Reality Check

Don Goede is in a New York state of mind.

In early September 2001, Don Goede made an absent-minded choice that brought tragedy into his small Brooklyn apartment: He left his windows open before leaving town.

As he sat with relatives in Colorado Springs a few days later and watched the World Trade Center implode, the debris of the disaster was coating his apartment 2,000 miles away. "There was something about the wind conditions," he says. "It just carried this dust right into our neighborhood. It was on everything. My computer was completely covered."

When he finally caught a flight out of Denver two days later, Goede returned to a very different city than the one he'd left. "The whole neighborhood was covered with this thick, gray matter. It was up against fences, everywhere."

Window on the world: Self-portrait by Don Goede.
Window on the world: Self-portrait by Don Goede.

The grim assortment included papers from the Trade Center -- memos, to-do lists, photocopies stamped "Confidential," chunks of building material, remnants of the chaos and commerce that once filled the towers at the heart of the financial world. Goede and his neighbors and friends weren't sure what to do with all of the stuff blowing in from the smoldering site across the river. Some decided to turn it in to the local firehouse. Some decided to burn it. But Goede, armed with a mask and a bunch of trash bags, dove in and gathered as much as he could.

"It wasn't like I had this epiphany, like, 'The world must see this disaster,'" says Goede, an artist, publisher and musician who had lived in New York since 1996. "I could have collected enough to fill the entire Denver Art Museum, but I didn't have the foresight. I was just trying to connect to it personally. And what do you do when you're trying to do that? You grab stuff, hold stuff, put it in a box."

Goede eventually created one piece, "Death Mask," using materials he'd collected on the street. In November 2001, he submitted the mask to 9/11 Show: Artists Respond at the Kentler International Drawing Space in Brooklyn. The rest of the material stayed bagged and boxed while Goede tried to regain some modicum of normalcy of life in New York.

He was helping to run Soft Skull Press, an independent publishing imprint based in Brooklyn. Since the mid-'90s, Soft Skull had grown from a basement bastion of radical art and politics into a publishing house with international distribution. Before 9/11, things were going pretty well for him and for the company: Goede had been profiled in magazines like Paper; he was friends with brilliant artists and musicians; and Soft Skull books, such as William Upski Wimsatt's Bomb the Suburbs and Seth Tobocman's Portraits of Israelis and Palestinians: For My Parents, were being read all over the world. Goede, like everyone around him, had to try to get back to his work.

Two years later, though, he'd had enough of New York. On return trips to Colorado, he'd fallen in love with a schoolteacher from Manitou Springs, the time-vacuumed, kitsch-laden pit stop just ten miles from Colorado Springs. Once they were married, Goede and his wife, Jeana, thought the tiny town would be a more sane place to raise kids.

"In New York, you're not able to experience this quality of life," he says, waving his hands at sandstone cliffs that seem to jut out from the roof of Santa's Workshop, one of Manitou's many retro tourist attractions. "I felt like I'd done my time in New York. You have to ask yourself how long you can stand living in a 400-square-foot apartment. Here you can go hiking, swimming. There's a little bandstand where an orchestra comes and plays. My kid can walk down to the local store and I won't worry -- at least not like I would in Brooklyn."

The bags of WTC material sat in Goede's Manitou basement as he worked on other projects, including a Soft Skull reissue of Road Movies, a book of poetry written by Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo. He also recorded music (one of his musical projects, Hyperjinx Tricycle, pairs him with artist Ron English and songwriter Daniel Johnston) and laid plans to expand the company's catalogue into Colorado, starting with the left-leaning Colorado Springs used-book store Poor Richard's. With partner Noel Black, he brainstormed The Toilet Paper, a nationally distributed monthly newspaper due this fall. And he's exploring the idea of opening a publishing house for children's literature.

But Goede was dogged by a feeling that he should do something with the WTC materials he'd sacked away. Last August he hauled a small selection of pieces to a street festival in downtown Colorado Springs. The pieces include a sticky note from the restaurant Windows on the World; a safety manual for tower employees, complete with evacuation instructions; a check drawn on a bank housed in tower one; and a heat-warped computer disk. On the surface, it made for a mundane collection -- office supplies and form letters, piles of chalky residue. But riddled as they are with burn marks and covered in dust, the pieces are morbid souvenirs of a very bad dream.

"When you're looking at things that were on someone's desk, in their 'normal' place just seconds before the explosion, you have to wonder, 'Did someone see it before they died? Was this in a drawer somewhere?' It helps you connect to it," Goede says. "It was interesting to watch people's reactions to it in Colorado Springs. Some of them would pick up a piece and be like, 'Whoa. This is from that?' One guy said, 'Hey, why don't you cash the check?' This stuff gives people a feeling they don't normally have, and some of them try to cover that up right away with humor or stupidity.

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