NEW YORK — The little park on the corner of 35th Street and Second Avenue holds two basketball courts, two handball courts and a couple of benches. On Wednesday afternoon, pick-up basketball games were played on both courts. Four men each were on the handball courts. Two older men sat on one of the benches. Joseph Leslie, 80, a World War II veteran, and his best friend, Jerome Goldman, 81, remarked on the talents of one of the young men who had just dunked a basketball.
"I'm a Knicks fan, all my life," Leslie said. "He's a Celtics fan, always has been. I tell him he should move to Boston."
"I tell him to shut up," Goldman said. "It's a free country and I'm living in New York and I'm rooting for the Celtics."
I came on this small park while walking to Bellevue Hospital. The day after terrorists crashed hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, my assignment had changed. On Monday there had been a Yankee-Red Sox game to cover. On Wednesday the story had changed.
At Bellevue were hundreds of men and women, young and old, standing in line so they could fill out missing person forms and maybe, always being hopeful, find the names of husbands or wives, fiances or girlfriends, sons, daughters, cousins, uncles, best friends, life partners, on a list of injured who had been identified at a hospital in Manhattan or Brooklyn or Staten Island or New Jersey.
In between the baseball game Monday night and the walk past the park to Bellevue Hospital is my little story.
First, an admission. An editor I very much respected told me many years ago that he hated nothing more than writers and columnists who start every sentence with the word "I." Or any sentence, for that matter. "Nobody cares about what happens to you," he said. And so I'm writing this understanding that my story is no more important than anyone else's, and much less important than so many stories, but it is the only story I have to tell this week.
Sports is the reason for this story.
Sports and a realization that there are so many great people in our country, people we will never know, people who don't think what they are doing is extraordinary. These people are firefighters and policemen, paramedics and ambulance drivers. They are the volunteers, thousands of them, who want to sweep the dust off the street or make coffee or bring steaming plates of pasta into Ground Zero, as it's called, even though there is a chance that another building might collapse. They are the counselors who are listening, over and over, to the distraught people who are missing their loved ones. These New Yorkers I've met this week, the fans people love to hate, these are people to admire.
If ever we make our athletes out to be any more special or heroic than a fireman, somebody should make us shut up.
Tuesday morning I was still in New York because that's how it is when you cover sports. Word of the trip came suddenly, late in the afternoon on Aug. 29. Leave Sept. 1 for a football game in State College, Pa., go on to New York for the second week of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
But this was a holiday weekend. Air fares were high, $2,500 to $2,800. Except for one flight, a red-eye from Los Angeles to Islip, N.Y., via Boston, on American Airlines. It was $1,500. I took it. And my route home, on Monday, Sept. 10, would be the same. American flight out of Islip, through Boston and back to Los Angeles.
On the final Saturday of the Open, I was asked to stay in New York an extra day and write from the Yankee-Red Sox game on Monday night. Roger Clemens would be trying to win his 20th game in 21 starts. History-making. The Red Sox were a mess too, a compelling story in itself. Of course, I'd stay.
When I called American to change my flight, I had the option of keeping the same 3:05 p.m. flight out of Islip to Logan Airport that I'd had Monday. Or I could take a 6 a.m. flight to Boston and connect to Flight 11 into LAX. I'd been gone for 10 days, was eager to be home, and decided to take the early flight so I'd be back in Los Angeles before noon. I asked if upgrades from coach to business class were available. Yes, there were. So I took that. I had a seat, 15B.
At the very last moment, just as the agent was giving me the new itinerary, I apologized and asked if I could change to the afternoon flight. I'm not a morning person and I knew that I'd end up staying awake all night to get a limo for Islip. Oh, and one last thing. I wanted to make sure I could upgrade on the later flight.
"No problem," the agent said.
"Good," I said. "Otherwise, I'll keep the morning flight."
The Yankee-Red Sox game was rained out Monday. I wrote a Red Sox column, went back to the hotel and packed. My phone rang shortly before 9 a.m. Tuesday.
"Are you awake?" my husband asked.
"No," I said. "I told you the limo wasn't coming until noon."
Dan Weber is my husband and he told me to turn on the TV.
"Right now," he said. "There's been an explosion at the World Trade Center."