Allison Gortaney is a good bartender. She is also a scholar of the classics, a dancer and, if you catch her on the right night, one of the best Ground Zero archivists not on the World Trade Center’s payroll.
The 35-year-old from Brooklyn spends her nights serving up platters of chicken fingers, cups of chowder and pints of beer to the patrons of O’Hara’s Restaurant and Pub, at 120 Church Street in Lower Manhattan.
O’Hara’s is a typical, cozy neighborhood sports bar near both Ladder Company 10 and the now fenced-off WTC construction site. Through a combination of location and perhaps coincidence, it is now the unofficial Mecca for firemen from across the country who travel to New York City on Sept. 11. They gather annually here to remember and honor those whose names adorn the list of 2,996 killed on a sunny Tuesday morning nine years ago.
Like most New Yorkers, Gortaney can tell you exactly where she was when the first plane collided with the north tower. At the time, she was a student at Hunter College.
“I wandered the streets for hours,” she remembered. “The dust was everywhere, and the streets were just full of people.” But ultimately it was the smell, akin to that of burning metal, which haunts her.
“It lasted for months,” she said. Even in February, she remembers the scent lingered on the streets.
For the price of a lager and maybe a friendly conversation, Gortaney is more than happy to share her experiences. But if you time it correctly and catch her on a quiet night, she might also share with you the book.
The book is actually a scrapbook — a photo album pieced painstakingly together by the proprietors and many visitors who may come to the bar simply for a drink or a bite to eat, but who leave often with a renewed sense of connection to the events of 9/11.
At first glance, the book is far from remarkable. The edges are fraying, pages spill out from both ends and the spine looks as if it’s only barely managing to hold everything together. There is an unassuming, careworn air to it, with its faded navy-blue cover embossed with a single word: glory.
Inside, some of the laminated pockets hold large glossy photos originally featured in magazines such as Vanity Fair and TIME. There are several pictures documenting damage to the bar, which was closed for eight months following the tragedy.
In one photo, the bar’s co-owner Jimmy Sheridan stands in front of the entrance staring grimly into the camera from beneath an orange hard hat. Wreckage festoons the upper floor’s patio and dangles, confetti-like, from the fire escape. In another faded shot, a pair of uniformed military policemen rests their feet on the bench out front.
“This place was a haven,” said Patricia Ehring, a Wall Street employee from Brooklyn , who has been coming to O’Hara’s for years.
Another regular, John Murphy, of Battery Park City, agreed from his corner stool as he nursed a sweating Budweiser.
“This place helped bring the neighborhood back together,” Murphy said. “”It’s simple. There is a lot of sadness to the left,” he said, gesturing across the street, “but this place gives us a little relief.”
The book also holds newspaper clippings, a collection of poems written by Canadian Janet Friedl Smith and letters of thanks and support from visitors, many of whom vow to someday return, or to send a patch from their hometown fire company or precinct to add to the thousands that cover the bar’s molding — from entrance to exit.
Every region, from Pittsburgh to Beverly Hills, Miami, Alabama and Las Vegas is represented here, in all of their multi-hued, iron-on glory.
“If you took all of the staples out of this place, it would probably fall down,” joked Sheridan, an Irishman sporting a no-nonsense flat top to complement his brogue.
Ken Eveland of Geneva, N.Y., wrote, “After our lunch and upon stepping outside your door … we thought about you standing there and watching as the world crumbled around you. It was a very sobering and emotional experience. Lest we never forget.” Ron Frazer from Kansas thanked Sheridan for showing him the book, and for his formidable Guinness pouring skills. Deputy Chief Marc Bellefeuire from Biddeford, Maine, thanked the bar for so piously remembering the fallen, adding to the postscript, “The hell with them towel heads!”
On Saturday, the families and friends of those killed nine years ago stood for hours in Zucotti Park as the names of the dead were read aloud.
Around the corner at O’Hara’s, however, the mood couldn’t have been more different. Both levels of the tavern were jam-packed with boisterous firemen, police officers, sailors and Marines. Career fire captains wore dignified blazers and company pins, swapping insults and anecdotes with their younger counterparts. Neckties were loosened and guards were let down. Groups ordered no fewer than seven beers, and the firefighters cap set on the bar was always overflowing with cash.
A swamped but undaunted bar staff kept everyone’s glasses full and spirits light. If the memorial litany of names that continued live on the back television sets was the morning’s funeral ceremony, then this was a good, old-fashioned Irish wake, complete with the guarantee of more than a few Sunday hangovers.
Ladder Company 143 from Queens was well represented on the upper level, with retired Lt. Bobby McGuire holding court over a large group of blue-shirted firemen in their 20s and 30s. McGuire was forced to retire due to lung disease contracted because of his rescue efforts on Sept. 11.
Rob Hogan, one of McGuire’s protégés from Long Island, visibly reveled in the atmosphere and camaraderie.
“We just want to remember, drink a beer,” Hogan said. “I lost friends on September 11th. We all did.”
Like many of his bar mates Hogan bypassed the morning’s ceremony to come directly to O’Hara’s. People might judge the decision, he said, but Hogan stuck firmly by his choice. Someday, he said, this is how he, too hoped to be remembered— all of his buddies gathered together, toasting him with Miller Lites and laughter.