Difference a Day Made
by Chris Shields
Capital Region residents, their lives forever altered by 9/11,
tell their stories
warm summer’s end, the door is propped open to Pi Naturals.
It’s busy. Ty Austin, co-owner, a floral artist, has just
sold a silver, plasticine horse, coated in glitter and adorned
with shards of mirror. He jokes with the woman who bought
the shimmering equine, saying that he wants to meet the lucky
donee. “They gotta be cool.”
is housed in what was once a run-down little one-story building
on the south side of Hoosick Street in Troy, in a charming
but distressed neighborhood. Austin’s business partner, Jerry
Ellis, bought the building for next to nothing, and the two
of them went to work. Gutting the entire brick structure,
they tore out all of the street-level joists, ripped out the
floor, tore off the rain-damaged roof, and stripped the thick
plaster from the brick walls. When they were finished with
the demolition, what was left was an open space, two stories
high from the basement’s dirt floor to the missing roof.
this auspicious space they poured a cement floor, installed
a large walk-in cooler for flowers, a work sink, and a set
of stairs. They rebuilt the first floor as an open loft that
leads from the front door to a small sitting area in the rear
of the building. The store’s configuration offers an open,
yet intimate setting, and on this particularly busy day, the
shop has adopted the quality of its community—neighbors stop
and talk, friends catch up with one another.
is working fast and determined. He is headed to a weekend
of motorcycle races in New Hampshire.
really excited. I grew up next to a drag strip, where they
have the Winston World Nationals, so I really like that stuff,”
Austin says, adding, “I haven’t gone to something like that
grew up in Norwalk, Ohio, a town of 30,000 people, along the
coast of Lake Erie.
up like a total hick,” he says. “Country boy.”
country boy attended the University of Toledo, where he played
men’s volleyball and studied biomedical engineering. It seems
like a noble profession, he says, developing prosthetics limbs
that can give people back their ability to walk.
field, with its focus on high mathematics, wasn’t where he
was headed. With the help of a small revelation, Austin concluded
that his destiny lie in something a little less esoteric.
sitting there in calculus five. Do you know what they do in
calc five? They take the X, Y, and Z plain, which is the 3-D
plain,” he explains. “Then they find the molecule, and they
revolve it around one of the axes, and then they take a slice
of that. . . . There is the area of the cone.” It has been
a while since that class, and his eyes widen. Trying to remember
the abstruse science overwhelms him.
then they grade you on it, and you don’t even know if that’s
the right answer because it’s a theorem.”
an argument for Joshua!” Austin interrupts himself by shouting
to the couple sitting outside on a bench. “I have an argument
for him,” Austin teases, as he strips the leafs from the stem
of a flower. “He says math is the universal language. I’m
like, ‘Are you fucking nuts?’ ”
may not be a universal language either, Austin admits, but
he is convinced that they offer something akin to universality.
When anyone sees a flower, he says with a smile, they feel
a moment of utter happiness.
be only for a second,” he says. “But that’s what we need.
We have to remember those moments.”
college, Austin met a guy from New York City and decided to
move out east with him. He moved to Manhattan and settled
into an apartment on Canal Street, where he was when two hijacked
airplanes destroyed the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. The
apartment was just a few blocks away from Ground Zero. “It
stunk. It stunk to high heaven. For months . . . experiencing
it, smelling it, and probably being possessed by the whole
thing. There was a lot of energy down there. The energy—you
could touch it. You could feel it.”
had been sitting on his balcony the morning of Sept. 11. He
remembers watching people plummet from the upper floors of
the World Trade Center towers, having made, he believes, an
unimaginable decision. “You have to wonder what was going
on in their heads . . . At that moment, you are like, ‘Oh
my god, do I stay here and burn? Or do I jump and take my
chances?’ And you know there are no chances.”
watched as tens of thousands of people walked north away from
Ground Zero. “At the beginning, they were clean-cut but panicked,”
he says. “Further on, they were covered in soot and screaming
their heads off. And the ones after that were all bloody.”
to the Capital Region eight months later.
Ellis, co-owner of Pi Naturals, was working as a bar back
at Club Phoenix in Albany when he met his future business
partner, Austin. “Ty jumped over the bar one day,” Ellis says,
“put his arms around my neck and wouldn’t let go.”
had moved to the Capital Region in September 2002, and was
working as a substitute teacher. The bar helped supplement
his income. Someone suggested that he get a real-estate license,
and he did so in the hopes of finding the perfect fixer-upper.
Which he did, he says, when he found the Pi Naturals building.
At least, the price was right.
time, he says, has flown.
days have gone on and on forever. But, looking back, I have
to do the math to believe it’s been four years. And five years
since September 11 . . .”
years ago, Ellis was living on East 65th Street, just three
blocks from Central Park. A perfect distance to ride his bike
to the park, he says. He worked for a large international
law firm, Davis, Polk and Wardwell, first as a recruiter,
then in business development. He lived in the same apartment
and worked at the same job for about nine years.
downtown,” he says, “all thought that was the suburbs.”
also working toward his master’s degree in elementary education,
and in his spare time would student teach. On Sept. 11, he
was teaching third grade at a public school on the Upper East
Side. At first, no one really knew what was going on.
of parents started coming to pick up their kids before we
really understood what was going on,” he says. “About midway
through the morning, we were starting to hear some more specific
rumors. Finally, I got through to my father. I was standing
in the boy’s room of the school, and I heard it from him what
walked outside, and walked down to Fifth Avenue, and looked
straight down,” he recalls. “You could see this unbelievable
cloud hanging over the lower tip of Manhattan. It was five
or six miles away . . . where the horizon starts to bend .
. . ”
to stay at the school until every child had been picked up
by a parent. That took all morning. By 1 PM, there were still
eight kids left.
he finally could leave the school, he started walking home.
to walk 20 blocks south,” he says, “and everybody, the masses
were streaming north, because the transit was shut down. So
everybody was walking the opposite direction I was. It was
then that he decided he would leave New York City. A year
later, he moved.
the course of my life,” Ellis says of 9/11. “I was in a graduate
program for teaching elementary school, and I couldn’t get
focused on it again. I walked around the streets and looked
up at the sky. I just couldn’t focus.”
the feeling of being powerless,” says Carmen Gonzalez. “Power-
less to move, powerless to leave, powerless to help, powerless
to talk to my children.”
been at work that morning. Her office was on the West Side,
near Penn Station. “I heard the rumble before I saw the towers
collapse,” she says. “I close my eyes now and it comes back.
. . . Every second is frozen in time. . . . And I remember
as each layer fell, I felt my cells close down. I just went
totally numb and ice-cold, and I couldn’t stop shaking.”
was living in Long Beach, Long Island, at the time, five blocks
from the Long Island Railroad and five blocks from the ocean.
She would commute to work by taking the train into Penn Station.
It’s about a 50-minute train ride to the city. From Penn Station,
she could walk to work.
a very comfortable life, she remembers.
Sept. 11, no one knew when the trains would start running
again. To get home, all she could do was get on a train and
wait. “I couldn’t stop crying,” she says. “It kept coming
were guards in black uniforms with machine guns and dogs.
“And when the doors closed, I thought, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God,
I am going into a tunnel.’ That’s when it hit me, I was going
into a tunnel. I had a panic attack, which I never have.”
minutes and 32 seconds she spent in that tunnel was the worst
time of her life. She kept thinking: “I have no way out. I
have nowhere to go. The train is moving—I have no way even
to get off the train.” That feeling of panic lasted for almost
a year, she says. Whenever her commute took her through the
tunnel, she would break out into a cold sweat.
after the attacks, Gonzalez went to the beach, a favorite
spot to relax and meditate, to calm down. She thought she
would go into “a peaceful place.” But when she got there,
there were thousands of people on the boardwalk. The media
were there. “It was a circus,” she says. On the horizon, in
the water, she could see dozens of ships with their guns pointed
up into the sky, ships that she had never seen before. Above
her, fighter jets circled. This went on for months.
on Long Island, she was left with a constant feeling of being
trapped, she says. If something were to happen, how could
20 million people evacuate an island? Over a few bridges,
in a tunnel?
sitting ducks,” Gonzalez says. “And I felt that way until
I moved up here. It stayed, that feeling.”
9/11,” she continues, “there was such a sadness in the city,
such a sadness, such a black cloud. Everybody walked around
like zombies for weeks and weeks and weeks. After we got back
on our feet, it was still there. No matter how much it seems
to get back to normal, it’s always there, in the back of our
minds, on the back burner.”
not the way Gonzalez was used to living. She was born in Manhattan
and raised in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood that she says
was mostly Italians at the time. Her mother, a Puerto Rican
immigrant, ran a successful children’s clothing store in Manhattan,
and this afforded Gonzalez a comfortable, middle-class childhood.
Manhattan, she says, gave her the world, everything that she
could possibly want—it was a city filled with opportunity.
It was her city.
so appreciative of growing up in Manhattan,” she says. “It
was so much a part of me. It was great, and I miss it. I miss
the freedom of running around and feeling safe. Or never even
thinking about being safe.”
know if any of us can ever really feel safe again,” she adds.
“In my heart, I don’t believe that they [the terrorists] are
done with us.”
moved to Troy in 2004, after visiting a friend in Clifton
Park. Her friend’s husband worked at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute, and he offered to take Gonzalez on a tour of the
I came for a ride, and we drove around,” she says. “I pretty
much fell in love with Troy.”
bought a little coffee shop on 1st Street, just south of Washington
Park, and moved into the upstairs apartment. She lives there
now with her mom, Juanita, whom everyone, she says, calls
have four cats, she jokes, “that allow me to live with them.”
Café features the artwork of local artists in a lovingly appointed
little dining room. Gonzalez says she wants her café to be
a place where the community comes to share their lives and,
to this end, she is happy to open her doors to after-hours
film showings, tapas nights, poetry readings, book readings,
whatever her neighbors want.
in her coffee shop, with Mamacita off in her daydreams, this
refugee of Manhattan’s most traumatic moment opens her hands
to grace and says, “Now, I have this.”
during the trial of Zacarias Moussouai that Anthony Aversano,
a Troy native, found an opportunity to express his conviction:
End the cycle of violence.
eventually would be found guilty of conspiring with the 9/11
hijackers, and in turn, with conspiring in the act that killed
Aversano’s father, Louis Aversano Jr., who worked for Aon
Corp. in the World Trade Center.
system assumes that justice is served, Aversano says, when
the most extreme punishment possible is leveled against an
offender. In Moussouai’s case, that punishment would have
been capital. Aversano joined other people who lost loved
ones in testifying for the defense.
easier to not say or do anything,” Aversano says. “But it
takes great courage to find the compassion, the compassion
in your heart, to see past the hatred and the anger, which
is a process I have been through since losing my dad.”
important to Aversano, during the trial, to make it clear
that he wasn’t testifying on the behalf of Moussouai, but
to “speak a different voice,” he says. He testified to “look
at a bigger picture, and where we are as Americans, and where
we are in, I think, the history of our planet.”
if we continue to act, when violence strikes our lives personally,
or strikes our communities, or strikes our country,” he says,
“if we continue to want to respond to violence with violence,
then that is not serving justice, it’s not serving peace.
It’s only continuing the cycle of violence in our world. And
so I spoke my voice to say, ‘No more. I do not condone continuing
the cycles of violence, to continue the cycles of hatred.’
Aversano, then a recent college graduate, decided to go west.
He bought a van and remembers saying to himself, “I’m going
to go find my life out there.”
employment in Las Vegas in the television-and-film industry
and continued his education, working toward a master’s degree
in broadcasting at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. After
six years, he realized, “Wait a minute. I was on my way to
packed up, he says, and moved to the San Francisco Bay area.
while he was in California that he began to lose interest
in his former professional pursuits and began to explore “a
more spiritual path.” It was this path that would eventually
bring him face-to-face with a troubling incompleteness in
his life: his rocky relationship with his dad.
years, he says, he was using his father “as a great big target
for why life wasn’t working, for blaming him for lots of areas
of life. . . . I got to be right, I was making him wrong.”
the part I wasn’t seeing in doing that with him was what it
was costing me in my life,” he says. “It was costing me dearly.”
in a workshop in 1999 that Aversano had “this awakening and
transformation.” He called his father. “I simply called him
up,” he says. “I apologized to him. I said, ‘Dad, I’m so sorry.
I’ve been a jerk.’ ”
that one phone call, he says, he forged a new relationship
with his father.
a connection with him that was beautiful, it was loving,”
Aversano says. “We connected very deeply, and I feel really
blessed, like God gave me the opportunity to have a lifetime’s
worth of connecting with dad in those couple of years.”
he reconciled with his father was Sept. 11, 1999. Two years
later, his father would be murdered. Anthony Aversano, who
still lived in California at the time, has since returned
really sad today,” Aversano says. “There are people dying.
. . . When are we going to get it in America? I don’t know
what to feel. I feel sad. I feel angry. I feel, I feel . .
. that we are so disconnected as Americans. . . . We are so
not present to what’s happening out there in the world. That
our government is creating the same tragedies that I felt—there
are people dying in Iraq every day that are people like you
and me. There are little kids dying,” he says, his voice breaking.
are other young men losing their fathers.”
and pauses. his eyes rimmed with tears.
why?” he asks. “I feel this powerlessness in American people.
That we don’t feel we can do anything about it. . . . And
that is so untrue. If history proves anything, it’s how resilient
and how powerful American people are. But we are stuck, and
we are lost in our addictions, in our comfort. . . . we are
very complacent in the comforts of our life.”
effort to overcome this complacency in himself, Aversano joined
September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, in 2003. Peaceful
Tomorrows is an organization dedicated, he says, to “breaking
the cycle of violence.” Brought together by their shared loss,
these survivors of 9/11 have created an international network
of those have been affected by violence, he says. Peaceful
Tomorrows is a way that Aversano, and others who feel like
him, can come together to affect change.
Tomorrows is holding a conference in New York City this week,
Sept. 8-14. The conference, Civilian Casualties, Civilian
Solutions, will be a forum for peacemakers and victims of
violence worldwide to share their stories. Aversano will be
among the presenters.