Manhattan is crazy alive right now, the streets and sidewalks no place for the claustrophobe, the unmistakable jingle-jangle of commerce playing above the familiar din.
It is Fashion Week, and it is the final week of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, and the tourist trade is extraordinarily brisk, confused packs of visitors from all corners of the earth leaving their overpriced hotel rooms and following dutifully behind barking, umbrella-carrying guides, streaming out of museums, staring up and around all agog, having their pictures taken in front of famous places imprinted in the global memory.
And then there is Ground Zero, where it is pretty much exactly the same.
There’s a carny quality to the streets surrounding the space where the towers of the World Trade Center once stood, and where, on Sunday, the memorial to those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, is scheduled to open. Construction workers are everywhere, as are cops. The new Freedom Tower, half finished, rises into the sky. Tour guides, small makeshift museums, food and souvenir vendors, all grab their piece of the action. It could be Times Square.
At the modest memorial to the firefighters killed that day, where there are flowers and photographs and badges left by firefighters from other places, a self-styled “teacher,” with a plastic bottle hanging around his neck to catch donations, randomly rattles off facts about the WTC in a booming voice: how many buildings were on the site, how many elevators they contained, how many stores were in the mall below. (The only question is how much you have to pay him to make him stop.) But at least one vendor has temporarily moved on, the guy who earlier in the week was selling T-shirts that read: “Everything I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11,” and doing a brisk business.
Ten years ago, when lower Manhattan was still smouldering, the tourists were absent, the familiar sideshow was closed down, and the streets even far uptown were unusually quiet. Though people still went about their business they did so almost in a whisper, courteous in a way that defied the great New York stereotype, sensitive, certainly, to the space and the needs and the open wounds of strangers. It was eerie and disconcerting for anyone who knew the place, but it was also comforting in a way to see that human beings could indeed be scared and shocked into being their better selves.
This is a sports column, and the truth is that on this anniversary, just as in those early days, our culture’s great time-waster seems all but entirely beside the point.
What did it mean to sport? Who cared then, and who cares now?
They cancelled a bunch of games, they staged many sombre memorials, they played and play God Bless America during the seventh-inning stretch, and now you can’t get into the Super Bowl without walking through a metal detector. Pat Tillman, a linebacker with the Arizona Cardinals, decided after 9/11 to abandon his career and join the U.S. Army. He was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire, but the government instead spun a phony story of bravery in battle to turn him into a comic-book propaganda hero after death. Only later did his family learn the truth.
But in New York, in the weeks immediately following, there were sporting events, and however empty the spectacle, those particular gatherings at least served a purpose, if only as a concrete example of how life goes on.
What spectator sport does, as well as just about anything in our world, is create temporary communities, diverse groups of people united in their passion for the games, identified and bound by their rooting interests, enjoying the comfort of being part of a like-minded tribe.
In New York that fall, it didn’t feel so much like the tribe of boxing fans who came out to see Bernard Hopkins beat Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden – the first post-9/11 sporting event in the city – crying and cheering equally when the police officers and firefighters entered the arena, or of football fans who convened at Giants Stadium and held their breath as a low-flying passenger plane came over just before kickoff, or of baseball fans who entered into a strange, action-film world for Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, when military helicopters hovered over the Bronx and George Bush, in his windbreaker, walked to the mound alone to throw out the first pitch.
It was the larger tribe of New Yorkers, scared, and sad, and shaken, and despairing, and happy to be in each other’s company, happy to show that, collectively, they were ready to leave the shelter of their homes and gather and turn their attention temporarily to somewhere other than the smoking crater across town, without for a second denying their sorrow.
What was powerful and raw and real then soon enough turned pat and ordinary. The flag waving and salutes to those in uniform at sporting events morphed into chest thumping patriotism and displays of military might, became angry-proud instead of frightened-proud, and eventually one big red, white and blue cliché. Like the hawkers and the hustlers now surrounding the site where people were vaporized, soon enough the exploiters and opportunists swallow it up.
So it’s a fading memory now, a decade in, a tiny little chapter of that great big horrible story, a thin slice of life altered. Didn’t mean a thing in the grand scheme, but in the moment, in the being there, it had a power, not because of the games, not because of the athletes, but because of those who came out and watched and grieved and cheered, together.