Bronze skin, square jaw, hazel eyes, and that wicked grin–the one where just the left side of his mouth curled up–that let you know he was up to no good. My nephew Damon introduced me to Tarel when we were all twelve years old. I knew right from the start: Tarel was a special kind of I-want-this-guy-on-my-team crazy.
Tarel was over-the-top passionate about everything: women, poetry, women, music, sports, women. Even as a teenager you could tell he was trying to focus his indefatigable energy in a positive, “run-into-a-burning-building-to-save-a-kitten” direction. He was a heroic son-of-a-bitch from the day he was born. I didn’t always like Tarel, but I loved him. He was someone I knew I could count on.
One of the selling points of the Brooklyn waterfront apartment I called home were the spectacular postcard views of the lower Manhattan skyline. I’d wake each morning to majestic man-made mountains of glass and steel, defiantly scraping the sky.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, when the first plane hit World Trade 1, I was sound asleep.
From across the East River, the explosion shook my building. I lumbered out of bed, curious to see who–or what–dared disturb my slumber. At first, as I looked out of my window, nothing struck me as unusual. Then I noticed the gape-jawed crowds gathered on the street below.
I climbed out onto my fire escape, to be greeted by my downstairs neighbor. “Did I imagine it, Megan” I asked “or did the whole building just shake?”
“Jackie” she said, without making eye contact, “look up.”
There in front of me was the World Trade Center, on fire.
The crackling of my then state-of-the-art 52k modem struggling to connect my PowerBook with the internet intermingled with the frenetic newscasts. I called my Mom. Emails and instant messages were flooding in from friends around the globe. I went back upstairs and back out onto my fire escape, the apparent serenity of a perfectly azure sky besmirched by the billowing pillar of smoke emanating from the South Tower. As I stood there trying to figure out what I should do next, the second plane hit.
From where I stood in Brooklyn, I could feel the fire blast on my face.
Right around that time, inside WT1, people were being evacuated. Elyse, who worked on the 102nd floor, was the second to last person in line to get into the elevator. Michael, her boss, insisted they switch places.
“Mike” Elyse said, “you go. You’ve got a wife and two kids. I’ve got a cat who destroys my furniture.”
“Don’t be silly” Michael said. “You get on this one, I’ll be right behind you on the next elevator down.”
By the time Squad 252 in Williamsburg got the call, the mass exodus from Manhattan had begun. No one really knew what was going on, but no one was taking any chances. One plane hitting a building was highly unlikely; two meant for sure we were under attack. Subways were shut down.
Cabs were packed four and five deep with customers headed to similar locations. Tens of thousands of people were walking home across the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges.
Squad 252 was among those first responders to answer the call.
I remember standing on my fire escape, feeling a sense of… defiance. As both Towers belched smoke and fire, I remember thinking to myself: we’re still standing. You can hit us but you can’t knock us down. We can take a hit. Look at us, you threw planes at us and we are still standing.
And then, the first Tower fell.
There’s a true story about the first time Tarel knew he was going to be a fireman.
He was five years old, and he’d stuck his head into the incinerator in the Queens apartment building where his family lived. John, his brother, said no one had noticed, until they got upstairs, and saw that he had no eyebrows, no eyelashes, and no hairline.
On September 11, Tarel Coleman was 32 years old. He’d been nicknamed “Prozac” by his team, not because he took the mood-balancing drug, but because “sometimes he just needed to calm down a little.” He’d married his childhood sweetheart, Michelle Brown, and had a teenage daughter.
Tarel was inside of the South Tower when it fell. He died the only way he would have wanted: saving others.
The fact that “Never forget” became the mantra for the 9/11 terrorist attacks always seemed ironic to me, as if anyone ever could. Like a port-wine stain, it’s a permanent blemish on the American psyche. Historians will debate the causes and effects for centuries. Anthropologists will look back and recognize cultural and socioeconomic shockwaves.
I’ll remember the kid I grew up with who was always too fast for me on the football field. I’ll remember how good it felt knowing that any trouble we got into, I knew he had my back. I’ll remember Tarel, not for the way he died, but for the way he lived.
They say everyone dies twice: once when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time. When your time comes, what reason will people have to keep your name alive?
YOGANONYMOUS would like to send thanks to Jackie Summers for this post, which originally appeared on his blog, jackfrombklyn.com.
About the Author
The Universe has a twisted sense of humor. When Jackie’s marriage to his childhood sweetheart abruptly ended, he found himself homeless, friendless and suddenly single at thirty years old. With nothing left to lose, he quit his job on Wall St and moved to Brooklyn, to pursue a career as a male model and songwriter/producer.
Ten years and and an inordinate amount of dates later, he makes no attempt to hide his scars. F*cking in Brooklyn recounts his honest, hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking journey of self-discovery. This native New Yorker offers more than just insight into the male mind, he invites you to peer into the human condition: authentic tales of soul and flesh from the County of Kings.