September 11 in Last of the Gladiators, A Son’s Memoir
In 1999, I built a new ten thousand-square-foot loft/office for MedWorks at Varick and Vandam Streets, giving me the perfect vantage point to observe the Twin Towers two years later on 9/11. I saw the second jet pierce through the south tower as I was talking to a cop on Canal Street. When that building fell, I was evacuating my office and shutting down the compressors. Last hit, first to fall.
Later, I watched as the north tower fell into itself. I gave a bottle of water to an obese black woman who was vomiting and ran to get Sofia and Gianni at school. Juliana, who was a little more than two, was with my wife, Maria.
For those of us living in Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 tragedy, the smell of burning wires, steel, and flesh was a constant presence until the weather finally turned cold in late December. When President Bush lifted the FAA ban, I went to Madrid for a meeting and forgot about New York for a week. The moment I landed at JFK, and the plane docked and the door was opened, the smell crept in and I was back. The great writer Marcel Proust, who memorialized the link between smells and memories, hit the nail on the head.
Someone once told me that clichés die hard because they are rooted in truth, and so it was for me. My marriage had been rocky before 9/11. When the sun set every night, I looked for a stool and a martini long before I thought of home or my family.
So it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that as I was driving my new Audi six-speed bi-turbo up to Rao’s on an icy December night, I was more than a little sloshed. I somehow flipped the turn on 114th Street and hit a patch of ice. The Audi spun and spun and one of the tires blew. Somehow the car came to rest at the curb directly in front of Rao’s. Unbeknownst to me, all the patrons inside had had a good view of my loopy stunt.
In those days, if you parked at Rao’s and put your wipers up, guys would come out of nowhere to spit-shine your car. Mobsters are very fussy about their cars. That December night, I came within inches of taking one of these guys out. As the barman, Nicky the Vest, told me later, “I was talking to your father and these bright white lights are coming straight at us. I thought you were going right through the front.”
I turned the car off, swung the door open, and shouted to no one in particular, “Hey, Mom, I’m home!” Frankie Pellegrino, the restaurant owner’s son, came out and grabbed me by the arm and helped my inebriated ass inside. By then, everyone was giving Dad the business.
Jimmy gave me the look the second I walked in. When I saw he was in the middle of dinner, I realized that I had the wrong Wednesday. When Dad said, “You know Joe Watts and his friend,” I could have fainted. There in the flesh was the assassin himself. I greeted the men respectfully, begged a double vodka off Nicky, and headed for the bathroom to straighten myself up.
I must have slapped myself five times in front of that mirror. I found out weeks later, Dad came clean with Watts. While I was in the bathroom, he told him that I was just blocks from the towers on 9/11, had to run for my kids, and wasn’t taking it that well. That was all anyone needed to hear. All New Yorkers were still raw and messed up.
I have never addressed a senior mobster by his first name, so it was “Mr. Watts this” and “Mr. Watts that.” A giant mistake that many citizens make in the company of these men is to talk tough, so when his lieutenant baited me with a question I could have answered flippantly, I said, “You know, Mr. Watts, the same thing happened to me at prep school in Greenwich, Connecticut.”
Joe laughed hard. “I like this kid,” he said. “Always have.”
By then, Frankie Pellegrino had one of his guys pulling the spare and changing the tire. I kissed my father, whispered apologies, and then went around the table kissing the killers. “Sorry to drop in like this, fellas,” I said on the way out. I threw Frankie a bill and bolted west on foot for the closest avenue. The car would be safe in front of Rao’s.
I jumped in the first cab. “Please, just drive,” I begged the cabbie.