Sunday, September 16, 2012

Tumblring in Washington, DC

I happened to find myself in Washington DC this past week, as 9/11 bled into the horrifying murders of Ambassador Chris Stevens, information officer Sean Smith, security specialist Glenn Doherty and a fourth American whose name I don't think has been released.

Except for a quick visit to the Library of Congress archives three years ago, I had not been in the capital or capitol since a junior high school trip.

The first thing that struck me is the presence of the flag at half staff: unlike NYC, flags are omnipresent, and the constant visual reminder of the national deaths is very poignant.

Our national monuments are impressive, as they need to be to help with the nation building behind E Pluribus Unum. I enjoyed a nighttime bike tour to see their illuminated state, and then returned to see them during the day. That's when they come to life with thousands of visitors: particularly moving are the number of Asian visitors at the Vietnam Memorial, and the elderly veterans in wheelchairs with comrades and friends at the WWII memorial.

Here's my Tumblr-homage to the monuments of the District of Columbia.

Union Station; Jefferson; FDR with Eleanor; MLK; Lincoln; Korea; Vietnam; WWII; Washington; Memorial to the Japanese-American Patriotism in WWII, colloquially known as the Internment Memorial. The names of 10 internment camps are on one side, with the numbers of how many Japanese American were held. My guide said that as the war progressed and the army needed more fighters, men in the camps were conscripted. The names of the men from the camps who died in combat are listed in the bottom picture.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Out of the Clear Blue Sky": The Story of Cantor Fitzgerald and 9/11

In August I attended some of the DocuDays films at IFC, and one that has stayed with me is Out of the Clear Blue Sky: it's an insider's look at the story of Cantor Fitzgerald and 9/11. With the distance of 10 years it tells the sad, unique story of this company and how people have picked up and moved on as they can from such personal devastation.

Cantor Fitzgerald is a financial services company that specializes in bond trading: it's one of twenty primary dealers who trade U.S. government securities directly with the Fed. In 2001 its corporate headquarters were floors 101 to 105 of the North Tower at the World Trade Center. When terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the tower, the Cantor people were 2 to 6 floors above impact. Of the 960 employees who worked there, the 658 people who were at their desk all died. The only Cantor employees who lived weren't at the office, or had left the floors for one reason or another.

The deaths from this one company were 24% of all WTC victims.

Filmmaker Danielle Gardner gained the trust of the company and the families to weave the many sides of the complicated overall story together very well: the rise, fall, and rise again of the CEO then and now, Howard Lutnick, who was often seen on TV in the days immediately following the attacks; how the executives regrouped and tried to see who was alive, who was dead, and in the next breath had to decide whether they would fold the company or try to go on; what it meant that they had to borrow $70 billion dollars, which they were given a very short time to pay back.

The story of the cold business of literally making money for people alongside the obscene loss of life gets at the very heart of the attacks. The Towers were targeted because of their connection to the very center of the capitalist system: this wasn't a museum, this is where much of the business of making money in a global economy took palace.

As distasteful as it might seem to be thinking of money at that time, to close the company would be giving the terrorists what they wanted. And so, while in complete shock, Lutnick—who lived because he happened to be taking his son to the first day of school that morning—–set up a crisis center at the Pierre Hotel in midtown for the families as he huddled with whomever was still alive to see if the company could remain open. In those first days relatives still hoped that loved ones would be found, and the agony and despair of that crisis center makes the enormity of the day easier to grasp for the viewer because of its personal level.

One ugly fact on the business side is the phone call the major bond companies had in the afternoon of the the 11th. Lutnick says that a major competitor pushed for the bond floor to reopen on Thursday, the 13. The stock exchange didn't reopen until the following Monday, and there was no reason the bond trades had to go earlier, except that the competitor was hoping to pick up some of the business that Cantor couldn't handle, if they came back on line at all. Yup, capitalism as cold-blooded as it gets.

Cantor did get back online on Thursday, just barely, and that side of the story is fascinating to see unfold told by the people who were there, completely parallel to what was going on in the family crisis center at the Pierre.

I don't remember Howard Lutnick on TV, crying. Apparently he went on nearly every morning/talk program in the week after the attacks. Then there was a controversy that Cantor stopped paychecks for the 658 the week after the attacks. There are nuances to the situation, which I'll leave to the film. But the company fairly quickly set up support groups for the families. First they did it by geography--North Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, etc---but they soon learned that people needed to be with those shared the same pain, and so it became Widows, Parents, Fiancees, Siblings, etc. All brought together because someone worked at a specific company.

The Cantor Culture

I experienced a small taste of the financial services culture myself. In the late 1980s I worked for a mutual fund company, Lord, Abbett & Co, as a shareholder reports writer/editor. Wall Street had a glamor back then, and I was curious.

Lord Abbett wasn't as high-powered as Cantor in my day. But the bond traders were connected to the world in a unique way at a time  before the internet. Topical jokes went like lightening across their network, and it was a band of brothers, where women were few and far between. It was often a frat party atmosphere, but it was only the smartest guys and they who knew the stakes were very big and very serious. Hence Oliver Stone's Wall Street.

Cantor Fitzgerald was started in 1945 by B. Gerald Cantor and John Fitzgerald. From the stories from the surviving family members, you see Cantor as a company that encouraged bringing in qualified friends and siblings. That's why the number of parents who lost 2 children in the collapse was 27. Widows also lost brothers, because friends brought friends in and marriage ensued. 955 children lost a parent. 38 pregnant wives were left behind. It just can't be said enough: the personal toll of this one company is enormous, and the interviews with some of the parents 10 years out are some of the most poignant moments of the film. So calm, so eloquent, still in shock.

I hope Out of the Clear Blue Sky is shown on TV. The interviews with employees about what it was like to work up in the clouds as well as the attacks and aftermath are a valuable and important oral history. And the last shots of the film, which I won't give away, are very moving as they softly portray the important message, 11 years out: never forget.

Cantor Fitzgerald now has 1,700 employees. The terrorists just didn't get it: you can't kill an idea. Thank God.

A clip from the film.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Travels with Cadfael: The Songs of Elba

"I wanted to ask you why you stopped at the Isle of Elba."

"It was to carry out an order from Captain Leclère. As he was dying he gave me a package to deliver to Marshal Bertrand there.

So that was Edmond Dantes’s excuse—a deathbed promise. Cadfael and I had no such noble focus. Did you know that Dumas decided to write The Count of Monte Cristo after visiting Elba himself? He was traveling with a nephew of Bonaparte’s, and as they sailed back from Elba he saw the other islands in the Tuscan Archipelago——Gorgona, Capraia, Pianosa, Montecristo, Giglio, and Giannutri——and vowed to write a novel in memory of the trip. So there must be something captivating going on there. . . .

I visited Elba during my heady days of travel with my friend the Benedictine monk Cadfael. We were visiting Tuscany, and I wanted to be a completist, so off to Elba we went, driving southwest from San Gimignano to the port of Piombino for the ferry to Portoferraio, the city of Napolean Bonaparte’s first exile.

Our first foray to visit the Emperor’s town residence--Palazzina dei Mulini, located in the highest part of Portoferraio between Fort Stella and Fort Falcone--was nearly thwarted by the port’s tiny stone streets, and the fact that there is no place to park. Being a New Yorker I thought I understood the meaning of those words, but I was close to weeping after circling through an eternity of narrow stone streets that wouldn’t allow us to get where we needed. Luckily, Cad is deeply unflappable, and an extremely skilled driver. He piloted the Micra onto sidewalks, performed the drive-backwards-up-an-entire-hilled-street maneuver, and coaxed the mighty Micra down a flight of stairs—all to outflank those one-way signs.

Cad won, as usual, and the Micra was finally parked. We bounded up to the Palazzina only to see “Chiuso,” those most dreaded of Italian letters. Undaunted, we took ourselves to the Emperor’s summer residence, Villa di San Martino, at 6 km from Portoferraio along the road to Marciana. The man was only on the island for a total of 10 months, but decorum at all times.

I am not an imperialist at heart, but I was jazzed to be walking through the exiled Bonaparte’s bedroom, and his study, and to look out where he surveyed the sea, when we finally got into his town residence the next day.

But what I remember most about Elba overall is color and sky: the pink of Bonaparte’s town residence under a huge, tropical blue sky. Later in the day we drove west, away from the towns, on a mountainous road above the sea. The sky there was huge, majestic, and humbling, and we drove into layers of grey and blue offset by the sun’s gold. Peter Gabriel was our soundtrack as we egg-and-darted along the rising road, going deeper and deeper into that space between sea and sky. I understood what could have made such an impression on Dumas.

It was September 2002 . . . 
This trip had a very poignant timing. I got on a plane in New York on September 12, 2002, the day after the first anniversary of the attacks.  It was still a sad, dark, heavy time, and unease all around, as we didn't know if there would be more murders a year after. But as we said, we have to keep moving, and so to the airport I went to start this trip.

We spent our first Elban evening in the hotel. The lobby was pleasant—-the white tile floors spoke to the beachiness of the location, and the décor was clean and modern. To the left of the bar was a baby grand piano. Cad plays by ear, and has a good tenor voice. He asked the manager if he could play for a bit, and he said yes. There were small clusters of guests scattered throughout the lobby, mostly German tourists.

Actually there are so many German visitors on Elba, and the language is so prevalent, that it is a little disorienting. “M.A., can we please go back to Italy?"

At the piano, Cad’s repertoire is easy listening on the sentimental side, but with a musician’s flair. I sat by his side as he sang Piano Man and She's Always a Woman and joined in for some harmonies on Thunder Road and Four Green Fields. He sang out, but it was not intrusive and we could hear the soft conversation buzz throughout. There was some sweet applause when the set ended. It was nice.

Ah, the drink break.

Refueled, Cad started playing again, noodling around a theme, then playing it straight out: Oh my gosh, it was America the Beautiful. I was stunned to hear the tune. I hadn’t been thinking at all about home, and that haunting melody can put a lump in my throat at the very best of times.

To keep from crying I tried to focus on Cad’s expressive phrasing, and somewhere in the second verse I heard myself adding the harmony. Cad modulated during a verse interlude, and we sang the last verse in a higher key, putting the “alabaster cities gleam/undimmed by human tears” into a stronger part of vocal ranges.

When the song ended, we realized that everyone in the room had stopped talking. I felt a little numb, very self-conscious, and a little embarrassed. How cheesy was this? Would we come across as obnoxious Americans?

There were several beats of complete, palpable, silence . . . and then the conversation buzz picked up again. A hug from the strangers in the room would not have felt more embracing.

Cad went to get us drinks, and we sat and drank, for quite a while.

The next day we left to go back to Rome.