Charlene Fiore—everyone calls her Char—was at her regular dinner with ten other Staten Island widows, who had unexpectedly become her closest friends. They’d been meeting weekly at restaurants across the island—Forest Gardens, Brioso, or at R.H. Tugs, where they could peer across the harbor. The widows would occupy one large table and, each time, try a new drink. This particular night, Char was on a tear. The subject was that word, widow.
Char is five-eight, with blonde hair, a bright smile, light-blue eyes, long legs, on one of which she had tattooed the name Mike. At dinner, she tended to smoke as much as she ate. She had dropped to 112 pounds.
“Widow? Isn’t that a horrible word?” she said to her friends. Char’s voice sounds a little like a cork popping. “Widow, it’s like a bug. It’s yucky. Who ever came up with it?”
Char was still getting used to being a widow. Or, actually, one of the widows. Her husband, Mike, like the husbands of all the women at the table, had been among the 343 firemen who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. From that day on, Char says, “It was, get the widows into the church, get the widows out of the rain, get the widows to the front of the line.”
What else could you do with weepy women? “They had all these emotions,” says a fireman who’d known Char’s husband. Another reason the widows were escorted to the seat next to the mayor, with whom they would become quite chummy, was that they’d been assigned starring roles in a national tragedy. “Char belongs to the people now,” is how another of Char’s friends put it. Recently, she’d been invited to a Knicks game—her husband had been a star basketball player for the Fire Department team. At halftime, she and her three teenage kids were ushered to center court, where they blinked into a standing, cheering crowd. Because my husband died? thought Char.
But Char knew. She and her friends had become stand-ins for an entire country’s tender emotions. “A symbol of America’s grief,” Char sometimes thought unhappily. In Staten Island, where Char had met her husband on a softball field, the widows were an even more poignant symbol. After all, Staten Island was home to 78 dead firefighters, more per capita than anywhere else. And often it seemed as if the entire borough—blue-collar, Italian, Irish, patriotic, Catholic—had one unyielding goal: to hold fast its dead.
The girls—that’s how Char refers to them—wanted to date. What a word! It sounded juvenile, almost embarrassing, to women who’d almost all met their husbands as teenagers.
Char sometimes thought she could drive from one end of the island to the other and never leave a street named for a victim of September 11. The dead were memorialized in a corner bar dedicated to a dead fireman—it said so on the sign—as well as a bowling league and a high-school gymnasium and a softball field. A basketball league and a grammar-school playground were named for Char’s husband.
Later, Charlene’s widow friends would be thought of as the unappeasable widows, the wealthy widows, the lustful widows. But at the start, when they were assuming their new roles, the widows were the perfect virgins of grief, which was how they were supposed to stay. “The public wants you to live up to what they made you,” reflects Char. “They don’t really want you to move on.”
Okay, Char said to the dinner table of widows. Wasn’t there another way they could refer to themselves? “How about ‘the grieving widows’?” Everyone thought of them that way anyhow. After a little discussion, someone shortened it to the GWs, which had a nice ring and was, to Char’s mind, funnier. “That was a widow’s joke,” Char says. “You had to be one to get it.”
GWs would become their own best friends, drifting away from many of those Char occasionally thought of as the Alive Wives, meaning their husbands were alive. The widows, Char called the Dead Wives. “You were in one club or the other,” Char says. “You wouldn’t want to be in the Dead Wives Club, but we found ourselves in it.” They really did seem a club. The GWs went to therapy together and to bowling and to the cemetery, though, of course, no one was buried there. They comforted one another and vacationed together. Fortunately, since none had to work again, they had the time.
Also, and this was important, the GWs looked to the future together, a brighter future. A handful of widows (not, for the most part, those who had been married to Staten Island firemen) had turned political. They clung to the past in order to push for investigations. Char’s GW friends wanted to let go of the past, at least a little. They shared a secret. Two and a half years after September 11, they didn’t really feel like GWs, or not entirely. (That, after all, was the point of their little joke; grieving widows was someone else’s idea of them.) Lately, when the GWs got together, they didn’t talk only about their sadness. They were young, they reminded each other, and they were single and, though they didn’t have to say this, wealthy. The girls—that’s how Char refers to them—wanted to date. What a word! It sounded juvenile, embarrassing, guilty, to women who’d almost all met their husbands as teenagers, and, as they well knew, undignified for symbols of a nation’s grief. Still, one therapist drew their attention to match.com. Slowly, they took off their wedding rings. “It’s difficult to go on a date with a wedding band on,” says one. Adds another, “I miss being in love.”
When Char’s phone rang on September 11, 2001, she was already at her friend Jean Fischer’s house. Mike had been a fireman for nineteen years, as long as they’d been married. For the past ten, he’d worked at Rescue 5, the elite fire station on Staten Island. Mike hadn’t called, but then he never did. Char wasn’t the type to think dire thoughts. They joked about the job’s dangers. Their son would shout to Mike as he left for work, “Get crispy.”