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?
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.