The first time I walked into the World Trade Center was on a snowy Lincoln’s Birthday in 1977. Half the City didn’t go to work that day, but I had a job interview, and I wasn’t about to blow an opportunity to work in those shining towers that meant as much to New York as the Rocky Mountains do to Colorado and Mt. Rainier does to Seattle.
I met with a fellow named Sam Zekser, the Import Manager. I apologized for my ridiculous rubber snow boots, but he told me how much he appreciated my shlepping in on a day when most of New York stayed home and they were closed anyway because Customs was off. (Score one for me!)
The office was huge. It took up a full quarter of the 16th floor, facing uptown — the direction the first plane came from — and the place was mostly empty. He ushered me into a conference room, gave me a cup of coffee, and told me to take my coat off.
He brought in two pencils, a few sheets of xerox paper, and a calculator. And he wrote out maybe a dozen math questions as he sat across the table from me. I read them upside-down as he was writing them out, and solved them all in much less time than it took him to write them down. He hired me on the spot, and I started the next day.
The job was classifying imported items from a huge tariff book, figuring out the duties payable to Customs, and filling out the Customs entry documents. The office consisted mostly of Cubans and other Latin-Americans, all very legal immigrants, and from a dozen different countries.
I worked on a team with three other guys: Gil Casas was my supervisor – he was a short, thin guy in his 50s, and he taught me the mechanics of the business; a fellow named Bernie something, a Jewish guy from Brooklyn, who grumbled and growled all day between having telephone arguments with Customs inspectors, but who was able to classify almost any item you would ever see imported into this country without looking in the 1400-page tariff book; and Mario Garcia, a former political prisoner from Cuba who learned chess in prison, became an International Grandmaster, and swam shark-infested Guantanamo Bay to freedom after a match against a visiting team from Russia.
He and Gil would play two games sometimes after lunch, taking just seconds between moves. Mario was in his late 40s, looked like 60, and he had an accent like the guy in the Dos Equis commercial. “Stay thirsty, my friend” sounds like something Mario would say.
Once lunch hour ended, Mario would start off the afternoon with a hearty, “Let’s maaaake entry, boys!” which always made the girls in the office giggle, and in turn always had us four guys laughing. He and I would often ride the Number 7 train home together – he got off in Jackson Heights, and I stayed until Main Street, the end of the line, in Flushing.
Another guy I worked with, Richard Pencak, a 6’5″ 300-pounder who everyone lovingly called Bigfoot, later wrote the book (literally – two of them) on how to become a Customhouse Broker. He was on a par with Bernie. They used to have long discussions about Customs Regulations, and thanks to all those guys, I learned a business that would take me from New York to Denver and around the world, and then to Seattle. (As I was researching this story just now, I learned that Richie died just over a year ago, at 56. Too damn young.)
Sam, the guy who hired me resigned on the first day of my second week on the job to open a company of his own. He was replaced by a guy named Billy Sullivan, who kept me on and promoted me a couple of months later. When Sam left, Richie became Billy’s assistant. Another guy I worked with for a short time there won five million dollars in the New York State Lottery, took a limo in the next day, and offered to buy the company. They refused, so he went to the Customs office and turned in his license.
I worked at that company for a little over a year, during which our team cleared a lot of high-profile stuff. I wrote one of the first landed-cost programs for Macy’s, which started me on a second career; Gloria Vanderbilt visited our office once – we cleared her designer jeans, and Jordache’s too; we cleared the King Tut exhibit when it first came to the U.S.; we cleared the former Shah’s son after he fled Iran; a piano for Elton John, who played a private party at Windows on the World; and a very expensive Steinway that belonged to Leopold Stokowski, whose original death certificate had to be presented to Customs with the documentation to avoid paying duties. The guy in the Fine Arts Department who did the entry secretly kept the original after it cleared, and blamed its loss on the Customs people. (I’ve kept that secret for 35 years, until now.)
Since I was just 22 when I started working downtown, I had plenty of wild little experiences in the five years I worked there, and since it was the 1970s, a lot of them had to do with getting stoned:
My friend and I were in the final scene of the King Kong remake. It was done over a weekend, at 3:00 AM on Saturday and Sunday and most of the crowd was drunk or stoned or both, including a few of the “soldier” extras. We smoked a joint as Jessica Lange climbed up on the dying motorized gorilla.
One fine lunch hour, a bunch of U.S. Customs officers in a van made me eat a lit joint right across the street from the north entrance to their building. Luckily, (a) they didn’t bust me; and (b) Customs was the most prepared of all government agencies on 9/11, because they’d drawn up evac plans after the 1993 bombing. Every last person in the New York Customs Headquarters at the World Trade Center got out alive. That was the only really good news to come in the days after.
A messenger I worked with — I can’t remember the company — guy named Henry something, used to like to get high in the sub-basement levels. We went as far as the 5th underground level once, if my memory is accurate. After I moved to Denver at the end of 1983, I didn’t think about it for 10 years.
Then, in 1993, I was in my hotel room in Taipei, ready to check out and come home, when CNN International reported that the WTC had been bombed. As my colleagues came to take me to the airport for my flight home, I watched about a half-hour of the coverage, and then I had to catch the worst return flight I was ever on — 11 hours of only knowing that the World Trade Center had been bombed, and people had been injured, but unable to get any details of what I would be flying home to.
The World Trade Center — I refuse to call it Ground Zero — was a pretty fantastic place to see, and a great place to work at. I was young and it was beautiful. I loved it. And now it’s gone, and I refuse to go back.
I took a trip to Long Island a few years ago to attend my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, and we flew into and out of Islip (thank you, Southwest Airlines), because if we flew into any of the three major New York airports, we would likely overfly lower Manhattan, and I didn’t want to see the gigantic scar on my City.
Today I’m very thankful for U.S. Navy Seal Team Six and Barack Obama and all of our troops, and everyone who had anything to do with killing bin Laden and feeding his dead ass to the sharks. To know that some carnivorous lower life form has long since shit him out to the bottom of the ocean is almost enough payback for me personally.
But ten years have gone by since that awful day, and we’ve got to demand that America bring our troops home from Afghanistan and leave that damned wasteland for good. And we have to vow, as a nation, never to elect a total fucking incompetent like George W. Bush again. He should have left right after 9/11, on the planes that he arranged as getaway vehicles for the Saudi royals and bin Laden relatives.