Haven in the Dust: Discovering a Plaster, Remembering a Dust Cloud

by Philip J. Malebranche
A step into an office in Mid-town Manhattan in early 2016 was a step into the history of Japan.  As a homeless person arriving to interview for employment, I was unaware of what I was getting into. That I would be asked to write about a Japanese product would have been far-fetched.  For the firm, Advance Coatings Group, however, that was my task. Stewart Ratzker, the company president, hired me, and I was charged with learning about a revered finish.  The lessons were like hovering over the Asian archipelago on the western edge of the Pacific Rim. Of decorative plaster, I knew nothing; of Japan, I knew some. For years, I've followed current events and international relations with interest, supplementing my Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology and experience living in Europe, with news from around the world. During the 1980s, I lived in France. Asia, and Japan, was always far-away. I do suspect that I have bloodlines to China. While in Europe, I visited Rome.  Italy is another great historic producer of plaster. My bloodlines may also lead to that country.  I may consequently be particularly attached to Stucco Italiano, also available at Advance Coatings Group.
The qualities of Shikkui Plaster have piqued my interest. It has an established place in the long history of the country. It has been used as a decorative finish on interior and exterior walls and ceilings for centuries. It graces the most revered Middle Ages-era castles, Buddhist temples and Zen gardens of Japan. The reliability of the plaster is longstanding. The inhabitants accept it for its beauty and its natural elements. The combination of environmental and aesthetic traits ensures the passion with which the Japanese use it. It furthermore is aligned with their cultural and philosophical values, among which are beauty, simplicity, emptiness, suggestion and humility.  Nature is ever-present.  It is an integral part of Japanese design.  The regular occurrences of earthquakes, there, have meant improving the finish to resist earthquake damage. The series of tremors in April 2016 has caused serious damage to Kumamoto Castle, in Kyushu Prefecture, but the Japanese are devoted to the reconstruction of their beloved architectural treasures. 
The heroism of Shikkui plaster recalls one of the many from another day 15 years ago.  The commemoration, this week, of the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center revived memories that may have been long dormant.  What I have in mind is a story I heard among my colleagues, at the time.

Serving, then, in the first weeks of a stint as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at a Lower Manhattan office of Community Access, Inc., a nonprofit that serves individuals with psychiatric disabilities, on Williams St., near City Hall, I was preparing, that morning, to go to work when the news came over the radio.   The reporters at CBS Newsradio 880 spoke of the first plane’s collision with a tower.  Thus, the drama began.  My effort to get to work from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, seemed like it might be successful—until the A train stopped at High St., the last station in Brooklyn before crossing into Manhattan.  All were ordered to leave the subway system.  I joined the exodus.  At street level, New Yorkers were already streaming across the Brooklyn Bridge into Brooklyn, covered with dust.  They appeared as ghastly figures on the silver screen, stunned by the catastrophe from which they ran.  It would be about 10 days before I could return to work on Williams St., for the clean-up that was necessary.

Some of my co-workers had already arrived at the location that morning, I was to learn.  To their credit, they reacted to the crisis by transforming the space into a refuge. One story that they recounted ended in that space:

A man fled the Twin Towers after one was struck by an airliner.  Near the base of the complex, before he could get far, he saw a woman in front of him trip and fall.  She was hurt; she sprained her ankle.  The man stopped, took her in his arms and ran with her down Fulton Street, east, away from the conflagration.  The gargantuan and grotesque dust cloud caused by the crumbing tower seemed to give chase.  After several blocks, he turned left on Williams St., trying to evade the monster-cloud, and continued running.   A co-worker at Community Access spotted him and motioned him into the office.  He darted in.  She shut the door behind them and the cloud swept up the street, darkening the sunlight and everything along the way.  Dust seeped into the office through any crevice, as if in a last grasp.

A clubhouse to serve the needs of people with mental illness, the place had an industrial kitchen, a food supply, spacious rest rooms, extra clothes, a bank of computers, and was rather roomy.  The woman with the injured ankle was able to wash off the dust, eat a lunch and find footwear—flip-flops--that fit for her commute home to her family; for she had lost a shoe during her escape.  She was never able to learn the identity of her rescuer.  Leaving right away, he didn’t stay for introductions.  Someone had learned, though, that the man was an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

The agent’s heroism deserves recognition.  He shares some of the cherished qualities of the ancient plaster from Japan:  strength, beauty, reliability and humility.  It is right to remember his actions of that day.

The attack was more than a strike against the United States.  Many foreign nationals died at the World Trade Center, in Shanksville, Pa., and at the Pentagon, in 2001.  Ninety countries lost nationals in the disaster.  Three-hundred seventy-two of the dead are reported to have been non-U.S. citizens.  Among them were Japanese and Italians.  These countries lost 24 and 10 nationals, respectively.  The foreigners were working in a wide variety of professionals sectors, including banking and finance.  Among the nations suffering are these:  The United Kingdom tolled 67 lost; the Dominican Republic, 47; India, 41; South Korea, 28; Canada, 24; Columbia,18; Jamaica,16; the Philippians,16; and Mexico, 15.

Foreign nationals, like fine decorative plaster, embellish our existence stateside.  We benefit from their commerce and remember them, with the others lost on this anniversary.