The day-after spirit changes a man's career
The voltage in his life today has nothing to do with making money.
NEW YORK — The second life of Martin Cowart began with an oily, invisible grit sanding his face and his numbed mind nagging him with questions: "What am I doing here? Where am I going?"
Where he was going a year ago was to St. Paul's Chapelof Trinity Church at the edge of the horror of the World Trade Center, where eventually he would feed thousands of relief workers in the months ahead. No sudden seizure of humanitarianism brought him there. He'd been conscripted out of a once successful but disconnected business career by a call from a cousin who worked at Trinity and knew human need better than Martin did. What Martin knew was profit and loss, how to manage loans, and how to run a restaurant.
For a few days at ground zero, he drifted and coped with the chaos and exhaustion that surrounded him, a man displaced. Through the gray curtains of descending ash, he stared up at the hulk of a bank building where he'd once worked, still standing but now black and dead. The sight left him disoriented. Then he began to work. And in the faces of the men and women he served, he began to learn something deeper about being human, something he'd missed in his banking aeries and in his computers.
He became another Martin Cowart, and he is not a man displaced today.
The compass heading in Martin's life today no longer swings randomly as it did in his 25 years in business and in his search for identity. The arrow is fixed on tomorrow. He is a man in the grip of a powerful and consuming force, an idea that has become a Grail for workers and volunteers brought together by the epic of the World Trade Center. For them, it began with a discovery that rose from the transcending grief. Many were mainstream religious believers, like Martin, and some were not. But almost all felt a kind of liberating grace of shared trust, humility, and love in the service they gave and received, infusing them with a purpose larger than themselves.
To Martin and others around him site workers, volunteers, and donors it created an community without walls, embracing thousands and giving them a kinship they want to preserve and to make heard as a conscience of 9/11.
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Is this idea a bridge too far for humans to reach? A vision too airy to stand up under the erosion of time, reality, and the gruff kinks of human nature itself?
Martin says no: "This isn't about dreaming. This is about taking the good will and spirit of those months at ground zero when a community arose, and perpetuating that spirit in a way that could become a model to the world for revealing the best in human beings. We're organizing into an actual, functioning Nine-Twelve Community that can renew itself each day and each year."
He speaks with the unblinking conviction of a man turned inside-out by his experience at ground zero. His words tumble out restlessly. Martin once was a numbers-conscious guy from southern Georgia who spent years scaling the corporate ladder; first as an accountant, then as a manager at Bankers Trust in Manhattan and finally as the vice president of a New Jersey bank. He wasn't obsessed with money but he didn't run from it, and it grew to $150,000 a year.
He had a passably spiritual side, but what primarily interested Martin Cowart was what was next for Martin Cowart. He couldn't have guessed a year ago that the round-the-clock voltage in his life today would have nothing to do with making money. Nine-Twelve is a nonprofit foundation to be formally launched in a few weeks with the goal of reconnecting the people of ground zero in fact as well as in spirit. He and his cousin Courtney Cowart, who brought him there to organize the relief food-service, are its inspirations and top executives.
"In the months after Sept. 11," he says "those of us who lived and worked there saw that compassion and giving have a power to change lives, a power greater than evil, and a power to change the world."
In voice and music, the essence of Nine-Twelve the organization he's now starting will sound through the great sanctuary of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., tomorrow night. It will commemorate not only the tragedy of 9/11 but the heroism and the generosity that lifted the nation. The memories of thousands of workers, volunteers, and survivors of victims will be expressed in interviews and readings organized by Courtney and framed by the music of Gary Malkin. Called the Voices of 9/11, it is the tribute of scores of artists, clergy, and speakers. But it also represents one of Nine-Twelve's missions elevating the idea of people joining their voices, overcoming a profound grief with a song from their hearts.
"To put Nine-Twelve in motion, we want first to talk to hundreds of people and to build a database of 15,000 from ground zero," Martin says.
So Martin, once a banker now the head of Nine-Twelve can be seen walking the streets daily, cellphone in hand. He's a kind of ground zero Socrates, querying people who were there. He wants workers, volunteers, shopkeepers, and neighbors to tell him what Nine-Twelve should become. Funds have already come in from donors, some of them prestigious.
Neither Martin nor Courtney sees this as one of those off-in-the-clouds colony of Utopians. They want Nine-Twelve to be a quiet but authoritative advocate in how Lower Manhattan is rebuilt. "The people who served at ground zero found something so powerful and good they want to draw from it," Martin says. "We'd like to preserve it in a special kind of center in the new Lower Manhattan where we could congregate and keep that kinship alive."
It would be a place where ideas of reconciliation, tolerance, and the possibilities of peace wouldn't be alien. It would be a place where people could reflect on the highest possibilities of being human, qualities that at ground zero shone with a rough but unwavering nobility that stirred the world.
"At ground zero" Martin says, "we found something in ourselves we may not have realized existed.... The good will I saw made me re-examine my personal values. I saw barriers come down: CEOs serving sanitation workers and learning that what mattered was not being important, but belonging. All the paths I'd made in my life seemed to converge and move me into a whole new direction. I think the experience of ground zero created a model ... for how good we can be for each other if we take ourselves outside of ourselves."
"But," he says, squeezing his hands together and closing his eyes, grappling for a language to match his intensity, "do you know what I want to hold onto most out of that experience?
"I was the server. But sometimes, I was the one who was healed. There was this reciprocity of love giving and receiving, together. It's something at our core as humans. We haven't plumbed it through. But it's what I think we can draw from 9/11."
It will be Martin's second life, perhaps his surmounting one. No one can see that as perceptively as Courtney, a high-energy woman with a doctorate in theology. In the days right after the attack she became St. Paul's chief of staff in organizing volunteer support for the site workers.
The city Health Department groaned about the threat of food contamination in the early days of cleanup and recovery. The air was filthy for weeks. Debris was yards deep along the seven blocks food was hauled to exhausted rescue workers.
Courtney knew that Martin, who'd been in the restaurant business, had a city certificate to serve food. She also knew that temperamentally he was never big on the idea of running the show. But she called him. "He had doubts in depending on strangers," she said. "And it hit him hard seeing what had happened to his old neighborhood. It was a total wasteland. The sights and smells were sickening. But I could see the resolve forming in him."
The disorder he saw in the food preparation left him appalled. People barked at each other. There was no semblance of a system. Some of the vendors were unlicensed. Food was grilled in the open. But he took over, moved the food service under shelter at St. Paul's and later organized delivery from five restaurants. Hundreds depended on him, Courtney says, and suddenly "he was seeing pure generosity around him for the first time, experiencing kindness, and he grew beyond what he had been."
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Martin Cowart at 47 would hardly have been cast by his former business associates as a registered visionary.
In his casual wear, and with his closely trimmed blond hair, he's a familiar figure walking among shops and ethnic cafes of Tribeca. Dozens know him from the years when he operated a cafe there called Basset. He greets them with a relaxed affability that pretty much conceals the fact that in the last few years he's lost most of his money, his restaurant business, and his apartment.
Well before 9/11, his landlord told him he had other plans for the Chelsea loft where Martin had lived for years and that he'd have to vacate by October. His predicament was, Cowart concedes, a mix of bad decisions and bad timing. But it was also fed by some of the inner skirmishes, between the orthodox Martin and the impulsive Martin.
When he was making six figures in banking, he decided to become a recreational French chef. So he logged 600 hours at the French Culinary Institute. The hobby was also a quiet declaration that he was a long way from fulfillment.
When banking became relatively tame, he switched to the restaurant business, partly to involve an artist friend, his male partner, in a project they could pursue jointly. He was going to pioneer the coffee-house culture in Tribeca and did for eight years. But Starbucks had more money and bigger real estate. He'd lost his lease the last week of August in 2001 and was effectively broke. But he'd just finished a marketing plan for another restaurant that was on his apartment desk when the terror struck a mile away.
Those marketing plans are still on his desk, unopened. But the desk is now in an apartment on Staten Island. Life as an entrepreneur has vanished, replaced by a fervor to serve and to preserve the only community of its kind in the world, built on the ashes of an act of evil that ultimately revealed humanity at its finest.
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Courtney's call put Martin on a road he'd never traveled. He's not sure where it's going, but he's never before felt this kind of electric motivation. Scholars have probed the fascinating concept that love, forgiveness, and compassion are not only ideals, but are an actual force that can be mobilized for social good. For skeptics, it's nice but mythical. Yet here is Courtney speaking, from the unassailable authority of seven months in the community of ground zero: "It was something no community has ever lived through in our history. These people now know the incredible vulnerability of suffering and death, of having one kind of illusion of security taken from us. We now have a totally different sense of what real security is. We've begun the shift from placing our hope and faith and identity in things that do not last, to putting all that faith and hope in things that do last, like genuine brotherly love and mutual self-sacrifice and service."
Is that a Grail too distant? Not in the eyes of Martin Cowart. They now see further and clearer, he says, than they did on Sept. 11, 2001.