"Everybody Looked Like Zombies" (November 2001)

9/11, Twenty Years Later

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I wrote this story 20 years ago. It is an odd experience to read something you wrote that long ago—it’s as if you never wrote it in the first place. Memory becomes less reliable; as Dan Barry wrote in this excellent New York Times story, “altered recollections (of 9/11) were consistent with similar studies done in connection with other historical events.”

Here is what I know: I was living in Boston, but angling for a job in New York City, and so an editor at Newsday asked me to wander around the city one November night during the 2001 World Series and attempt to describe what I saw. In retrospect, much of this story feels odd, and I know that is partly because it was written for a tabloid newspaper in 2001 back when tabloid newspapers still published lengthy and quirky and meandering pseudo-essays, and partly because I wrote it when I was younger and more naive and wrestling with the notion that an era of American life had just ended. But I wonder if it is also because this story was grounded in a naivete about what might come next, and whether this moment might alter us for the better, or for the worse.


I.

THE MAN who calls himself Crazy Eddie was wearing dark clothes and a series of blinking red lapel pins. He had set up his souvenir table at a street corner one block from Yankee Stadium, where on Tuesday night beneath the streetlights, hundreds of police officers patrolled every inch of South Bronx sidewalk, milling in front of bakeries and bodegas, peeking their heads in tavern windows and stomping their feet to stay warm.

Crazy Eddie sells cop cars. Miniature versions. Replicas. He also sells American flags and American flag pins and commemorative Sept 11 merchandise and buttons that declare “Fight Terrorism." He sells NYPD hats and FDNY hats. He sells Yankee hats, too, but they are nearly buried amid this garage-sale display of patriotism.

Crazy Eddie does not lie. He goes where the money is. If it’s not the World Series, he says he’ll sell his gear elsewhere. He is a capitalist and he knows it and he’s aware enough of this fact that he’s willing to fight to protect our system. Which is why the first thing he did when a visitor approached his table was pat down the man’s backpack. And then just to be completely satisfied he asked for I.D. “Gotta stay vigilant,” he said. “Everybody’s a soldier.”

There is nothing unusual about a World Series week in New York. But never had it happened like this, the days bleeding into November, the city clogged with national guardsmen and police escorts and wary citizens. It was a distraction, it was a joy, it was a test and it was a constant reminder:

Police dogs milling outside of Stan’s Sports Bar near the stadium while clusters of fans drank beer from paper bags and philosophized about pitching rotations. A crowded bar belting out the national anthem with the sort of gusto you might expect from a grade-school choir. Belligerent Yankee fans shouting obscenities about the Arizona Diamondbacks as they piled off the D train in time for Roger Clemons’ first fastball, and a vendor at a fast-food joint near the stadium bellowing to no one in particular shortly after the President of the United States had touched down nearby “God Bless America! I feel safe here tonight!"

Safe amid the police battalions, amid the metal detectors outside each ticket gate, amid the lingering and dull fear that won’t seem to let up. This is the place of sports in the new reality: It means everything to this city, and it means nothing at all.


II.

At some point in this postseason the Yankees became America’s Team and all the brashness and arrogance they so often carry with them melted into something softer and more ephemeral. This, at least, is the gospel according to Yankee fans, which is why on tables like Crazy Eddie’s patriotism has mingled with provincialism. Even the Yankee Clubhouse store sells a long-sleeve T-shirt with the Yankee logo on the front colored in stars and stripes with an American flag on the back .“It’s not even necessarily a sport right now,” said Megan Bause, who works for the volunteer agency New York Cares. “It’s a symbol. New York winning means the country has won a battle against fear.”

All of which may be, according to a large portion of society, typical Yankee self-indulgence. It’s more likely in the grand cosmic scheme that these games mean absolutely nothing, except to the baseball record book, and that no matter the result the nation does not gain or lose anything on the world’s stage.

But one thing is certain: Diamondbacks fans are working at lower profile. So low, in fact, that it was nearly impossible to find one in midtown Manhattan "Haven't seen any,” said a Sheraton employee on Wednesday afternoon, hours before the Yankees’ first of two midnight comebacks. “None,” said the front-desk clerk at the Hilton. “I think I saw one wearing a Diamondbacks cap this morning,” said Maria Bertoluzzi, the concierge at Le Parker Meridien.

It turns out many of them were clustered in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt, which happened to be the same hotel where the Arizona players and families were staying, which is why Shingo Takekuma stood nearly all week outside the revolving doors Street wearing bright blue sneakers and carrying a World Series program in a Modell’s sporting goods bag. “Hey Scott,” he said, and suddenly Scott Brubaker the team’s senior vice president of sales and marketing found himself in the strange position of signing an autograph, if only because he is pictured in the program and because, Takekuma said, “I’m trying to get them all.”

There is something refreshing about this compulsive need for worthless autographs, in the same way one feels a strange sense of relief that the tiny televisions above the urinals at the ESPNZone in Times Square play nothing except SportsCenter highlights. There are still distractions, even in Manhattan. People are beginning to repopu late spots like Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant--“Every week it seems to get better” said director of operations Kingdon Knowles— and if anyone knows the power of the game to divert attention, it’s the lady floating through the lobby of the Grand Hyatt wearing a cape covered with laminated World Series ticket stubs.

Jessie Foyle is 86 years old, from Philadelphia, and a bit of a name dropper On her cape are stubs dating back to 1964 and she freely admits that she wears the cape to start conversations and to tell stories like the one about the time in 1991 she asked a young man to take her picture with then-baseball commissioner Fay Vincent. “And someone said ‘Do you know who that man is who just took your picture? That’s young George Bush!’” she said. “And so I ran across the lobby of the hotel, because I happen to be a Republican, and I said I wanted his picture too. He was very nice.”

And this is the closest Jessie Foyle comes to addressing the state of the world today. She is much more concerned with baseball, with the extra tickets she just sold, with the games she has been to and the games she has yet to see. “They’re overemphasizing what happened on Sept 11” she said. “As sad as it is, they keep stirring us up too much.”


III.

On Wednesday, Richard and Claudette Matuzas showed their IDs, had their bags searched by security guards, walked through a metal detector, and rode to the top of the Empire State Building. They also went to museums, attended mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and wandered around the city doing what they wanted, moving freely amid the overwhelming police presence. They were tourists from Nashua, New Hampshire, tourists whose son, Jeff, happens to be the bullpen catcher for the Diamondbacks and spent eight years in the Yankees minor-league system.

“Last time we were here was two years ago,” Richard Matuzas said. “To me everybody looked like zombies walking down the street. But now I see more smiling, more people being friendly. It reminds me of New Hampshire people.”

New Hampshire?

“The movement’s not here like it has been in the past,” said Monty Orton who came with his wife Anne from Phoenix to watch Games 4 and 5 of the Series.

“They’re not as brash,” Anne Orton said. “Not as harsh.”

And yet on her way to the ballpark Wednesday night Anne Orton wore only one concession to her loyalty--a sparkling lapel pin that read “D-Backs” which she promptly covered up with a fur coat. The Ortons were told not to wear Diamondbacks purple to the stadium, not to take any chances, and Anne Orton is perceptive enough to realize that New York hasn’t mellowed to the point where even Yankee fans are hospitable.

And who would want that anyway? This is not New Hampshire. And right now there is something to be said for arrogance, for brashness, for the woman who ducked into Houlihan’s at Penn Station on Tuesday night when the Yankees were still losing and declared “I missed my train, I’m stuck here, and the Yankees aren’t doing their job. I’m aggravated. I need a drink.”


IV.

They are not supposed to listen to the radio. They are supposed to spend all of their time watching the door even when there is nothing to watch except a door itself Which in the life of a doorman is most of the time.

And so outside of a building on 72nd Street on the Upper East Side, Paul Mullen pulled out the antenna on a small transistor radio and tuned in a fuzzy feed of the Yankee broadcast. This is how they passed the evening, he and his partner Douglas Goff, scuttling back and forth in their buffed black shoes and gray uniforms, tugging on their hats and waiting for something to happen in the Bronx. “If I see my boss coming” Mullen said, brandishing the radio, “this goes straight into my pocket.”

Mullen is from Ireland and he lives in Queens and he is anything but a Yankees fan, to be honest. But in the postseason, with the Yankees, he feels obligated to listen, or to watch even if on the tiniest of screens, which is how Anthony Cancro, stationed at a building on 79th Street, watched the Diamondbacks taka a 2-0 lead on Thursday night and stormed out the front door muttering streams of expletives to his partner Ernie Pacheco

“Two-run homer,” he said.

“Who hit it?” someone asked.

“I can’t tell,” he said.

He narrowed his thumb and forefinger. “Screen’s about this big.”


V.

It was quiet enough outside the Dakota Roadhouse Wednesday night to make you forget that it was Halloween, that this was Lower Manhattan and that there was a World Series game being played a borough to the North. All you had to do was turn around and there was the chain-link perimeter fence lined with green fabric, and beyond the green fence was Ground Zero.

There was that smell in the street, like a musty basement, and the store windows were shuttered and sanitation trucks lay dormant in the street. Inside the Dakota, a jukebox played Guns V Roses’ “Paradise City” and John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” and hard hats and flashlights were laid upon the bar next to cocktails and half-finished bottles of beer Three people were having an in-depth discussion about excavation techniques and the bartender, Mimi Robinson, dressed in a cowgirl costume, was singing loudly to herself.

The bar emptied. Shift change was at seven, and it was approaching nine, and a number of Ground Zero workers had been laid off that day after World Trade Center building 7 had been leveled. Exactly one customer stayed around to watch the third inning of Game 4. “We’ll see them here at midnight for lunch,” Robinson said. “We serve a lot more food than drinks at this point.”

Before this happened, the Dakota Roadhouse was another bar, one of those overdressed joints that attempts to make itself cosy through overdecorating with beer signs and cute slogans like “No Crybabys.” Now it is the closest beer to Ground Zero, so close that it advertises its location on the green fence: “Bin Laden Missed Us. Don't You Too.” Their business, for the moment, belongs to Ground Zero.

The nearby office buildings and apartments have been evacuated and the only activity comes from inside the fence, from those underneath the huge spotlights a few blocks away. They’re waiting at the Dakota: For people to move back into the neighborhood. For businesses to return to damaged high-rises. For a time when it’s all right to feel distracted again. Until then they offer as many diversions as they possibly can, and baseball is one of those. It’s just that a lot of people aren't really in the mood yet.

“How was this place before?” Mimi Robinson was asked.

“Rocking.” She drummed her fingers on the bar.

“But,” she said “we’re holding our own.”


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