9/11: I Was There

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On September 11, 2001, I was in New York City covering Fashion Week for my newspaper, The Globe and Mail, when one and then two jets crashed into the World Trade Center, just blocks from where I was reporting on the latest runway looks. That day was chaotic. People running, screaming, falling, bleeding, begging me to use my cellphone, practically the only one working on that day of carnage. I did not hand it over, not even for the fist full of dollars waved in my face. I used my phone to dictate back to Toronto what I was witnessing in the streets of New York today, the voices of the people who had survived the collapse of their office building, their clothes, what I was meant to report on that day, completely torn away or else’s covered in the dust of destruction. Here is the first story I narrated for the sidewalks of Manhattan.

Day of Infamy Eye Witness International News Special Report

‘I can’t get to anyone I love. I hate this’ The attacks brought New York’s frenetic pace to a crawl, DEIRDRE KELLY writes. With traffic gridlocked and the subways shut down, shell-shocked people had nowhere to go and nothing to do but virtually sleepwalk through the streets.

NEW YORK — At Times Square, it was like New Year’s Eve. About 9 a.m. yesterday, a crowd stared up at the Teletrons — watching on one screen a scene of billowing smoke, reading on another a ticker tape that reported that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

With the city’s enormous skyscrapers evacuated, people made their way toward Times Square for information. Traffic hit a standstill. Masses of people wandered up and down the famous avenues of Manhattan, stuck, like prisoners, on an island.

All that could be heard were sirens and strange moments of silence, when everyone would gather around any radio available.

I was in New York to cover the fashion shows, I didn’t think that my report from the runways would become a report from a virtual war zone.

At Bryant Park near Broadway, where New York’s Fashion Week has been unfolding in various tents since Friday, the first show of the morning began. The runway models for the Liz Lange Maternity line and expectant mothers in the audience were blissfully unaware that death and disaster on a massive scale had hit the city.

But about 9:35 a.m., word was out that Manhattan was under siege. Immediately, leggy models backstage ripped off their curlers, tore out of their makeup chairs and ran, cellphones in hand, in high-heeled boots onto the street.

One panic-stricken fashion model managed to nab a taxi. Others weren’t so lucky, because by then panic had started to sweep through the streets. In a city where taxis are as abundant as wheat on the Prairies, not a cab was to be found.

Security — seven men and women in a line dressed head to toe in black — swiftly stationed themselves on the steps leading into the fashion shows behind hastily erected metal barricades.

People poured out of the train stations, which closed for fear there would be more sabotage. The only public transportation operating was buses running in the opposite direction of the World Trade Center down 6th Avenue, crammed with people desperate to get away.

The front panel of the buses that usually announces their final destination instead delivered the message: “Emergency, call police.”

People frantically dialled their cellphones, trying to reach loved ones, but many were unable to get through. Lineups for public telephones snaked down the street as people tried to circumvent the jammed airwaves to contact their friends, employers and relatives.

Debbie Bloom, 22, a student at Katherine Gibbs business school, was trying to reach her mother, who worked in the World Trade Center. “Come on, mom, pick up the phone,” she said as the phone rang. Her mother’s voice mail answered, so Bloom left a message: “Mom, mom, are you there? If they let you in the building at some point — anyways, hopefully I’ll see you later. I love you, mom.”

Bloom hung up the phone and started to cry. “I feel powerless,” she said. “I don’t know whether to cry or to scream. People are either hysterical, or they’re telling you to shut up because they don’t want to worry about it themselves. . . .

“I can’t get to anyone I love. I hate this.”

Brenda Moultrie, who works for an insurance company in financial district, was trying to head for home when she got caught up in the panic after the second building collapsed. “Everyone panicked and started running,” she said after she emerged from the hospital with a bandaged eye. “With all the dust, people couldn’t see. It was pitch black. People started falling over each other. I was pushed to the ground. I couldn’t see anything. The dust was in my throat and in my eyes. It was difficult to breathe. . . .

“I had a bump on my head . . . and I also sprained my ankle. You don’t know whether you’re going to make it. You figure this is it.”

People wandered around like zombies, with nowhere to go. Some who worked in the World Trade Center managed to move uptown before the gridlock set in.

Businessmen from the financial district sat in stony silence, nursing paper cups of coffee and shaking their heads in disbelief. Those who spoke did so in whispers, their eyes glazed like soldiers who have just come from the front lines.

Sam Rivera, 44, who worked in the World Trade Center for Credit Suisse, fled the building after the first plane hit, but watched as people still trapped inside on the 70th floor and higher jumped from the windows. “It doesn’t make a difference if they fell or leapt — they are now dead,” Rivera said. “What could they do? It was either be consumed by flames or jump to the sidewalk.”

For Bart DiChiaro, 51, a vice-president of Credit Suisse, this was a haunting replay of disaster. “It’s terrible, it’s absolutely shocking. . . . We all work there and we were there when they bombed it in 1993. It has always been a target. . . . The noise was tremendous. The building shook. . . . Outside, it was chaos. People were tripping on the street.”

Nanda Sandilya, 27, who arrived in the United States two years ago from India and works as a software consultant in the World Trade Center, expressed anger and disbelief. Sandilya happened to be late for work yesterday. “I was in the Newark Penn station, I could see the plane from the station. I smelled and I saw the smoke. It’s terrifying.

“How the hell can a country like the United States that calls itself a superpower and which can monitor a small bridge in the Middle East the other side of the world, why can’t they monitor their own country? I now have second thoughts about staying here.

“They’re targeting the normal guy, who’s just working for his livelihood. Did they hit a politician? No.”

The attacks conjured up images of war, and some, given the U.S. position internationally, said that perhaps the disaster was inevitable. “America bullies half the world so you have to expect it,” Lisa Doyne, a 31-year-old photographer who lives beside the World Trade Center.

Mary Lawlor, 69, fashion editor at Wear Magazine in Boston, was in New York for the fashion shows, and added: “I’m old enough to remember World War II. It’s the same feeling, that this is war. It’s very frightening. I think we’ve all had a fear that something like this was going to happen.”

Although Bryant Park is about 40 blocks west of the World Trade Center, the tension was palpable. At midday, a loud bang went off at the park and people, their nerves raw, started running, screaming, and falling. There were rumours of a bomb scare in nearby Grand Central Station.

Police cleared Bryant Park, ringing it with red security tape. But with the subway shut down and other transportation limited, people lingered on its perimeter. “Get out of the park,” one officer said. “It’s for your protection. We don’t want a stampede.”

In the face of tragedy, the normal rudeness and freneticism of New York vanished. Pedestrians slowed to a stroll because there is nowhere to go. Some looked as though they were sleepwalking.

Rich and poor were united out of fear for their country. Construction workers stood shoulder to shoulder with businessmen, all assembled around the radio on steps of a subway station. Others gathered around a Toyota Tercel that pulled up onto the sidewalk, blasting President George W. Bush’s address to the nation.

Seven hours after the first plane hit the building, three blocks from the World Trade Center, only a jagged outline of a structure could be seen, a hump of rubble still licked by flames, defying the onslaught of water raging from the hoses of hundreds of firefighters on the scene.

Smoke, like a horrible bruise, darkened an otherwise bright-blue sky under the 27-degree temperatures.

The air was pungent with the smell of burning tar and paper, the wails of sirens piercing the cries of emergency workers pushing people farther and farther away from the scene.

People stumbled and pushed back in confusion and panic. Private cars leaving the disaster area covered with a grey debris, like a fine clay, were being hosed down by firefighers.

Military personnel mingled with tense police while enterprising New Yorkers, eager to witness the event, grabbed bicycles and made the trip through back streets and alleys to avoid the closed-off main arteries. Plain blue sedans were stopped around the streets, red police flashers propped on their roofs.

As crowds were being pushed back, emergency workers continued in a steady stream down West Broadway toward the disaster. New York transit buses were filled with workers wearing hard hats and rubber gloves, ambulances and fire trucks rushed back and forth and the skies were dotted by helicopters and military aircraft.

A steady stream of private vehicles rushed by, full of medical personnel wearing surgeon’s scrubs.

In downtown Manhattan last night, thousands of dump trucks lined the streets waiting to remove debris from the disaster zone, as a convoy of John Deere tractors moved in to aid in the cleanup.

In the streets of Greenwich Village, makeshift posters appeared on walls and fluttered from balconies, urging people to go to hospitals immediately and donate blood.

The Colour of Ballet

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I am being interviewed by a documentary film crew from New York at TIFF 2014 tomorrow about African-American ballerina Misty Copeland, and I am sure I will be asked about the lack of blacks in ballet. I have pondered this question before, notably in the following article, which got some people thinking and others so riled they cancelled their subscription to my newspaper, The Globe and Mail. I thought to reprint it, to see what has changed, and what has stayed regrettably the same, since I first wrote the words 14 years ago:

It’s time to raise the barre LAME-DUCK BALLET? Blame whomever you want for the National Ballet’s deficit troubles, but things would be different if it could see beyond its nose.
DEIRDRE KELLY
Dance Critic

Toronto — The tutus are in a knot again at the National Ballet of Canada — but the trouble may be more profound than all the bickering makes it appear. Like Eaton’s, the National Ballet has lost touch with the people. Its problems are more sociological than esthetic.

This week the company announced that it is yet again in the hole, having accrued a $1-million deficit for the performing year that ended June 30. The accumulated debt for Canada’s largest classical dance company now stands at a whopping (and unprecedented) $3.8-million. The National’s executive is blaming it on troubled times for ballet. Critics of the organization say poor management is at fault, and wonder how much money the company is willing to lose to block ousted ballerina Kimberly Glasco’s request for reinstatement.

The real reason for the company’s declining fortunes may be much deeper: The National Ballet is sadly out of step with its time and place. Instead of presenting works that reflect the cultural diversity of urban Canada, it concentrates mostly on works from other centuries and other countries with little or no connection to Canada at all.

One of the reasons artistic director James Kudelka was hired in 1996 was to ensure that the National develop an identity all its own. But what has he done so far to satisfy that mandate? Let’s see . . . expensive remakes of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, the latter set in Czarist Russia, the former unfolding in an ancient court in a distant land. Last season, he restaged The Fairy’s Kiss for the company, a ballet whose classical vocabulary borrowed heavily from Marius Petipa, a 19th century Russian choreographer.

In between, Kudelka has brought to the National Ballet a clutch of contemporary ballets — The Four Seasons, Musings, Desir and Cruel World among them. In some instances the freshness of the choreography, a merging of classical and contemporary idioms, has given hope that Kudelka is forging a uniquely Canadian dance style. But these works have still failed to stop the National from hemorrhaging both revenues and audiences. So what is really going on?

Instead of pursuing his goal of redoing the Tchaikovsky canon (this week, Kudelka suggested that The Sleeping Beauty will be his next full-length project) perhaps the company’s chief choreographer should be thinking of creating or commissioning works that reflect the real Canada.

Think about it. Nights at the ballet could feature work inspired by East Indian or Native Canadian culture. The country’s craze for social dances like swing and tango and salsa might also fuel new creations that meld the classical steps of old with a sensibility that is more of today.

Other choreographers have embraced their times with abundant success, and they are among the few dance artists of the 20th century to have been labeled geniuses. They include George Balanchine, the late, great choreographer and artistic director of New York City Ballet, who revitalized academic dance by introducing to it the jazz steps and popular dances he witnessed on his forays into the black nightclubs of Harlem.

Mats Ek of Sweden, a choreographer who is still very much alive and kicking, takes the classics and boldly reworks them so that they are both relevant and interesting to today’s audiences. His Giselle takes place in a psychiatric ward; his The Sleeping Beauty is set among junkies; and his Carmen (which the Lyons Opera Ballet brings to Toronto next month) is a cigar-chomping feminista.

If the National Ballet were to revise its repertoire to attract new audiences it would also have to go one step further — altering the complexion of its dancers. With a few exceptions, the National Ballet is a sea of white limbs and faces. There are occasions (the National’s current Western Canada tour being one of them) when colour does tinge the ballet blanc, but rarely. And in general, those who go to the ballet are reflected in the narrow racial makeup presented on stage. So no wonder audiences for the company are thinning. Canada is no longer the exclusive European club it was when the company was founded nearly 50 years ago.

More people would likely go to the National if what they saw there reflected something of their own reality. When the National Dance Theatre of Jamaica recently performed in Toronto and Ottawa, the venues where they played were sold out. At Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre, the demographic composition was more than 95 per cent black. You almost never see large numbers from the city’s black community at the National. What does the National have to offer them?

But again they are out in droves when the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company visit. These are troupes that feature blacks among their ranks and whose choreography, while rooted in traditional disciplines like ballet and modern dance, makes room for a range of influences from the African diaspora.

The National Ballet would do well to follow suit. It is obvious the ship is sinking. Box-office revenue is down, audiences are staying away (even for The Nutcracker, a former cash cow) and patrons are either cancelling their subscriptions or reducing their contributions because they no longer feel the National Ballet is serving the needs of the community. The company, rather than heeding criticisms, goes on the defensive. Even though it has lost money over the last three years, during an economic boom, it wants to say that everything is fine. We lost money, said Kudelka this week, but we had some great reviews.

Another cultural institution that found itself floundering years ago was the Canadian Opera Company. But instead of going to great lengths to protect the status quo, the COC took a hard look at itself and decided to initiate some changes. It went into the community and hired some of the sharpest talents in our midst to turn their skills to the opera. The next thing you know, the COC is one of the most succesful arts organizations around.

Like the National Ballet it peddles an ancient art form. But the crucial difference is that the COC is drawing its audiences from a much wider cross-section of society. It surges forward while the ballet company lags behind. If serious changes are not made soon, the National Ballet is in danger of becoming an expensive irrelevance.

Who Gives A Toss?

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You called me a dirt bag, a piece of scum, a flimflammer extraordinaire.

You thought I was out to steal your money. And I was. Sort of. But don’t blame me. It was my job.

Many Ferris Wheel spins ago, I was one of thousands of Torontonians for whom a summer gig at the Canadian National Exhibition is a rite of passage. For the 128th edition, which opened yesterday, another 1,500 have been hired to service the games, the rides and the concessions. Because the Ex has a permanent staff of only 15, most of them will be, like I was, a temporary worker — a carny for a season.

My booth: a skill-testing beanbag toss called Tic-Tac-Toe. Get any three of those grime-encrusted bags to form a straight line in a criss-crossing of wooden squares that loomed enticingly behind me on an angled board. Any line wins. 75 cents a toss. Peanuts.

And I was a natural, a midway siren, calling out seductively to get suckers to part with their quarters. “Don’t walk by without giving it a try,” I chimed. “Hey, big boy, wanna win a fuzzy toy? Whoa-whoa-whoa, Tic-Tac-Toe!”

I locked eyes, daring the likes of you — pretending I wasn’t there — not to feel my burning stare. And I learned early on to focus on the suckers with the money. Yes, you.

Men, especially the muscled macho ones — my favourites were those with a chicky-poo wedged under one brawny arm — became my “marks.” They were so easy. They would wind ‘er up, pull back and torpedo the beanbag at the box, only to see it slide down to the floor in limp defeat.

“Too bad you couldn’t do it, Mister,” I’d say, innocently batting my lashes.

Down would go another 75 cents and then another and another. I once had a guy lose $200 in an endless performance of self-degradation that had people on the sidelines craning their necks to see. He wanted so badly to have the big purple cat hanging from the rafters behind me that sweat was beading his brow.

When he walked away — defeated, of course — he was muttering under his breath that the game was rigged.

That’s too strong a word. There is, according to North American Midway, which operates the CNE, a 30 per cent winnability rate for its games. But it’s like a casino. The odds are always with the house.

Was I coached to lure, tempt and cajole you into handing over your money? No, sir, I was not. Like many of my colleagues, I was self-taught — largely to alleviate the crushing boredom of standing seven days a week, eight hours a day for 18 days straight at minimum wage.

I was just the middle man. It’s the belief in Lady Luck that really drives people to play the midway. People think, “Okay the next one will be mine. I meant this next one. Okay, one more time. My luck’s gotta come in.”

Some people can shrug off a loss. Others get spitting mad and think you’re to blame for them striking out. I guess that’s just human nature, to get sore with another person — when really it’s your own fault for being a loser.