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RESPONSE TO TERROR | COLUMN ONE

A Town's Long Road to Recovery

Just across from Manhattan, Manhasset has become a dot on the map known for taking a disproportionate hit Sept. 11, losing nearly 50 residents in the towers.

February 16, 2002|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANHASSET, N.Y. — The man walks into the bar, shakes hands with his friends, orders a beer. He looks like every other man in the place, but he's different, and everyone knows it. They try not to stare.

Seven hours later, the man's friends are gone, but the man is still standing in the same spot at the bar, drinking, talking. No one needs to ask why. The whole town knows the man's son died in the World Trade Center, along with nearly 50 other people who hailed from here. His son boarded the 5:43 a.m., or the 6:34 or one of the other 42 Long Island Railroad trains that run into Manhattan each day, and he never came back.

For generations, this small town 17 miles east of Manhattan has straddled two identities. Simple country village, enclave of vast wealth. A cross between "Our Town" and Fat City. Even before F. Scott Fitzgerald romanticized Manhasset and used it as the setting for much of "The Great Gatsby," the town had a reputation as one of those lovely places where the American dream rings true, and often comes true.

Now, Manhasset has a different reputation. Like nearby Garden City and Belle Harbor, Manhasset will always be known as one of those tiny dots on the map that took a disproportionate hit Sept. 11.

Elsewhere in the country, people may be moving forward, gingerly trying to get back to normal. Here, where the loss was so focused, the grief is fading more slowly. In this 350-year-old community, discovered by Dutch cow farmers just before Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity, residents find themselves, in Fitzgerald's words, "borne back ceaselessly into the past."

"Everything feels different," says Casey Ryan, an agent at Spruce Realty, on Plandome Road, Manhasset's main street. He frowns, and watches people going past his window. "Everybody in this town knows somebody who was killed."

Optimists among Manhasset's 18,376 residents like to say the gloom is lifting. They talk with tight smiles about the resilience of residents, the indomitable human spirit, the fresh start that comes with a new year. But each day brings new evidence that things are not normal.

The sadness ebbs for a time; then, like the tide in Manhasset Bay, it returns.

At a local church, the priests call that awful Tuesday in September "our Good Friday." At a fancy women's boutique, a customer returns all the expensive lingerie she bought Sept. 10 because she can't imagine ever feeling frivolous and romantic again. At Manhasset High School, there is talk of canceling the Senior Frolic, and the Tower Foundation is canceling next month's live auction. At Shelter Rock Elementary School, teachers call off a series of lessons on building self-esteem: The lessons emphasize family ties, and four children in the fourth grade alone lost their fathers.

"There's a pall over Manhasset," says Lillian Orofino, owner of Olive Duntley Florist. "People are just going through the motions."

"People who were born here," says her husband, Ray, "who grew up here . . ."

He stops and wipes his eyes with a rough, stained hand.

". . . don't live here no more."

The Orofinos' son worked in the World Trade Center. He should have been at his desk the morning of the attacks. But after keeping his staff of 28 computer technicians working late into the night Sept. 10, he gave everyone--himself included--the next morning off.

When the Orofinos first heard that the World Trade Center was in flames, they didn't know their son was safe, sleeping late. They locked up their shop and dashed to his house.

Later, after their relief wore off, dread set in. They began to hear names, an endless roll call of names. People who weren't so lucky. People who hadn't yet stepped safely off one of the trains pulling into Manhasset's station like troop trains limping back from battle.

Burke. Cosgrove. Coughlin.

Customers. Neighbors. Friends.

Quackenbush. Robson. Seaman.

Among the dead were men the Orofinos knew as boys and watched grow. Their big round faces were as welcome in the shop as new daisies. They may have come to the Orofinos to buy orchids for their mothers, corsages for their prom dates, roses for their wives. Now, the Orofinos were making floral arrangements for their funerals.

In those warm days of late September, there was a sickening false spring in Manhasset as the town bloomed overnight with condolence bouquets.

Along with every other business in town, the Orofinos' flower shop sits on Plandome Road, the only commercial strip. Like a cardboard set for a play about small-town America, Plandome Road is the backdrop and foreground of life in Manhasset.

Beginning at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, the road runs down a gentle hill, past the bars where the men hang out, past the hair salons where the women hang out, past the soda fountains where the teens hang out, all the way to the yacht clubs, where the rich float out on Long Island Sound.

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