On a rainy January day, the exposed metal of the World Trade Center PATH Station on Church Street shelters the often-heavy work of remembering. There’s the slightly disheveled bearded man playing ‘Amazing Grace’ on a flute; the smiling, would-be entrepreneurs selling WTC photo albums, two for ten dollars; and out by the curb, in the rain, the lip-ringed college students proclaiming the government’s involvement in 9/11, nervously quoting FCC transcripts and secret DOD memos. But near the station’s entrance, next to the fence, there’s a crowd, and though most regard the photos and timelines with appropriate solemnity, some, especially the kids, are smiling. They’re getting the history from the History Guy himself, Mr. Harry John Roland, better known as World Trade Center Man.
Harry’s 52 years old, his graying hair covered by a wool USA cap. A dozen key chain lanyards with the names of a dozen different cities hang from his neck, gifts from the grateful. His pockets and bags bulge with photo albums and boxes of Lucite key rings. These are the tools of Harry’s trade, which he approaches with a good dose of humor. “Don’t let history be a mystery,” he shouts, “never say two ‘cause that ain’t true,” referring to the common misconception that only two buildings went down on 9/11.
Harry’s manner mirrors his appearance. He’s loud and persistent, quick to ask questions of the kids who inevitably gather around for his daily street-side history lessons. He fills silences with statistics stuck inside catch phrases, and it works, especially with the children. “How many buildings were here?” he asks a small boy, the youngest of a family of tourists. The boy doesn’t answer. “How many sins are there? How many seas?” The boy still doesn’t answer. “How old are you?” “Seven,” the boy replies. He gives the boy a key ring to remember the experience.
Harry isn’t a beggar, though he has been mistaken for one. “It’s not about the money,” he says. And he isn’t out to heal. But he does believe he serves a purpose, and his reasoning is simple: “I know how many people come here and don’t know what they’re looking at.” Harry’s a teacher. In front of the PATH Station every day, “seeing children light up” with understanding is what brings him back the next. And people ply him with gifts — an aerial shot of the collapse of the South Tower, from a grateful cop, is pasted in his scrapbook next to a photo of a man from California with the Twin Towers’ trademark fork-shaped beam installed as a memorial. He displays them with pride. (Also in Harry’s scrapbook, displayed with no less pride, is a ticket for blocking pedestrian traffic. The officer, it turns out, was new to the beat. The judge threw the case out, let Harry keep the ticket, and asked to see the officer in court.)
“A lot of numbers coincide with so much truth it shocks me,” Harry says, in regards to WTC Seven being the last building down and the first one back up, but he also knows that numbers don’t always tell the whole story. The official tally of deaths at the World Trade Center is inaccurate because it doesn’t take into account the homeless and the illegal workers. Also overlooked are the other countries that lost citizens, some 180 of them. At one point, Harry claims, even the Tribute Center’s version of the official tally was out of date. Harry tries to give you the facts, and, unlike the Tribute Center, he doesn’t try to force the donation. To him, history should be free.
His endless collection of photos provides his presentation with a personal touch. Most are his own work, some are gifts, and many include his son, whose first day at a school a few blocks from Ground Zero was on 9/11. Each photo has a story he’s more than eager to tell. Sometimes, when you get him started, it’s hard to make him stop.
From his days giving tours and working concessions in the World Trade Center complex, and from doing security at the Liberty Landing Marina just a block west of the Towers, Harry has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area. Always an avid photographer and history buff, since 9/11 Harry has felt compelled to abandon more proper forms of employment, instead paying a daily visit to the World Trade Center PATH Station. Yet he views it as a job, coming every day — rain or shine — and staying until he runs out of a hundred fliers and maybe half as many key chains.
Harry’s only missed one week at his new gig — in 2004, the week after he was called in to identify his nephew’s remains. He was out, he says, “letting that reality hit.” After that week he felt closure, and with it a new drive to “let people know it’s not just two.” Now Harry provides that same closure to visitors. Some have accused him of creating a climate of revenge, but Harry, who thinks we should’ve “locked down Afghanistan and Pakistan” before venturing into Iraq, rejects the label. “It’s just that reality can be cruel,” he says.
Still, Harry tries to make the experience painless, even pleasurable, and as a result, he’s become a fan favorite. Yet his adopted title, World Trade Center Man, doesn’t really do him justice. Born and raised in Harlem, Harry is an urban historian with a wide range of knowledge. 9/11, especially tales of Brooklynites opening their doors to those fleeing Manhattan, only increased his dedication to the city. Now, he says, he goes “to the neighborhoods just to see what the flavor is about.”
One visiting school group, Harry says, wanted a single picture to remember the city — them, with Harry, in Times Square. To that group, he says, he represents a unique New York experience, emblematic of the city itself. And even New Yorkers appreciate him. When he returned to Church Street, Harry recalls, a construction worker expressed relief that he would once again hear Harry’s familiar refrain. “I thought that the next time I heard ‘don’t let history be a mystery’ I’d want to punch you,” the worker said, “but now I see the importance of what you’re doing.”
Harry doesn’t know when he’s going to stop. He feels a responsibility to the thousands of visitors the site draws, and he doesn’t feel he can trust the other sources of information. The conspiracy theorists, he believes, have the story wrong, and the Tribute Center shouldn’t be charging. As for those selling photo albums, Harry feels they’re uninformed, so much so that they’ll listen to Harry and then regurgitate his message. But children from Boston to Beijing agree: there’s only one World Trade Center Man. •