His Mind Helped Rebuild New York. His Body Is Failing Him.
The man pulls the buttoned blue shirt down over his head and waits. His hands, bony, cratered, have lost their strength, so the shirt flutters open at the sleeves and neck. His wife walks into the bedroom. She takes his left hand in hers, and closes the button around his wrist.
“I did succeed in shaving this morning,” says the man.
“Without cutting yourself?” says his wife.
“Without cutting myself.”
The man built so much of this city. Look around. The World Trade Center, rebuilt from a mangled hole in the ground? He led that. The High Line and Hudson Yards? He led those, too. Barclays Center, Citi Field and the new Yankees Stadium? Parks on Governors Island and the Brooklyn waterfront? The East River skyline from Williamsburg to Long Island City? Him, him, him.
Once, and it wasn’t so long ago, Dan Doctoroff had more power to decide what got built in New York City than anyone since Robert Moses. Now he is diagnosed with A.L.S., a neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s that attacks the motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord, causing patients to lose control of their voluntary muscles. A.L.S. turns the body into a prison. Only the eyes and brain remain mostly unaffected. Death comes by lung failure and suffocation, usually within three to five years of diagnosis.
Mr. Doctoroff is 65. He was diagnosed almost two years ago.
As a powerful man loses authority over his own body, how does he change? And what remains?
It is winter, 2005,
and Mr. Doctoroff is thinking ahead, to a summer day seven years in the future. He is deputy mayor of New York, charged with rebuilding the city after 9/11. His job is to dream the future, and then to marshal the city’s gargantuan bureaucracy to get those dreams built. His boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has even compared Mr. Doctoroff to Mr. Moses: both master builders, both at once respected and resented for their relentlessness and their impatience.
But even Mr. Moses never tried to bring the Olympics to New York.
Mr. Doctoroff visits corporate suites, hotel conference rooms and newspaper editorial boards to give his pitch. In his mind, the 2012 Olympics are already about to start. Ferries cross the East River in a parade. The boats carry athletes to a gleaming Olympic Village, built in Queens atop the ruins of empty warehouses and falling-down piers.
Come, he says. Dream with me.
How many times has Mr. Doctoroff given this spiel? A hundred? As he repeats it, he worries. He feels trapped between his imagined future and the onrushing now. His mind jumps again, to the six emergencies erupting across his desk. He feels pulled in so many directions, it’s hard to be present with people. Do they notice?
He’s right to worry. People notice. A journalist who hears the Olympics pitch describes Mr. Doctoroff as a man whose eyes “gaze past you, out towards the horizon.”
Why this constant drive? Why does he find it so difficult to be present? For years, he doesn’t know. His brother Andy says Mr. Doctoroff should be more introspective, and who knows. Maybe Andy is right. Mr. Doctoroff is aware that he graduated Harvard aimless and lazy. Wound up in New York by following his wife, Alisa, who got a job in town. Bluffed his way into a job on Wall Street. Discovered he enjoys spinning numbers into stories, stories with grand ambitions, like a highly leveraged company with hidden potential, or why New York must host the Olympics.
“You could tell he’s very bright, and very competitive,” recalls Stephen Ross, founder and chairman of the real estate development firm Related Companies, who heard the pitch, dropped his own Olympic bid and joined Mr. Doctoroff’s team.
It is hard work seeing the future, and so Mr. Doctoroff puts everything into the job. But peering into the future makes it hard to see the present — hard to be home with his wife and children, hard to really see them. He leaves his townhouse on the Upper West Side each morning in darkness. He rides his bike down the Hudson River trail. He arrives at City Hall before sunrise, even in summer. He starts dozens of development projects, from the Bronx to Staten Island. He flies around the world, advancing the Olympics bid. He runs on discipline and work and depths of ambition that seem — even to his very successful friends — a little freakish.
His staff, mostly Ivy League types 20 years his junior, try to keep up. They fail.
“‘Don’t tell me no. I don’t believe in no,’” Sharon Greenberger, Mr. Doctoroff’s first chief of staff in city government, says of his worldview back then. “Barriers are temporary. And we just keep going.”