His mother's hand on his slender right shoulder, 10-year-old
Criostoir Burns stared at the vast cloud of smoke across the
Hudson River and then looked down at the collection of
handwritten notes, spent candles and small photos that nestled in
a pile at a makeshift memorial at Sinatra Park in Hoboken, N.J.
He looked up at his mother as she spoke softly into his ear and
stroked his hair. Criostoir had his soccer stuff on because it
was Saturday morning, and on Saturday morning you put on your
soccer stuff--blue jersey and shorts, high white socks, shin
guards. Theresa Burns wiped away a few tears, made the sign of
the cross, kissed Criostoir's head and sent him off to play on
the clumpy, puddle-filled field.
All across the country last weekend, kids were sent off to play,
laces untied, shirts untucked, crumbs of breakfast on their upper
lip and horrible thoughts in their heads. Nowhere did it seem
stranger than in this park, where young eyes could see smoke and
hovering helicopters and an ineffably altered Manhattan skyline.
Every morning as soon as he got up, eight-year-old Max Miesemer
looked out the window of his apartment in Hoboken and stared
across the river at the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. "I
had a great view of it," Max said. And now? "And now it's gone,"
he said. Then Max went off to play soccer. He wore red and white,
the colors of his traveling team of eight-and nine-year-olds.
As Ben Borsellino, the coach of both Hoboken boys' traveling
teams, prepared to organize his charges into a scrimmage, he was
called to the sideline by Frank Cardillo, president of the
Hoboken Youth Soccer League. Reluctantly, Cardillo had brought
with him the objections of a couple of parents and, more to the
point, a city father or two who deemed it inappropriate to play
so soon after the tragedy and, as Cardillo put it, "with that
background right there." After a five-minute conference,
Borsellino called his players together. "We're moving to another
field," he said. "We have to get off."
So here--about two miles from the death and destruction of Sept.
11, in a town where each morning 40,000 men and women boarded the
ferry and the PATH train to go to work at the World Trade
Center--played out one of the central dialectics of the tragedy's
aftermath: To play or not to play?
September 23, 2001
The broad strokes of the debate had already been drawn by the
weekend. Pro and major-college sports, with their cheering
throngs in big-time stadiums, were not to be played anywhere in
the U.S. Away from the New York metropolitan area, it was deemed
acceptable to play most small-college and high school sports,
which went on as scheduled, accompanied usually by a pregame
prayer, moment of silence and patriotic salute by the school
band. However, in the tristate area of New York, New Jersey and
Connecticut, most Friday-night high school football games were
called off, most Saturday small-college soccer games were
scrapped. In the days immediately following the tragedy,
officials at Columbia and Fordham insisted that their Saturday
Division I-AA football game in the Bronx would be played:
Football at their level is part of the educational process, they
said, and the game will go on, just as, say, physics labs and
literature seminars went on. By Friday, though, the game was off,
the perception of callousness being too much to overcome, however
noble the reasoning.
The pursuit of individual sports was acceptable anywhere--therapy
through perspiration--so on two beautiful weekend days there were
the customary legions of Rollerbladers in Greenwich Village,
Frisbee tossers in Central Park's Sheep Meadow and joggers in
Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side. On a field near Pier A
in Hoboken, to which Borsellino had moved his charges, a young
woman in Lycra stretched, watched by municipal workers scraping
melted candle wax from a railing. Two men who live at the
homeless shelter in Hoboken, Angel Larracuente and Sam Roosevelt,
pointed proudly to a bucketful of fish they had pulled out of the
Hudson. Larracuente had been in the same spot when he watched two
planes change the course of American history.
There was sedate tennis on the courts under the Manhattan end of
the Williamsburg Bridge and in-your-face basketball at the
celebrated West Fourth Street courts in Greenwich Village.
Requests for tee times were down and, tragically, so was country
club membership, golf being the game of choice for the monied men
who worked at the World Trade Center. Westchester Country Club in
Harrison, N.Y., host of the PGA Tour's Buick Classic, lost five
members. The men's locker room attendants at the club draped
six-foot-long American flags over the lockers of the fallen
members, giving each the specter of a military coffin. At the
upper-crust Plandome (N.Y.) Country Club, five members were among
the missing and presumed dead. The club, its entrance shrouded in
red-white-and-blue bunting and its walls dotted with American
flags, remained open, but play was down by 80%. On Saturday
afternoon not a single member was on the course.
Nowhere was the juxtaposition between divertissement and gravity
more awkward than at Chelsea Piers, the self-billed "30-acre
sports village" on the West Side waterfront, a six-block-long
rec center complete with bowling alley, driving range and
rock-climbing walls that serves as one of Manhattan's primary
playgrounds. Late on the day of the tragedy, the southernmost
pier became the site of a center coordinating rescue efforts.
Police boats shuttled emergency supplies across the river from
New Jersey to Chelsea Piers, and a convoy of ambulances lined up
in front of the center, waiting to make runs downtown. The
complex's sports bar, where weeknight warriors come for 12-ounce
curls after their games, had been transformed into a supply room
for donated items. Crates of bottled water, fruit, masks, gloves
and shovels were stacked almost to the ceiling. A men's locker
room was used for counseling.
Yet the games went on. Sort of. The management of Chelsea Piers
kept the place open, figuring that New Yorkers needed to sweat
off their grief, but few showed up. Last Friday afternoon,
ordinarily a peak time, a golfer had the driving range to
himself. Not a soul played indoor soccer, skated on the vert ramp
or took cuts in the batting cages. Two skaters practicing on a
rink that was almost turned into a makeshift morgue--city
officials decided on refrigerated trucks instead--had the ice to
themselves. "It was such a great way to relieve stress," said one
skater, who, fearing "the madness of the past week," declined to
give his name. "But passing the rescue workers outside, I was
thinking maybe Chelsea Piers should have closed for a few days."
That was the decision reached next door at Basketball City, the
venue for most of the corporate hoops games in Manhattan. Cantor
Fitzgerald, a New York bond firm, reserved a court every Tuesday
from 6 to 7 a.m. The full-court games, often ragged, panting
affairs, drew a dozen or so regulars. Because no other teams were
waiting, the warriors from Cantor Fitzgerald had played past
seven on Sept. 11. Still, by 7:45 they'd showered, changed into
their casual business attire and shared cabs to their offices on
floors 101 and 103 to 105 of the World Trade Center's north
tower. An hour later the first airliner hit. Nearly 700 of the
firm's 1,000 employees who worked at the World Trade
Center--including, it's believed, all those who'd started the day
playing hoops at Basketball City--were still missing as of Monday.
Besides the postponement or cancellation of all pro and most
college team sports in the metropolitan area, one major
individual-sport event, the Bernard Hopkins-Felix Trinidad
middleweight title-unification bout scheduled for last Saturday
night at Madison Square Garden, was shelved. Both fighters had
been scheduled to work out on Sept. 11 at gyms in lower
Manhattan, not far from the scene of the attack. Lesser-known
athletes had to change plans too. A recently completed bicycle
path--an asphalt ribbon that proudly stretched the length of
Manhattan from above the George Washington Bridge to below the
World Trade Center--was blocked off below Canal Street. The fields
and playground in Battery Park City were strewed with debris from
the fallen towers, which had stood a few hundred yards away. The
gymnasium of PS 41, an elementary school in Greenwich Village and
a pickup basketball haven for bankers and bohemians, was used as
a base camp for rescue workers, the parquet floor covered by 66
sleeping bags and cots.
The week's devastation will have an unmistakable impact on New
York City's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. Dan Doctoroff,
president of NYC2012, said last Friday that his committee has no
intention of aborting its bid. If anything, he says, the 2012
Games could serve as the culmination of New York's rebuilding,
and, besides, no events had been planned for the now-ravaged
financial district. New York's bid, however, dimmed last week
when the World Wrestling Championships, scheduled for Sept. 26-29
at Madison Square Garden and hosted by NYC2012, were postponed
and could be moved to another city. They were to have been a
chance for the bid committee to show the USOC how well it could
promote and manage an international event. Further, the budget
for NYC2012, which already exceeds $3 billion, will undoubtedly
need to be increased for heightened security measures. Also, the
committee will have to compete with far more pressing needs for
financing of the 86,000-seat stadium it hopes to build on the
West Side of Manhattan. Finally, considering that a bomb marred
the last Summer Games in the U.S., in Atlanta in 1996, it's hard
to imagine Gotham winning the favor of the IOC.
Plans for the construction of two baseball stadiums, one for
mayor Rudy Giuliani's beloved Yankees in the Bronx and an Ebbets
Field-like retro park for the Mets in Queens, are also in peril.
The notion of spending an estimated $2 billion, some of it in
taxpayer money, to help build the stadiums and enhance the
surrounding infrastructure was never a particularly popular one.
Now, with the World Trade Center tragedy and Giuliani soon to
leave office, it seems unlikely that the funds for these parks
will be forthcoming anytime soon.
Those matters were far from the minds of the adults who plopped
down on makeshift bleachers or wet grass to watch their kids kick
balls and throw spirals. They had other issues to ponder. Should
we be here? Should the games have been canceled? Or are the
children better off here, deep in play, than at home, watching
the endless stream of televised tragedy, observing worry and
fatigue and tears etched on our faces? Isn't it appropriate that
their games be used as a path back to normalcy, that the regular
weekend routine signal an end to the unspeakable horror of the
days that preceded it? The result was a classic point on which
reasonable people could disagree.
To be sure, the tragedy hung in the air, even amid the gleeful
shouts of "Goal!" On Manhattan's Upper West Side, where youth
soccer went on at Riverside Park, some of the players had
classmates whose parents were missing. Some hadn't been to school
since Tuesday morning when their frantic parents arrived to whisk
them home. As the kids played, appropriately enough, to a
scoreless tie, ambulances with sirens blaring passed on the West
Side Highway adjacent to the field. So did a procession of dump
trunks, headed to lower Manhattan. The parents, most of them
keeping one eye on the game and the other on the latest diorama
of horror in The New York Times, looked up in unison and regarded
the trucks with knowing looks. No player noticed.
In Hoboken, meanwhile, the kids could still see the smoke from
across the Hudson. "Looking at the towers was something you did
without thinking," said Francis Higgins, a 10-year-old teammate
of Criostoir's. "To see they're not there now is really strange."
As he laced up his soccer cleats, Francis thought about a man
named Andy Spencer, a cousin of his mother's who worked in the
World Trade Center and apparently died there. "He was nice," said
Francis. "My mom is real sad about it. So am I."
Sadness, however, doesn't have to ride tandem with mourning.
"Adults, me included, can't seem to stop talking about this, and
it's crucial to get kids away from it," said Steven Cope, a
psychotherapist who on Saturday coached his seven-year-old son,
Dylan, in an American Youth Soccer Organization game at Wards
Island under the Triboro Bridge. "There was certainly an argument
for not playing out of respect, but in my opinion it was
outweighed by the necessity of not allowing our kids to be
swallowed up by all the negativity."
Then, too, there was value in the simple kinetics of sport.
"It's not only that the kids need to move on," said Vanessa
Sellers, whose son, Alexander, 9, and daughter, Erica, 11,
played soccer on Saturday at Riverside and on Randalls Island,
respectively. "They need to move, period." In Hoboken, Criostoir
put it another way. "Everybody has been walking around real
sad," he said. "It's nice to get out and play."
There seemed to be something else in these weekend games in and
around New York City. Just as the angry honking of car
horns--ordinarily a Manhattan anthem--was at a minimum, the games
were suffused with a level of civility not usually in evidence.
The postgame handshakes of the youth soccer teams seemed to last
a split second longer. A close play at the plate in a Central
Park beer league softball game went unprotested by the losing
team. Even at West Fourth, where the caliber of the jabber is
frequently higher than the caliber of the hoops, woofing was
scarcer than usual. "At this point in time, all the talking we
usually do sounds silly," Louis Colombo, 21, said last Saturday.
"After Tuesday you realize, Hey, in the long run, we're all on
the same team."
For the adults, watching the flash of young legs, the pumping of
young arms and the shouts of young voices on an exquisite weekend
morning seemed to be not only therapeutic but also redemptive.
Kids became their elders' recreational surrogates, their
statement that life will somehow go on. The games restored
normalcy, imposed order, passed hours that would have otherwise
been spent thinking about the unthinkable. The kids gave the
adults, as they so often do, moments of pure joy. If those
moments were brief, they were also blessed.
The club, its walls dotted with American flags, remained open,
but play was down by 80%.