By Dennis D’Agostino
The crowd starts forming at the southeast corner of 26th and Park. And in this city where everyone has something to say, the quiet is what you notice first.
You walk around the corner, following the crowd down 26th toward Lexington. And now, on the windows, on the fences, along the waist-high railing that leads to the old, old brick hall, are the homemade fliers with the grainy pictures. And the names.
Penny Lira, Michelle Scarpitta, Robert Lee, Mario Nardone, James Samuel Jr., Ronald E. Magnuson, William Wilson, Nick Brandemarti, Melissa Vincent, Doreen Angrisani. People walk slowly here, lingering over a picture, perhaps of a father holding a baby, or a young woman at a party. Or a wedding photo. Anything that may produce a spark of recognition. Behind you, a lone bassist in a Mets cap is quietly playing. Down the block a bit, as a crowd gets bigger near Lex, is a makeshift sidewalk shrine of two dozen candles.
Leah Oliver, Judy Fernandez, Lt. Anthony Jovic, Vanessa Wen, Derrick Washington, Jeff Simpson, Ivan Perez, Wengee Poon. More than any other place in the city, in the world perhaps, the 69th Regiment Armory became the emotional focal point for the families whose lives have been devastated by the September 11 tragedy. Soon afterward, the city set up the nearly 100-year old Armory as the main information clearing house for those unaccounted for since.
Doubtless that few of the thousands who have come to the Armory in recent days are aware of its history, that it was the Knicks’ secondary home for the first 15 years of the franchise, that it witnessed the heroics of Harry Gallatin and Dick McGuire and Carl Braun and Sweetwater Clifton and Ernie Vandeweghe, that it hosted nine NBA Finals games in the early ‘50s, that somewhere inside still lived the old Knick scoreboard and the brightest and shiniest basketball floor anyone had ever seen.
Since 1904, the Armory has been the gathering place for men and women in uniform. And on the brown brick façade that faces Lexington Avenue are inscribed the sites of some of history’s greatest battles. Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Argonne, Bull Run, Fair Oaks, Fredericksburg.
There’s no location for this current battle, however. What there is, all around you, is the quiet. And the names.
Jemal DeSantis, Aida Vazquez, Steve Wong, Thomas Collins, Kiran Gopu, Nick Brandemarti, Bridgette Esposito, Maria Santilan, Rebecca Avalone.
The crowds that tried to get into the Armory over the first few days were so large that now they won’t actually let you inside unless you’re a direct family member of one of the missing. The volunteers at each corner on Lex quietly and politely tell you that, as do the signs in front that read “Family Members Only”. But that doesn’t stop hundreds more from coming down here, milling around outside, gathering on all sides of the building. Just to fill the need to be somewhere, to do something, to help.
Large supply trucks are at the main entrance: Salvation Army, Feed The Children, New York City Police, U.S. Army, Police and military personnel guard each of the side entrances. You peer into one open door and look into the basement and see a kitchen staff hard at work, preparing meals for volunteers working 12- and 14- and 18-hour days.
A three-piece classical band plays quietly across the street on 26th. Down further, on the corner of Lexington, a gospel choir segues from “We Shall Overcome” into “God Bless America”. The police have told the TV trucks to park along the side streets, and even they seem less obtrusive. And by now those trucks, like the fences and the windows all around, are covered with fliers and photos and phone numbers.
Frederick Kuo, Cindy Giugliano, Emerita DeLaPena, Pat Cody, Adrianna Legro, John P. Burnside, Felix Calixte, Manish Patel. People linger over the names and the faces, touching them, leaving flowers and candles and tiny American flags. Some have video minicams. Others wear T-shirts adorned with the faces of the missing.
Every so often, the quiet is broken by a mournful wail of crying, the worst confirmed. One person walks past carrying nothing but a box of tissues.
No one gets out of line here. In the loudest and rowdiest city in the world, no one gets loud or rowdy. Everyone comes with a sense of heartbreak and hope, with one rising as the other diminishes, day by day.
Vanessa Langer, Manuel Molina, Tonyell McDial, Salvatore Papasso, Noel Jefferson, Luis Revilla, Rejesh Khandelwal, Victoria Brito, Doug Irgang.
This is the old home, then, of Gallatin and McGuire and Braun and Sweets and Vandeweghe. It is a far, far different game now. You don’t know what you’ll remember more. . .the quiet, or the faces, or the names. All you know is that you’ll never forget any of it.