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In late January, I traveled to downtown Manhattan with the sole intention of taking pictures of Dennis Stavropoulos at Ground Zero. I had met and spoken with Dennis several times, including conducting two phone interviews for this story. I had talked to him at great lengths about his time as a detective with the New York Police Department. About how he, and the rest of city’s responders, had been dispatched to lower Manhattan after two planes flew into the World Trade Center buildings. His story, while harrowing, was missing context – it was missing the accuracy of visual imagery. So I proposed that we meet, visit the 9/11 Memorial, and reminisce, which he was fine with, until the day came.
“We were down there to do a job.”
I met Dennis on the corner of Albany and West Streets, directly across the street from the Memorial. When he showed up, his obvious anxiousness made it clear that he did not want to go in. He’d been there. He’d seen it. He’d stood beneath the tower that looked like it had “been hit by Godzilla.” He had witnessed. He had worked. And he had no interest in going back. How, or why, could I argue with him? What he soon proposed was an impromptu tour of New York City and its surrounding boroughs. New York through his eyes. I’ve been to New York dozens of times, but as I soon learned, you haven’t seen New York until you’ve seen it through the eyes of a New Yorker.
Dennis Stavropoulos was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. He grew up as a part of what he describes as the final stickball generation. A neighborhood boy. And as we walk around the streets he was raised in, he describes the “true” New York from his youth. The French Connection New York – with the subway cars tagged heavily in graffiti. The Son of Sam New York – when members of the neighborhood put aside their differences to combat a local terrorist. The Taxi Driver New York. “Taxi Driver is the New York from my childhood,” he said through a deep, purposeful Brooklyn accent. “You’d walk down 42nd street and you’d see it all: the X-rated theaters, the casual drug use, the casual theft, now there’s a Disney store on 42nd street. It’s a very different city today.”
It’s interesting to hear Dennis relate his early years to so many different films, because that is exactly what his latter years reflect: the framework of an influential motion picture.
New York Undercover
When he was 21 – after high school and a bit of college – Dennis became an EMT based out of Bellevue hospital, responding to shootings, overdoses, baby deliveries, you name it.
After six years, he joined the police academy on a whim of encouragement from some of his friends who were doing the same.
“I went undercover…I mean REAL undercover.”
“Joining the police department wasn’t really something I had always thought about,” he said. But soon after graduating from the police academy, he was walking his own beat – responding to calls, taking reports, making arrests, and so on.
Looking to make a career out of the NYPD, he transferred to narcotics, which he describes as a dangerous but exciting way to move up in ranks within the department.
“I went undercover, not just in plain clothes, I mean real undercover,” he said. Walking past Washington Square Park, for example, he tells me how he used to buy crack from drug dealers in the park, and watch from afar as police would raid the park moments later. “That was the job – setting up drug deals, working the players of that culture.”
In 2001, after he had made detective for “flourishing” as a narcotics officer, his undercover assignment ended. And then it happened.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Dennis was assigned to work an election poll in uptown Manhattan. When news broke that a plane had hit one of the towers, Dennis waited eagerly for instructions from his command. Then the second plane hit. Then the first tower fell. Dennis closed down the poll and was ordered downtown.
“By the time I got down there, the entire city was covered in a thick, dark cloud of smoke,” he said. “There was a layer of debris in the streets, people were running, screaming everywhere. It was complete chaos.”
Upon arriving downtown, Dennis was assigned to help secure the site, which he continued to do for several weeks following the attacks. For months after, Dennis worked on a landfill in Staten Island, sifting through the debris of the World Trade Center.
“You just have to keep doing what you’re doing.”
“We found everything at the landfill,” he said. “Bones, body parts, wallets, firearms, bullets, office supplies – everything. I didn’t really think about the bigger picture of it all while I was there.”
It is because of his time cleaning up debris downtown and at the landfill that Dennis remains averse to visiting Ground Zero.
“It’s difficult to explain,” he said. “We weren’t down there working as heroes. We were there to do a job. We worked at least 16 hours a day, digging up everything you can imagine. We didn’t reflect or pause. We worked.”
Every night, he’d go home and wash the dust out of his eyes and ears, and blow the dirt and grime from his nose. He’d sleep whatever few hours he could, wake up, and do it all over.
Jump ahead eight years and Dennis, now working in the medical examiner’s office, became very ill very quickly. Breathing had become more difficult, and his level of energy was often flat lined.
“I was always healthy, I could do anything,” he said. “I was very active. I played on the softball team at work, I was always a golf junkie; but in 2009, things had really gotten worse for me.”
After several visits to the doctor, Dennis was diagnosed with Pulmonary Hypertension, a disease that causes abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs. The disease, which currently affects nearly 30,000 Americans, is often fatal, and has yet to be issued a cure.
“When I left the hospital after being diagnosed, I was told what I had, but I wasn’t told the full extent of it,” Dennis said. “So I went home and started researching online, and that’s when I realized how fatal this disease is.”
After jumping through the many hurdles of health insurance bureaucracy, Dennis finally found a specialist that not only accepted his insurance, but that he trusted as well.
“Finding a specialist was a very difficult process,” he said. “But the cost of finding one you trust makes all the difference.”
“…That’s when I realized how fatal this disease is.”
Dennis has been taking Tracleer, a popular medication that helps combat the symptoms of PH, since early 2010, which he says has greatly improved his overall well being.
“Life is harder now, there’s no question,” Dennis said. “If I don’t think and I start doing something physically demanding, I’m soon reminded that I can’t do that. And although I have to take everything a little bit slower, I see such a difference with that drug.”
When asked if his Pulmonary Hypertension is directly related to his clean-up work post-9/11, he responds directly, nobly. “I certainly was breathing in a lot of dust and toxins,” he said. “I know other people with PH who also have other issues – emphysema, sarcoidosis, things like that. But my Pulmonary Hypertension stands alone, and the doctors don’t exactly know why. It would be presumptive of me to say 9/11 caused my PH, but it would seem plausible.”
Today, Dennis lives in Staten Island near the base of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, or “the Saturday Night Fever bridge,” as he often calls it, working restricted duty for the medical examiner’s office. On days he has appointments with his doctors, he takes the 25-minute ride on the Staten Island Ferry to downtown Manhattan. On those days he likes to walk around the city, taking it all in, thinking, remembering.
He’s thought about leaving the city when he retires, but he can’t decide whether the demands of the hustle bustle outweigh its excitement.
When he isn’t working, he plays golf when he feels up for it, eats slices of square pizza in Brooklyn with his friends, and checks in on his parents every weekend. While watching the sunset from his apartment balcony, I ask him if Tracleer helps to reinstate some of his physical strength, where does he find the emotional strength to carry on? Given all he’s seen and been through, what makes it worth it?
“You just have to keep doing what you’re doing,” he said frankly. “You have to get to work to pay the bills. When you’re diagnosed with something and considered disabled, it’s easy to get down. There are good days and there are bad days.”
“But you have to wake up. You have to keep moving.”
By constantly moving, Dennis’ story continually evolves. The old maxim states that every New Yorker loves and hates the city that never sleeps both equally. Dennis would love to move away, but he’d hate to be far from his family. He’d hate to leave the energy, but he’d love to be somewhere warm. What will be next in this life filled with such cinematic virtues? I’m not sure. I guess we’ll have to wait for the sequel.
By Alex Withrow. As told to Alex and Taylor Scott. Photos by Alex. The Story is all Dennis.