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The Dead Wives Club, or Char in Love

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Catherine Buck in the house that she and her fireman husband, Greg, bought but never lived in together.  

He didn’t know the half of it. To start, every fireman’s widow received the line-of-duty death benefit—$262,000. And then, the moment the towers collapsed, people across the country wrote checks. The charity totaled $1.4 billion, of which at least $350 million was earmarked for rescue workers. The Twin Towers Fund alone doled out more than $400,000, on average, to each family of a rescue worker. This didn’t include donations to firehouses. People had walked checks into Charlene’s firehouse, which received, unsolicited, more than $500,000. That money was divided among the families of the eleven victims.

Plus, the government set up the Victim Compensation Fund, in large part to limit airline liability. (Families of Oklahoma City bombing victims had no such fund.) The government, employing actuarial tables, established compensation guidelines and appointed attorney Kenneth R. Feinberg to administer them. Feinberg did business in a midtown Manhattan high-rise, taking testimony from widows, parents, kids, and their attorneys that included, at times, poems and home videos. Feinberg awarded each family an average of $1.7 million.

All told, a fireman’s widow would probably receive between $2 million and $3 million, sometimes more, much of it tax-free, plus their husband’s salary, also tax-free, for the rest of their lives, as well as any life insurance they’d purchased.

As far as the money went, Char felt she had nothing to apologize for. This was Mike’s gift to his family. At first, the public seemed to agree. Moved by the widows’ awful loss, people felt this: Whatever the widows want.

Most widows didn’t overhaul their lives, which still revolve around the kids. But some things changed, starting with the anxiety over money. “I don’t have to work ever again if I don’t want to,” Char says. That was just the fact. Madeline, Lisa, and Char don’t work these days. Char still has the store, but hardly ever goes in. One widow who had hundreds of thousands in the bank—she didn’t know what else to do with it—bought a car. “Everybody was telling me, ‘Buy a Bimmer, a Mercedes, you have the money now,’ ” she recalled. She decided on a Toyota Corolla.

Still, Staten Island started to seem like a place of fancy new “widow cars,” as Char joked. Widows drove Mercedes SUVs and Jaguars and Infiniti SUVs. After her Tahoe fell apart, Char went car shopping with Madeline and Lisa. Madeline had already purchased a minivan, and Lisa an SUV. Char’s kids wanted an Escalade, a $50,000 car. Char bought it without even looking at it. She’d buy a spaceship if it put a smile on their faces.

Houses got renovated. Char hardly went crazy. She installed an in-ground pool to replace her aboveground pool. Another widow redid her house top to bottom. She and her husband had planned to do it together, probably over ten years, doing most of the work themselves. Now she had the money to hire an architect who could finish it in one shot. Some widows bought new homes. Tina Bilcher was 27 and her son just 13 days old when her husband died. She quickly discovered she couldn’t spend time in their two-bedroom ranch house. Every day she was loading her son in her husband’s Jeep and driving around. She needed a place without bad memories.

People said to her, “I’m surprised you’re not going to a studio.”

“That sounds depressing,” Tina replied.

“Yeah, but it’s just you and the baby,” they told her.

Tina didn’t care what people said. “They’re so taken by their own misery,” she thought. Tina took a mortgage on a five-bedroom house—it cost two thirds of a million dollars—and turned one bedroom into a tribute room for her husband. “His cemetery,” she sometimes called it, and hung a quilt sewn from his wedding tuxedo on the wall. “There’s his cummerbund,” she’d point out to a visitor.

Some women, single again, spent money on their looks. “I know it’s a vain thing, but it makes me feel better,” one plastic surgeon recalls being told by a widow. He provided collagen, Botox, and peels to three firemen’s widows on Staten Island. One widow went to the plastic surgeon on her wedding anniversary. At the office, she broke down in tears. He didn’t charge her. He stopped charging all of them.

Staten Island could seem like a place of fancy new ‘‘widow cars,’’ as Char joked. Char’s kids wanted an Escalade, a $50,000 car. Char bought it without even looking at it.

Wealth, though, made the widows a more complicated symbol of grief. Could you really be grief-stricken if you never had to work again? Some neighbors and relatives seemed to quiver with resentment. This was blood money; someone died for it. And now the widows were trading up cars, real estate? People inventoried the purchases, the trips, even the Christmas gifts. A relative complained to the Staten Island newspaper about the many expensive Xboxes under one widow’s Christmas tree. “Her kids were telling my kids all the people they’re going to give Xboxes to, but none to my kids,” she said. One dead fireman’s sister even went to court to protest how the widow was spending her money. This relative claimed the widow blew through $800,000 that was supposed to benefit the son.

The worst was when the plastic-surgery news got around. “Are those new?” somebody asked Tina in the supermarket, and pointed at her breasts.

“I feel like Jacqueline Onassis,” said one widow, thinking of how people had scrutinized that famous widow.

Recently—how times have changed!—people have approached the widows for help. One friend of Tina’s asked her for $10,000—he’d known her husband longer than she had, he didn’t fail to mention. Another widow was asked by a co-worker to co-sign a mortgage. It was so awkward that the widow quit her job.

Char hated the backlash, and, what’s more, she knew it to be a fraud. Yes, people had been generous. “Now they feel like they have a right to know how we spend it,” said Char. “Come on!”

“It’s jealousy, it’s envy,” said another widow of their celebrity—imagine!—and their financial gain. Char, in response, pointed out the limits of her purchasing power. “I can get everything,” she said, “but I can’t have what I really want.”

The GWs had long been acquainted—firemen’s wives in Staten Island ran into one another at the kids’ school or on the ballfield—but they hadn’t been close. Now, though, many felt shut off from non-widows, with whom even small interactions suddenly seemed awkward. A casual comment (“I’ll check with my husband”) sent a chill through a room. “We don’t really associate with them,” Lisa said, referring to non-widows. Of course, the Alive Wives tried to be sympathetic, but that, too, was uncomfortable. It was, said one widow, “ ‘Awww,’ and then that pitiful look.” Then you had to be, as one put it, “a professional widow,” in visible distress.

Char sometimes thought that she could only really let loose, be sad or happy or even funny, with other GWs. “We had the same exact feelings,” said one widow. Plus, they shared that scandalous widow humor, not at all like the polite jokes of mixed company, which widows couldn’t always deal with. “I’m not really laughing,” one widow explained. “It doesn’t connect anymore.” But widow humor, if done right, was funny, at least to them.

Like the time after a group-therapy session when Char and the others, maybe six altogether, climbed into Madeline’s minivan. Char, Madeline, and Lisa immediately lit cigarettes. One of the girls who didn’t smoke complained, “Are you trying to kill me?”

At which point Lisa whipped around. “And what do you have to live for?” she wanted to know. The GWs laughed so hard Madeline nearly drove the car into a tree.

By now, almost every widow in Staten Island seemed to have three or four widow girlfriends they couldn’t get enough of. (Even Char’s mother, a widow herself, could occasionally feel excluded. “Your other family,” she called the GWs.) They talked every day—Char and Mad’s first phone call was at 8 a.m. If she couldn’t sleep, Lisa called Char in the middle of the night. And Char would get up. For the widows, lots of days were still difficult. “I don’t just live my life,” a friend of Char’s explained. “It’s a job.” On a day when a widow just couldn’t stop crying, an alarm went out. She got calls from half a dozen other widows, trying to put out that fire.

Widows’ kids became linked, too, like an auxiliary GW club. One day, Char’s 16-year-old, Cristen, dark-haired like her dad, long-limbed like her mom, walked home with another widow’s kid. They were students at Notre Dame Academy—they wore the same pleated skirt, white shirt, ponytail. They stopped for pizza, then passed the street named for one girl’s dad, then the street named for the other’s. They talked about the memorials and other stuff, “how we were a lot alike,” said Cristen. They were both Pisces, and also, said Cristen, “We’re not very emotional.”


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