Michael Brick | Longreads | September 2016 | 16 minutes (4,136 words)

In December, two months before cancer killed him, our friend Michael Brick sent a few pals an email.

“I’m entrusting to your care these two unpublished works,” he wrote. “I’m proud of them both. My great hope, of course, is to share them with the world someday.”

One was a manuscript for a fantastical picture book called “Natalie Had a Bicycle” that he had written with his son, John-Henry. He said it had been roundly rejected by every agent in America. That’s a damn shame.

The other was a word doc called, simply, “Ruback.”

It’s a long-in-the-making memoir of the failings of newspaper journalism. Or a newspaper journalist. Or, really, of one tiny story: a “Portraits of Grief” dispatch on the life of a New York firefighter. What Brick had written in 123 words, in an effort to efficiently encapsulate the life of a 50-year-old man who died on Sept. 11, came to haunt him. This piece is his effort to correct the record, and maybe find peace.

“All lives end unfinished,” he writes in the story. How true.

“I don’t have any specific instructions for you,” he wrote to his friends. “You may read them, of course.”

Originally slated for Harper’s September issue, the piece never ran. We’re pleased to share it with the world here.

Ben Montgomery

Michael Brick
Michael Brick

* * *

I never met Paul Ruback, but I failed him, so he came to haunt me. Sometimes, when the weather turns a certain way, I picture him rising for work that day in the firehouse on 77th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. The morning air felt crisp. The skies looked clear. The sun cast a lambent glow across the brownstones and the parking garages. Rain had fallen overnight, starting in the late afternoon and coming down for hours, enough to force the New York Yankees to cancel the season’s last game against the Boston Red Sox, even with fifty thousand fans waiting in the stands two hours past the scheduled starting time of 7:05 p.m., even with gate receipts of $1.6 million to refund, and even with Roger Clemens, the pitcher known as The Rocket, pacing the home dugout in anticipation of a chance to beat his former team for a twentieth time. The morning papers said so.

Ruback stood six feet six inches, sturdily built, with bushy eyebrows, high cheekbones, a handlebar mustache and a mischievous smile. He played practical jokes and the acoustic guitar. Firefighters called him the Gentle Giant of Ladder 25. His company’s firehouse, shared with Engine 74, belonged to another time, three stories of brick and terra cotta opening onto the street with ornamented bay windows and twin red doors that framed a single flagpole mounted upward at a 45-degree angle. From the sleeping quarters, built for thirty men, a brass pole led down to a limestone floor designed to support the weight of horse-drawn contrivances.

For an even century, since 1901, Ladder 25 had been answering the call of emergencies around the Upper West Side, some of which would have been highly improbable outside New York City. There was the time, for instance, when a mattress caught fire in a five-story tenement on West 69th Street, “in the rooms,” according to an account in The New-York Times, “of an Italian.” Contained to the bed, the fire eventually became a footnote to the full spectacle of the episode. A crowd of children gathered around a nearby hydrant to greet the arriving engine, forcing the fire captain to swerve his team to the middle of the street, through a brick wall and over a sheer drop, where all three horses hung suspended by the weight of the engine thirty feet above the tracks of the New York Central Railroad. The whole situation was eventually straightened out, though not in any manner leaving the horses fit for fire duty.

At 6 a.m., polls for primary elections opened with candidates for mayor, public advocate and city council on the ballot. The name of the incumbent mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, did not appear due to term limits. “It’s a better thing,” he was quoted as saying in the morning papers, “that the city gets a chance to try something different.” The Daily News also carried a photo from the weekend promotion of a fire captain named Timothy Stackpole, hero of a recent Brooklyn row house inferno, “surrounded by love at Randalls Island ceremony. Wife, Tara, and kids (from left) Terence, 6, Brendan, 9, Kaitlin, 15, and Brian, 10, are at his side.”

By 8:35 a.m., the humidity lingered at 73 percent and the temperature at 67 degrees. The TV forecast was calling for a high of 80. A cold front was lifting, Indian summer descending. Five hundred and ten miles to the east, carrying winds of eighty miles an hour across the Atlantic Ocean toward the North American seaboard, a hurricane was beginning to slow. The hurricane was called Erin.

In the vast interwoven city, plans for the day included a reading by Jim Dale, the voice of the “Harry Potter” audio books. The singer Cleo Laine was set to open a two and a half week run at the Regency, accompanied by her husband on piano. It had been announced that the Empire State Building would be illuminated at dusk in a soft white glow. Moon Unit Zappa was scheduled to appear at the Barnes & Noble in Chelsea for a discussion of her first novel, “America the Beautiful.” At 7 p.m., free to the public, the Parsons Dance Company was expected to perform in a series called Evening Stars at One World Trade Center Plaza.

For fifty years, Ruback had lived in this world of men and women, with their histories, predicaments and intentions. He had moved through it, and been a part of its shifting fabric. “Shortly before 9 a.m., American Airline Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, and burst into flames,” says a U.S. Department of Justice Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act Claim Determination for Case No. 01-911-0190, Paul G. Ruback, Firefighter, New York Fire Department. “Fifteen minutes later, a second plane, United Flight 175, crashed into the south tower. The impact of both crashes caused the World Trade Centers to collapse. It is estimated that approximately four hundred emergency personnel were killed during rescue attempts. Firefighter Paul Ruback died of injuries sustained in the line of duty.”

Six months later, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, quoting Shakespeare at the last of three memorials held for Ruback, told the assembled mourners, “His life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all of the world, ‘This was a man.”

* * *

In those final hours, Ruback died as a hero. His legacy became my responsibility on Wednesday, December 5, 2001, at 9:37 a.m., in an email from a clerk at The New York Times, where I was one of many journalists working on a project called the Portraits of Grief, which meant to take measure of the loss suffered by the United States of America in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

When the project began, more than 6,000 people were considered missing, few bodies had been recovered and the true tally of 2,997 remained unknown. We set out to render a glimpse, of no more than two hundred words apiece, into each singular human life. Eventually we would produce more than 2,500 portraits to publish alongside headshot photographs in a special section called A Nation Challenged, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. No one articulated the rationale for this task more eloquently than Rabbi Marc Gellman, who told a crowd gathered to pray at Yankee Stadium, “On that day, 6,000 people did not die. On that day, one person died 6,000 times. We must understand this and all catastrophes in such a way, for big numbers only numb us to the true measure of mass murder.”

Efforts to comprehend death in great numbers often turn to individualization. By the time concepts become designs vetted by diverse constituencies of survivors, relatives and public officials, though, few memorials manage to provide more than nominal individualization. The 9/11 Memorial Museum, which finally opened this year, lists the names of the dead on a wall, without description, following a model set by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In Oklahoma City, 187 empty chairs name the victims of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building acknowledging a single distinction among the dead: Nineteen chairs, smaller than the rest, represent children. In Newtown, Connecticut, a Permanent Memorial Commission now meets monthly to seek an acceptable way to commemorate the murder of twenty children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The commission’s work illustrates the challenge of even the most minimal individualization. Minutes of a meeting this summer, for example, describing a proposal to install twenty-six benches in memory of the victims, report that a commission representative “will reach out to the family members to see if they want names/symbols, etc on them and if they want them placed together or randomly around town.”

Taking the names of the dead as a starting point, the Portraits project sought to elaborate. The work was a blessing. In a time of strickenness, it provided something useful to do; in a time of bewilderment, something meaningful. I lingered in firehouses. I listened to people crying on the phone. I received thank-you notes, which is not usually supposed to happen in journalism. Sometimes the reporting led to questions without right answers. In one Portrait, for example, I had to decide how much to say about a lesbian whose family was in some combination of ignorance and denial about her relationship with her longstanding domestic partner. On the one hand, common journalistic practice suggests outing a person in a news article only if her sexual orientation contributed to her death, such as in a hate crime. On the other, concealing her sexual orientation could send a repressive message. This woman’s death was newsworthy only because it came in a confounding package of simultaneous violent death. But when presenting every last victim as a unique individual worthy of examination in a project intended to heal through knowledge and understanding, whose healing should take precedence? Blood relations? Chosen family? Vital institutions like the Police Department? New Yorkers? Americans? And what if something that might help heal one party might hurt another? To solve the problem, or at least to find a way around it, I pointed my sense of obligation in the direction of the dead. As my thinking on the matter evolved, though, I taped a reminder to my bathroom mirror in Brooklyn. It said, “You have a responsibility to the living, too.”

* * *

“Hi Michael,” the clerk’s email began. “Here are some r’s to chew on.”

This was my fourth or fifth batch of names. I had been at it for about two months. On the morning of the attacks, I had woken up on vacation in the home of friends in San Francisco. We had taken turns entertaining their young daughter so the other adults could make telephone calls and watch the news coverage on television. My girlfriend and I had taken the child to a petting zoo, which seemed to be open on that impossible day only because the alternative, closing the petting zoo, would not have made any more or less sense. When it had become clear the airports would not reopen anytime soon, I had driven my rental car twenty-nine hundred miles back to Manhattan, eliciting a memorable look from the clerk at the midtown Avis. Since returning to the newsroom, my writing duties had included the daily stock market report, articles about downtown business recovery and Portraits of Grief. Work had been interrupted for a morning when the woman across from me opened an envelope full of white powder thought to be anthrax and we were quarantined in the lobby and eventually given vials of Cipro. I had mentally prepared to die standing by the elevator next to a finance reporter who would go on to write popular spy novels. Now winter was coming. Much of the country’s attention was shifting to Christmas and the war in Afghanistan and the spectacular bankruptcy filing by Enron. In New York, though, we were living in a state of suspension. We lived, conspicuously, among the dead.

The R’s were in reverse alphabetical order. For reasons unexplained, they included one M. Like nearly all the names, they had been augmented with leads from the newspaper’s research staff. Most names included an address, a phone number and contact information for people who might be relatives. On the lists, finance men from the city appeared alongside dishwashers from the outer boroughs. There were rescue workers from the suburbs to the north and east, office workers from the Jersey side, and airline passengers from Massachusetts or California. The second name on that day’s list came with little useful information.

Ruback, Paul G.; No tel. for Paul Ruback, of Newburgh. He lived with companion Debbie Macielag. The two people below are somehow related to them, although it’s possible that they are former spouses of the two, who were apparently each divorced; there were ‘step-children’ on both sides of this union.

In Newsday, the hometown paper for people who sleep in suburban beds after putting out the fires and arresting the murderers and fixing the pipes and teaching the children of New York City, I found notice of a memorial service for Paul Ruback. It had been held October 2 at the Assembly of God Church in Newburgh. A short article, published the following day, took its information from Debbie Macielag. It noted: “The couple had a 2-year-old son, Paul Christopher Ruback. The firefighter is also survived by two stepchildren, Jack, 15, and Charlene, 11, and three children from his previous marriage, David, 18, Gina, 17, and Shannon, 11.”

His previous marriage. By definition: The marriage that ended before his current marriage. Those words did not seem idly chosen.

Searching archives of the Times Herald-Record of Hudson Valley, I found notice of another memorial service for Paul Ruback. It had been held November 3 at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Newburgh. The obituary, noting his education and occupation, said that “survivors include his wife, Lynne Ruback, at home; three children, David, age 18; Gina, age 17; and Shannon, age 11, all at home; also a stepson, Danny Marino; and a stepdaughter, Denyse Betcher; two grandchildren, Ryan and Justen Betcher; and a son, Paul, age two, from another relationship.”

His wife. At home. All at home. Those words seemed no less deliberate.

A standard obituary addresses three questions. One may be politely skirted: How did he die? Two are mandatory: What did he do, and who cared?

How did he die? Heroically, while attempting to rescue strangers at the World Trade Center. It was not only unnecessary to say so; it was out of order. The Portraits of Grief, by design, assumed as much concerning firefighters and other emergency workers.

What did he do, and who cared? From the available evidence, the answer to both questions was that, aside from an honorable career in public service, he had devoted his life to two separate families, each of which acknowledged the other as minimally as possible. But the Portraits of Grief, also by design, did not attempt to comprehensively answer even the two basic questions mandatory for a standard obituary.

So a different question set the task: Who was he?

Who, in two hundred words, was he? Was he most who he was in the last part of his life or in some earlier part? Was he the sum of his actions, his words, his inactions? Did who he was belong to others, or to himself, or somehow to both?

All lives end unfinished. The field of probate law exists to balance the final intentions of the dead against the rights of their survivors. For those killed on September 11, aside from the pensions and insurance policies and emergency responder death benefits, the government was also assembling a victim compensation fund that would eventually pay the families an average of more than $2 million. These were not insignificant practical concerns. And they paled beside the emotional grief of the surviving families.

But individually commemorating the dead raised the stakes even higher. Defining the loss became part of the nation’s response process, which also included examining the security flaws, the attackers and the sources of their animosity. In those emotionally charged days, many of us found it difficult to ask probing questions. Our country’s flawed inquiries were following strands from Windows on the World to Tora Bora, from Florida to Tikrit. The historical passage would give rise to more than its share of manufactured heroes and boogeyman. Jessica Lynch, we would learn, did not really fight Iraqi soldiers until her ammunition was gone. Pat Tillman, we would learn, did not really die at the hands of enemy combatants in Afghanistan. Many of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, we would learn, were swept up for no good reason. Saddam Hussein, we would learn, did not have weapons of mass destruction. Even with the best intentions, half-truths can be more harmful than lies.

If Rabbi Gellman was right, and if there was any validity to the premise of the Portraits, the loss of each human being demanded honest scrutiny. Cast in two different lights by two families in two memorial services, various newspaper accounts and even more various tribute web sites, who was Paul Ruback? I asked my editor for thirty-six hours.

* * *

Newburgh, an hour’s drive north of the city, had a tough reputation. George Washington had made camp there, and industrial-age riches had produced fine architecture overlooking the majestic Hudson River, but an ill-advised urban renewal program had begotten a thriving drug trade, street shootouts and the rise to power of the Bloods and the Latin Kings. Snow was deep on the ground. Rubacks had lived in the county for generations. Paul’s remains had not yet been found. Two homes awaited his return.

Among the pines on Brewer Road, in a musty five-bedroom Colonial, I found Lynne Ruback. We spoke for a while, and she gave me a copy of her written memories of the life of Paul G. Ruback. They had met in 1977, both working at Xerox. He had helped the few women on the staff navigate office politics. In January 1979, they went to dinner; they married later that year. They kept horses, dogs, cats, a rabbit, and a rooster. He joined the Fire Department in 1982. “One of the happiest moments of His life.” He played soccer and basketball. They hiked and swam. They raised her children, adopted three others and provided foster care for many more. “Paul’s tall 6 foot 6 stature never frightened any of them because he was so soft-spoken and gentle. He loved the children and had the patience of a saint.”

The next morning, I sat with in a sunlit kitchen with Debbie Macielag, listening to her description of the life of Paul G. Ruback. Their two-year-old son, Paul Christopher Ruback, was playing on the floor. A fire helmet rested on the armoire. Debbie described an unsuccessful struggle of four years with the state’s divorce laws. She and Paul had exchanged vows and rings and lived together, by her well-documented account, under significant harassment from Lynne. Their latest plan had been to wait six months until his retirement from the Fire Department, so he could establish an address in a state with more lenient divorce laws. She handed me a photograph. The little boy, reaching for the frame, said, “I want to have my daddy.” Debbie started to cry. When she was done, I left them alone.

Both women were genuinely grieving, if perhaps for losses of different vintage. Both also depended on Ruback to support their families, and both were successfully seeking financial compensation. I gathered relevant records from the courthouse and other places. Then I drove to the Assembly of God Church, where Rev. Ronald Conti, who had hosted the first memorial at Debbie’s request, told me about the protest letter he had received from Lynne. “I’m in the middle,” he said, “and I was afraid to use Debbie’s name. All I said was, ‘family members and friends.’”

On the new machines that connect us all forever, the bitterly conflicting postmortem accounts seemed destined to become the terribly undeserved permanent record of Paul G. Ruback. As I drove home to New York, I became convinced the missing man’s true self existed somewhere in the space where he had gotten stuck in life, the space between those two houses, those two families, those two perspectives. Was it somehow shameful, as the partial accounts seemed to imply, that Ruback struggled in life, that he failed to make clean transitions, that he sometimes hurt the ones he loved? Or was it simply – inescapably and therefore even beautifully — human? I sought the perspective of Brian Englander, his friend of nearly two decades and fellow member of Ladder 25. “He was basically living in agony,” Brian said. “He just wanted some peace and tranquility.”

For months, I worked to compose a worthy elegy. Only by confronting his turmoil, I believed, could the world truly honor his gentle nature and appreciate his final heroism. In February 2002, I wrote his Portrait of Grief, which appeared in print alongside more than a dozen others. It was eventually compiled in a book of Portraits. It mentioned both Debbie and Lynne, couching the discord in polite terms. Every sentence makes me cringe. The more you say about a person, the more you might have to say.

* * *

Paul G. Ruback. Photo via 091101memorial.org
Paul G. Ruback. Photo via 091101memorial.org

Ten years later, a thick manila envelope landed on my doorstep. The Times was closing its bureau in Brooklyn, where I had left behind some files. Inside the sheaf, I found hundreds of documents concerning the life of Paul Ruback, including his personal diaries and letters to his children. In his own voice, he had articulated his perspective on the unresolved conflict in his life. For reasons including deference to the living, I had quoted none of it in his Portrait. But how better to know a distinct sentient being in this electric world?

As I read his writings again with fresh eyes, every new insight led to more questions. Though not unaware of the dangers of obsession, I started calling librarians in upstate New York to piece together an account of his childhood. Paul had three sisters, including a twin. His younger brother had died, not quite a month old, in 1954. His younger brother’s name had been Christopher, the same name Paul would choose in later years over his own middle name for the middle name of his only biological child. At the expense of making his namesake son a full junior, he had followed some human instinct to preserve the memory of the dead among the living. Was this observation, finally, the key to truly knowing the man? Of course not. It was just one more piece of information.

I kept researching, not unaware of the dangers of obsession. Paul’s father, Henry W. Ruback, had served in World War II, taught mathematics at Chester High School and died in 1956, at age 33, when Paul was just a small boy. Other than a terse obituary noting a four-month illness, no public record took account of the pain that had shaped Paul’s character, losing his father and only brother two years apart at cruelly young ages. Save for this oblong reference: In 1966, in a letter to the editor of The Evening News of Newburgh (“A Proud Newspaper Serving a Proud Area”), Paul’s mother, Joan, established her credentials by writing, “I also feel a great affection for the people of Chester, whose sympathy and support at a time when my world was falling apart helped me to go on and build a new life for myself and my children.”

Who was Paul Ruback? One way to interpret his mother’s words, cast across nearly half a century, might be that we know all we need to know. Paul’s diaries and letters, expressing his inner thoughts at a fixed point in time, were full of life as it is lived, painfully and uncertainly and hopefully, but perhaps even they can not say for certain who he was. Life may very well be for the living, and its memory the property of anyone who stakes a claim. We know, as the mayor said, that this was a man. His death was tragic. His courage was heroic. This was a man, like any other. His life was his own.

* * *

You can read Michael Brick’s obituary in The New York Times here. Thanks to Ben Montgomery and Thomas Lake.