Garden City copes with memories in tragedy's wake

Aftermath: Twenty-one people from Garden City, N.Y., died in the World Trade Center, straining the threads of a tightly bound community.

Six Months Later

March 10, 2002|By Stephanie McCrummen | Stephanie McCrummen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. -- It is a Saturday afternoon in early November, and a man, a deliberate and rational man, sits at his kitchen table and writes a letter.

The words come easily, the transcription of thoughts honed for weeks.

"You don't know me, but I work for the Port Authority, and, like you, I live in Garden City. I didn't know your wife, but I saw her on the train ...

"There is a strange sense of connection I feel ... and I can't escape that."

There had been so much more to say, it seemed, several weeks earlier, on the day the deaths of strangers had overwhelmed him, and, unexpectedly, her death in particular.

But time passed, and this is how the words finally arranged themselves. So he offers his condolences, and then he signs it, John Mauk.

On Monday morning, the letter travels in his briefcase to Manhattan, to his new office on Park Avenue South, where he has worked since he ran for his life through the ash and a million pieces of fluttering paper, falling concrete and falling, suited bodies, any one of which could have been his own.

He was late to his job at the World Trade Center Sept. 11, however, and so he is here on Earth this sunny November Monday, the Port Authority lawyer in charge of writing contracts to replace offices that no longer exist.

He takes the letter out of his briefcase, puts it in a desk drawer, and shuts it.

He will mail it later, he tells himself. He will mail it when he is better oriented. When he can figure out where a post office is around here, for instance, and get a stamp, which will not be today, and will not be tomorrow, either. There is so much work to do, Thanksgiving coming up, and maybe the point was just writing the thing. It should probably be read over again anyway.

And so at night, John Mauk leaves the letter and the concrete madness of lower Manhattan behind, and rides east on the Long Island Rail Road, home to his wife, his daughter and green, quiet Garden City, from which 21 residents were lost Sept. 11, from Sunday dinners, from fall football Saturdays, from the plans of young men, from an intricately ordered place.

A village trustee

Mauk is among those charged with keeping the order of things here. He is a village trustee, one of eight who meet on the first and third Thursday of the month. He is 57 and was raised out West, in Pocatello, Idaho, and has a sort of quiet, cowboy air about him. He likes to rock climb, kayak and white-water raft. Some people have hunting sketches on their living room walls; John Mauk has a cow skull on his.

He steps off the train at the Merillon Avenue station, and walks home, past long, straight driveways and glossy black shutters of houses lighted from below with spotlights, past yards with bushes shaped as squares, rectangles and eggs.

With the other fixtures of his life obliterated now -- dozens of Port Authority colleagues, the Twin Towers he helped rebuild after the 1993 terrorist bombing -- it is difficult, even in November, to fully face what has happened to the village where he has lived for 25 years.

"I consider myself a tough guy, and I can deal with anything," Mauk says. "But there are times I'm totally unprepared for the depth of emotion I feel in dealing with this."

He is not quite sure what to make of that, what to make of his urge to write to the husband of Michele Coyle-Eulau, the woman he would see getting on the train in the morning, and occasionally, riding up the elevators in the North Tower.

She lived four blocks from his house. He never even spoke to her, knew nothing of her, really. And yet here he is. John Mauk wonders about that, wonders what it means.

In a certain sense, it is difficult to say exactly what is missing in Garden City, difficult to define what was lost -- not to families, but to neighbors on a block, or a man on a train.

Twenty-one people were lost, of course, each a complicated world unto himself, a crystalline one, that makes clear the horribly abstract 2,800.

But each person who died Sept. 11 was also part of a place. The 21 people lost from Garden City were connected to one another and -- in ways obvious and subtle -- to the 23,000 people who live there.

That is partly because there are large families who have spent generations in town. It is telling that in the weeks after the terrorist attacks, reports were that 70 to 100 people were lost from the village. Someone reported her husband was missing, someone else a brother, someone else a cousin, and it all turned out to be the same man.

Rites and rituals

Connections are established through more than genealogy, though. They are established through rites and rituals -- formal ones like classes at Garden City High, and informal ones like conversations at the edge of a lacrosse field.

They are also established through things less tangible, through the force of particular personalities, the unspoken expectations of the young or the ephemeral sense of familiarity conveyed by a face.

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