The Sheltering Skyscraper

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The World Trade Center had been the roof over Richard Morelli’s head, the walls of his bedroom and his neighborhood. “They call me the mayor of Greenwich Street,” says the one-time Wall Street trader, who has lived in and around the twin towers since the 1980s.

Now two police officers guard the southern tip of his fiefdom, where few stores are open and pedestrians must show I.D. to get to Liberty Street. Lucky for him, he chose to spend the evening of September 10 in Greenstreets Park, three blocks south of the towers. He figured he’d meet up with his buddies in the morning, after checking on the guys at Firehouse No. 10. He is the “mayor,” after all.

Of course, the next morning, nothing went as planned. Jolted awake by the roar of the airplane piercing the first tower, Morelli abandoned his plastic bag of clothes and blankets and headed north to Caracello, a Greenwich Street restaurant where he sometimes worked odd jobs. Minutes after learning that his old boss and his boss’ wife were safe, Morelli heard the first tower beginning to crumble. Rolling smoke and ash chased him west to the river, and he eventually made his way to South Ferry. “I was covered in dust, debris; I don’t even know what I was covered in,” he recalls. “I lost my clothes, my home, everything.”

Morelli is one of about seven homeless people known to have lived in the Trade Center prior to the disaster. Two of them have been missing since September 11, according to Scott Williams, director of World Trade Center Outreach at Project Renewal, a service organization for New York’s homeless. When the program began six years ago, at least 30 homeless people lived in the twin towers, says Williams. All but a few responded to referrals to shelters, mental health facilities and detox programs.

Morelli, whose gray beard, bad back, puffy hands, jaundiced eyes and calloused skin make him look much older than his 58 years, stuck around. So did Mr. Man, the self-appointed mayor of the towers, along with Carlos, Carlos II, Jack, Angel and Ruth. “They depend on one another for support,” says Williams, who has neither seen nor heard from Mr. Man or Carlos II since the towers fell. Williams refuses to assume the worst, however. “I imagine that I’ll run into [them],” he says, noting that he recently found Angel in a 34th street subway station.

Like Angel, many of the Financial District’s homeless residents have moved north since the attacks. “People on the streets were affected by it as we all were,” says J.D. Clarke, director of Community Ministry at St. Bartholomew’s Church on 51st Street and Park Avenue. The church’s kitchen, which has served breakfast to homeless people two days a week, has been dishing out about 50 more meals a sitting, he says, noting that the church recently added an additional day to its program. “Unfortunately, they’re the forgotten ones. We’ll never know how many homeless people are missing from the effects of the disaster.”

Williams, however, is confident that they will recover. “They’re survivors and this is one more thing they’ve had to survive,” he says.

Morelli’s life certainly has been a series of disruptions and survival. Once a dapper man with the looks of a young Frankie Avalon and the demeanor of Tony Soprano, Morelli graduated from Holy Cross High School in Queens in 1961 and, following the legacy of Morelli men, became a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. He remembers always carrying at least $200 in his wallet to spend at the Pussycat Lounge, a strip club on the corner of Greenwich and Rector streets.

Since living on the streets, the closest he gets to the Pussycat Lounge is sleeping in the “dugout” a few doors down. With the lining of his silky blue jacket torn and the name “Mike” stitched on its left breast, Morelli lacks the polish and optimism of his young adulthood. “Look at me,” he says, pulling on his jacket’s exposed stuffing. “I’m a wreck.”

His downfall started in the 1970s, when his gambling addiction cost him and his family their Long Island home. Just as the towers went up, his wife left him and he lost his job. He doused his misery with shots of vodka at the Velvet Cup on Northern Boulevard, where he once climbed onto the bar and sang his favorite Elvis Presley song, “The Wonder of You,” a privilege Morelli says the owner only bestowed to regulars. “I got disgusted with myself,” he says. “I gave up.”

In 1978, Morelli traded his apartment on 161st Street and Flushing for a cell in the Queens House of Detention, where he served eight months for bank robbery. When he got out of jail, he moved in with his son John in Coral Springs, Florida. But his affection for the city that reared him pulled him back three years later. “I love my New York,” he says with a toothless smile.

Back in the city, Morelli says he started sleeping in the subway stations. He’d just settled in at the Port Authority on 42nd Street when his pal, Bandanna Joe, told him that life under the twin towers beat the hell out of those grimy digs. He joined Joe on the PATH platform beneath the trade center, a lucrative location, according to Williams of Project Renewal. “All of the stockbrokers and floor traders are coming in from New Jersey early in the morning and they’re right there with their hats out,” Williams says of Morelli and his pals. Generous restaurants and 24-hour indoor shelter also made the towers appealing and, consequently, Williams’ job more difficult. “Clients constantly returned because they liked the WTC,” he says.

Morelli’s children say they have tried to get him out of the trade center, too. But, says his son, John, “his heyday was being on Wall Street, being on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and he can’t forget that. He won’t leave the area.”

Richard Morelli has had a hard time accepting changes to the neighborhood. He tries to get into the World Trade Center he remembers every day. But there’s a fence around it now, and the military and the police always turn him away. So he sits on the southeast corner of Greenwich and Morris streets watching trucks loaded with pieces of his old home disappear inside the Battery Tunnel. “After they clean it all up, they’ll give me my house back,” he says. “It’ll take time, but I know they will. So, I’ll live with it. I got nowhere to go. They took my home.”

Carol Lee is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.

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