11 Sep On a mission
Sometimes things aren’t always what they seem
It was December 2001 and the emotional wounds of 9/11 were still fresh. My brother Chris and I took the 90-minute drive to Bay Ridge to see Dad before he left for the restaurant. Dad owned a 40-seat Italian bistro on Third Avenue – a polished gem with a steady stream of regulars.
On one side sat Brooklyn’s political elite. On the other, the neighborhood’s top mobsters. The two sides joked and drank together as if they were the best of friends. Until, of course, they exited the front door, and the world assumed its proper balance.
Even though I knew my father regularly dealt with the seamier side of society, I was surprised by the phone conversation he’d had while Chris and I watched the football game, waiting for Dad to go with us for a couple of slices.
“Yes. I’d like you to pick up four people from the Brooklyn penitentiary,” he said, giving the dispatcher instructions to the restaurant. “Around 3 o’clock. And I’d like a car to pick them up around 8. Thanks.”
Chris and I looked at each other. We didn’t say it, but we were both thinking: Did you hear what I just heard?
Dad didn’t give us an explanation after he hung up, and we didn’t ask. My brother and I ate some pizza with Dad, stopped by our grandparents’ house, then headed home.
That’s when our stepmother, Roberta, called.
“You wouldn’t believe what your father just did,” she said from her cell phone.
“I’m sitting next to him in the car and he calls some taxi service to confirm the pickup of four people from the Brooklyn penitentiary. He wants to bring them to the restaurant,” she said. “My mouth fell open. Then he tells them he wants a car to come get them and bring them back. To prison!”
I tell Roberta that Chris and I had the same reaction.
“That’s not the half of it! But it’s not what you think. Instead of being a bad thing, it’s one of the nicest things in the world.”
It turns out the people being picked up were missionaries from the South. They were among the volunteers cleaning up apartments in Battery Park that were damaged when the twin towers fell. This group helped Joe and Susan Guzman, friends of my father and Roberta. The Guzmans’ apartment overlooked the World Trade Center. Their windows were blown out by a vortex created by the tumbling debris.
Furniture, books and keepsakes were sucked clear out of the apartment, and Susan would have been sucked out, too, if she hadn’t locked herself in the bathroom just in time.
The missionaries, who waded through inches of gray dust for weeks to help salvage peoples’ homes, were staying in prison cells at the penitentiary. And as a token of appreciation, Dad’s friends offered to pay for their dinner at the restaurant.
With another tough day waiting for them, the missionaries needed to get back early.
Around 8 p.m.
Dad and Roberta picked up the car fare.