lennon's and Harvey Milk's, for example---communal grieving was less formalized. Symbolism hovered very close to the object of mourning. Our rituals were literal and finite. Candlelight vigils, and silence, were eloquent enough, the best we had. But the brought a blur of high-profile agonies: Oklahoma City, TWA. 800 Columbine, the deaths of Princess Diana and of John F. Kennedy Jr. first trade-center bombing. Each of these tragedies emboldened and expanded our death rituals. Flowers were purchased and heaped on pavement; missives to the dead were clipped to chain-link fences; teddybears were offered up, whether children were involved or not. All of these traditions, in one way or another, had profound roots, even if we had lot lost our explicit memory of them.
This holds true for the "Missing" fliers. The scanned photographs covering the fliers echo a ritual from ancient Greece in which sculptured images of the deceased appear on graves. The dead were often pictured in some final activity before traveling to Hades, living a moment of their lives for the last time. There was very little description---merely the name and, occasionally, "Farewell."
This is how the fliers came to be. On Sept. 11, Roger Mark Rasweiler, a 53-year-old risk consultant for a company called Marsh & McClennan, left his home in Flemington, N.J., at about 6:30 a.m. Rasweiler didn't travel to the office every day and he had been in the day before, but he had some odds and ends to sort out. When his wife, Susan, first heard the news of the attack, it was unclear whether Rasweiler had reached his office on the 100th floor of W.T.C. 1. "Maybe he stopped for breakfast or was delayed in some way," Susan Rasweiler told me. "Who could know? There was no immediate way of knowing."
The Rasweilers, married 32 years, have a son and two daughters. For the entire family, an excruciating, sense of powerlessness took hold. None of them could bear to sit and wait - even after Susan learned that Mark had placed a call to a friend from his office at 8:40 a.m. Caryn Wiley, one of the daughters, worked in an advertising firm. She and her husband bolted to the company's art department and ran off 300 copies, then 500 more, of a simple "Missing" placard. It gave basic details and little more: every possible variation of his name, his height and weight and three different phone numbers to call. The poster also included a color photograph: Rasweiler, a balding, hale man with oval spectacles and white whiskers, clearly on his way somewhere. A man without aversions, by the look of him. The photograph's background had been cropped out so that it was tightly focused on his face. Suspended in perfect white, he seemed to be in the middle of some grand and ordinary joy. I later learned that the photo had been snapped at a wedding in June. "We were smiling and laughing," his wife said. "We were feeling like we were going to grow old together. Well, I guess we did grow old together ... but not old enough."
At wits' end, the Rasweiler children rushed to hospitals, shelters and anywhere else they could think of, posting fliers on every flat surface, anywhere that made remote sense. Nobody had ever seen such posters in this situation. Everyone wanted a copy; everyone wanted to post it. A homeless man took one to show around. A firefighter taped one to his Jacket. In accordance with the surreal laws that govern these situations in Manhattan, Wiley ran into the actors Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, who also took up the cause.
Among other anxious relatives affected by the attack, the "Missing" ritual spread swiftly. And bit by bit, the posters expanded in detail. Friends of Lucy Crifasi, a 51-year-old consultant who was working six floors below Rasweiler, for American Express, had printed hundreds of fliers before noticing that others mentioned what possible victims had been wearing. They scrapped the first batch, found a newer photo and made hundreds more copies, this time including Crifasi's last known attire as well as information that might be helpful in unthinkable circumstances: that Lucy had a tiny scar at the center of her forehead and a mole on her jawbone and that there was "a four-inch scar on either her left or right foot."
Lucy Crifasi's friends could not have wished for more reach. Relatives phoned from as far as Venezuela, having glimpsed the poster on CNN. The last time I spoke to a friend of Lucy's named Sandra Ciccone, she was still imploring me to display Lucy's picture anywhere I could. This was 12 days after the attack. "Anything you can do, anywhere you can show this, please do it, she said. "Someone may have seen her."
Inevitably, the family members who devised the posters - like the Greeks who sculptured graves for their dead -had chosen the happiest images they could find, that one perfect moment lived out one final time before the end of things. So the missing people stood smiling in wedding pictures; they were poised above birthday cakes, with babies and puppies and at graduations. The family of Lindsay Herkness III, a Morgan Stanley executive, used various greeting cards he had made last Christmas, each of which bore a picture of him with a joke caption. He was getting into all kinds of amusing situations: now on vacation among a bunch of sheep; now wearing an apron and jovially waving an egg whisk. At the bottom of each came a punch line, like "Souffles collapse when you slam the oven door!" But in the center of each of the cards, in black, someone had stamped "Missing."
Desperation and empty time had been conspiring to create other customs all over the city. At Washington Square Park, public expressions of sorrow coalesced around the fence surrounding the great arch. Within days after the attack, it was swathed in immense white canvases and, on its northern side, a giant American flag. All of these -the flag included - served as vast communal parchments, and hardly a square inch of space was not crowded by a fury of written gratitude or bewilderment, pacifism or unbridled rage.
With each passing hour, new personal, religious and political exclamations further darkened the cloths. They were palimpsests. One remark was expunged or amended by a different author, whose own statement was in turn refuted just as passionately. It was a rain forest of text, where every bit of soil was a point of struggle. Under "Osama Wanted: Dead," you could just make out "Islam Is Not the Enemy" and, in a more ornate script, "Lives Are Lost but Angels Gained!" The only commonality to be found was the fact that all this rhetoric existed in a single place. And that basic fact seemed, near enough, a kind of raw harmony.
A youthful woman was kneeling in front of the giant flag, writing out something or other, just beneath the block letters "Nuke Them." She emitted short, sad breaths, chuffling like a tiger while she printed out her religious phrase amid all the others. "They are not dead!" read the message. "They are just sleeping!" Her name, improbably, was Prim Goode. She looked well younger than her 39 years, with a shy smile and childlike shorn hair that she might have cut herself. She had read many of the comments and somehow found them all conciliatory, warlike, all of them - "beautiful, just beautiful." Her contribution was something her own father had told her just before he died in March 1989. She believed the dead would rise again, and she wanted to comfort those who had never said good-bye to their missing loved ones.
Taped to the fence near Goode were posters headlined "Missing: My Two Lovely Twins, Age 28" and bearing Magic Marker renditions of the twin towers. On the bottom of the flag, someone had written, in fading, apologetic penmanship, "One day it'll all make sense."
Hours after we'd met and I had been off staring mutely at similar improvisations across town, I rediscovered Goode at the opposite side of the arch. I asked what she was up to, and she brightly replied, "I didn't know how it worked until I saw that man there writing with the chalk!"
A few feet away, someone had laid down a jingoistic slogan on the concrete in huge lettering. This had struck Prim as a fine idea, very invigorating. So there she was, on all fours, tracing out her dead father's angel metaphor in the chalk equivalent of Cinemascope. She noticed that the other fellow had actually signed his statement, too, like an artwork, so she, snatched up another shard of chalk and signed her first name, adding a touch of her own: an "RIP" beneath the "Prim."
For this was how the language of grief was being passed along: person to person, block by block - then sweeping over the continent on television - then block by block once again. Ritual is transmitted from retina to retina, satellite to satellite.
A few minutes after Prim drifted away, a young tourist couple sauntered by. The man, a wiry Floridian, interpreted "RIP" to mean that someone named Prim had perished in the collapses. His girlfriend, equally baffled, speculated that "Prim," too, might well be an acronym - "Please Remain in Memory," maybe. Still, there was no point in puzzling over it; there was a flood of other messages right in front of them. In the evolution of this dark lexicon, some sparks would catch and some would not.
Prim was, of course, only one of the wall's thousands of authors. Many had come prepared with statements but had thought better of them, or had been thwarted. Marc Rogers, a 40-year-old policy analyst, wrote, "You'll all be remembered." He'd intended to write a long statement about the futility of retaliation in the belief that "sensitivity and understanding is the question, and that we wouldn't be in this mess if we accepted dignity and justice as a way of life." But he simply couldn't find space and instinctively opted for emotion over politics.
The mass eruption of grief in New York City left behind its own kind of debris. The parks were lined with butcher paper; restaurants in Lower Manhattan surrendered their walls and turned them into vast bulletin boards. Tree-lined promenades, bullied with chalk, pleaded for peace and called for war.
The fact that most of these objects wouldn't survive long was part of the point. Decay was necessary. Symbols of grief are not designed as instruments of cheer. Candles, for instance, are not prized merely for the flickering vitality of their light. They must also melt and vanish - the flame must consume the flesh. Flowers are offered up because they bloom and rot.
As the week following the attack plodded and sped by, the city's spontaneous monuments began to be taken down. In Union Square, park workers were verbally accosted as they dismantled "Missing" posters and any other paper that the coming rains would destroy. But in many cases, posters made surprise reappearances. At St. Vincent's, there were mass volunteer efforts not just to harvest the leaflets but also to repost them on walls around the neighborhood that would shield them from the weather.
The posters were going through an evolution of their own, from bargaining to acceptance. The second wave of filers, which cropped up on the weekend after the attacks, were suddenly leaning heavily on detail, ostensibly for the sake of victim recovery and identification. Photos and text became brutally disconnected: with each lovingly chosen photograph came spikes of forensic data. A proud man in a tuxedo, we were told, had, ”very distinctive thick brown (discolored) toenails." The merry lady with the white dog had "a tribal tattoo along the center of the lower back above the tailbone." One poster actually offered the victim's penis size ("six-inch, uncircumcised"). In the attempt to find fathers, daughters and friends, Victorian mores suddenly seemed irrelevant.
Occasionally, you would see a strike-through correcting some minuscule detail. Gennie Gambale had not been on the 102nd floor, it turned out; she was on the 105th. Someone had gone all over town and amended this by hand. It was as though such a cry in the dark could pierce the barrier if only the sender could sing the correct notes, if only the fates would line up just one time and make the world right again. And sometimes the correction didn't correct anything, but relinquished hope once and for all. Beneath "Missing," you would see in a far shakier hand, "Found your way home" or "I looked so hard for you and I am so sorry I failed." A few new posters emerged, with "Pray For" in lieu of "Missing." Many of these ignored the citizenry altogether and addressed the victim directly.
Writing messages to the dead never struck me as particularly unnatural. How many times after my own father had died (slowly and badly, though not at the hands of murderers) had I actually written him letters and joylessly posted them, neither stamped nor addressed, in U.S. Postal Service boxes? How many times, a decade after his death, had I actually dialed his phone number and listened to the voice at the other end, knowing with absolute certainty it would be any voice but his? More than once.
Logic was beside the point. These were all a ritual of grief, and a purgative one, even if there was an element of fierce denial in the confusion. (They are not dead! They are just sleeping!) Each poster was a secular prayer, issued to the populace: it was scanned and copied, then offered up, as if precise detail could coax the victims from their awful hiding places. In presenting such disparate information - optimism and forensic data - they bridged the period of time between terrible doubt and an even more terrible certainty. The end result had nothing to do with the effort.
Not all those who created and posted the "Missing" signs ever held out hope. Stacy Naumann, whose sister's boyfriend, Christopher Traina, was trapped in W.T.C. 1, inwardly sought a different kind of information, despite what her poster pleaded for. "You never know who's going to see it," she told me. "Maybe someone who got out would be able to tell us that he was trying to help people. Or maybe that he didn't suffer." Naumann, like so many others, got the idea for creating a flier from TV news and other fliers. She designed the poster herself. "It took a few tries, believe me," she said, laughing weakly. "It slowly occurred to me that the ones that would work best would be where the colors jumped out at you."
By Friday, Sept. 14, Stacy no longer believed that Christopher was coming home. Christopher's girlfriend, Nikki, refused to hear any of that. She stopped eating, searched the hospitals yet again and, failing there, set out to find his Ford Bronco. "All you can do is all you can do," Stacy Naumann said. "And people really locked onto those posters. I remember one that showed an older gentleman, with a white beard and glasses. I saw him all over the city. I'd recognize his face anywhere."
I knew the man she was talking about without needing to be told, because Mark Rasweiler's face wasn't easy to forget.
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO DENY THAT THE MURALS HAVE HISTORICAL IMPORT. Oklahoma City built a monument to its tragedy in a bomb-damaged building and stored more than one million artifacts left by mourners after the incident: teddy bears, letters, anything nonperishable. Henry Stern, the New York parks commissioner, Is at a loss to know how to preserve the collective document. "This is the largest spontaneous display we've ever had," he told me, rather haltingly. "It's an ancient concept. You go to a square, to the marketplace. Not to anyone's house - to everyone's house. We've had requests from the Museum of the City of New York for those murals, as well as from the Smithsonian, but we're not settled on what to do."
Beyond the administration of the sorrow, there is no way to predict how the impending shock is going to affect the city and the nation. By now, rescue having ceded to recovery, the funerals have started in earnest - not just in fives and tens, but in addling numbers. Spontaneous acts, resonating or not with forgotten, ancient traditions, will create new emblems of grief. The lexicon will mutate again and again. The faces of the missing, of people who vanished completely, will pass one last time across the media stage.
Ever since the second time I laid eyes on Mark Rasweiler's "Missing" poster, I wanted to steal one. I felt it was partly mine. I wanted to have it, not as a mawkish souvenir but, for some irrational motive, as the best and only picture I would ever have of him. Several people I knew had had the same impulse, but we were keenly aware that tearing down a "Missing" poster would look like a disgraceful form of looting. Worse.
The last time I walked by St. Vincent's Hospital, the "Missing" posters were coming apart, punished by days in the sun and the breeze. Like candies and flowers, they were entering the important degradation phase where all true symbols of grief meet their end.
Rasweiler's pictures, in the main, had fared well through all this. His children had not gone half-measures. They had framed a lot of the posters on all four edges in silvery duct tape, and that made him easier to spot. But of all the W.T.C. posters in all the world, his had been exposed longest to the elements, and a few had fallen to the ground. One was lying on the pavement next to a bus stop downtown. I picked it up and brought the muddled paper home, and suddenly it felt as if I had lost him.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times
New York Times Magazine
October 7, 2001