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AMERICA, THE HAUNTED <br> THE ALL-TOO FAMILIAR FACES OF DESPAIR

I met Ken Diaz on a brilliantly sunny afternoon in Manhattan last week. I was there because I was working. Diaz was there because there was nowhere else he could bear to be.

We met on West Avenue, the major road for emergency vehicles rushing to and from the smoking ash heap of the World Trade Center. Diaz was wearing a makeshift sandwich board around his neck. It had a photograph glued to it, showing a smiling man and two little girls. The man was Diaz's cousin, Angel Pera. The little girls were Pera's two daughters. Diaz last talked to his cousin at 9:10 Tuesday morning, when Pera was on the 98th floor of the second World Trade Center tower. He said his cousin was confused -- a voice over the PA system in the tower told everyone it was OK, calm down, go back to work. And then the voice started yelling for people to evacuate. That's when Pera's cell phone cut out. He is still missing.

I talked with Diaz for a while, out there on the sidewalk. What haunts me now is the memory of his face: Blank. Cold. Dead. We exchanged comments, had a conversation, but on Diaz's side, at least, it was lifeless.

There are a lot of faces like that in New York City these days.

What the experience of five days in Manhattan in the middle of this unholy nightmare taught me is that tragedies of the most incomprehensible proportions can be writ painfully small. Like Diaz's face -- its lifelessness encompassed a universe of despair. There were so many small universes of grief in Manhattan last week.

A scorched and crumpled pack of cigarettes on the ground near the rubble. A teddy bear with a World Trade Center logo, pulled from the concrete and twisted steel, its cheery red coat coated with soot. Soft snow filtering down, made of ash and bits of building. A piece of paper I casually picked up off the street that turned out to be a page from a Cantor Fitzgerald procedure manual. Most Cantor Fitzgerald employees are still unlocated, likely just dust.

Add those individual universes of grief, one to another, and you begin to see a picture of a nation in pain.

Diaz had been out on the sidewalk for three days by the time I ran into him. Most of the streets he was walking, in lower Manhattan, were all but deserted. Shops and apartment buildings were closed. The power was out. The air stank of soot and fire and gasoline fumes. No one was looking at Diaz's sandwich board; for much of his walk, no one was even there to see it.

But to call his personal Way of the Cross useless would be to misunderstand entirely why he was walking.

I parted ways with Diaz when he said he had to leave -- he had to keep going until he learned the worst. I said goodbye. We went in opposite directions. When I turned to look back at him, he was a tiny speck in the distance.

America has long been a nation where it is very easy to remain perpetually adolescent. There are so many things that keep us from growing up: Sports, television, Britney Spears, Gary Condit, the Backstreet Boys, the mall. There are a million ways to stay immature; only a few very hard ones to grow up. Individually and collectively, we have been choosing the easy way out for quite a while now.

This nation reached adulthood last Tuesday. We are a lifetime older than we were just two weeks ago. There's no going back.

And that's really why Ken Diaz was walking. Because there is no more going back -- there's only going forward, and keeping the faith.

e-mail cvogel@buffnews.com

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