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The day-after spirit changes a man's career

The voltage in his life today has nothing to do with making money.

(Page 3 of 3)



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."

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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."

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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