"Can we be funny?" the showrunner asked.
"Why start now?" the mayor quipped, skipping scarcely a beat.
It was September 29th, 2001, not three full weeks after the epicenter of human civilization had its heart ripped out by hate and by violence. Tension and catharsis were at loggerheads as Lorne Michaels exchanged earnest patter with Rudolph Giuliani in what was to become the most indelible, profound Saturday Night Live cold-open ever conceived.
I didn’t remember that Reese Witherspoon hosted that episode until I googled it this morning. The ‘who’ didn’t really matter as much as the ‘what’ and the ‘why.’ It could have been Governor George Pataki instead of Giuliani. It could have been the Bronx-born Tracy Morgan instead of that wizened Canuck. Flanked by first responders still aching from the utter chaos of Ground Zero, it was the institution of Saturday Night Live, the New York-est show there ever was, that was so necessary that evening.
The episode’s airing proved that New York wasn’t going to stop being New York just because some pack of extremist hijacker assholes wanted it that way. The same goes for President George W. Bush’s famous first pitch before Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium on October 30th. Democrats cheered. Red Sox fans cheered. And I’ll be damned if that swaggering Texan didn’t zing that ball in there for a textbook strike.
Our sports helped our wounds scar over, just like SNL did. They still hurt, don’t they? But they’re supposed to. I want it to hurt, because I don’t want to forget.
* * *
At 8:15am that Tuesday morning, before school started, I was practicing some tunes with the clarinet section of the Howard W. Bishop Middle School symphonic band in Gainesville, Florida. I was thirteen years old. I recall being required to lead this little sectional rehersal thing, which I wasn’t too excited about, but the horns needed to be blown, so we blew them.
A half hour later, American Airlines Flight 11 smashed into the north tower.
The principal didn’t implore us to switch the television on until second period, which would have been around 9:30. The south tower had already been hit. We were in band class by then. The band was pretty huge; I’d be surprised if there were fewer than 50 of us in the room that day.
Which makes for a lot of tears.
This was a reckoning with The Real; the very first my peers and I had ever witnessed on that scale. The attacks made the shocking death of Princess Diana — the only other time we could recall every television station up and cutting to breaking news — seem like the most microscopic of footnotes.
A girl I kinda used to have a crush on was crying. Bawling. She had family in the New York area. Do they work in the towers? Do they live near the towers? the gravely concerned gallery prodded. These were unimportant details, really— New York City, a monilithic dream of mythological renown from the standpoint of a child in suburban north Florida, had been cracked in half, and that was that. Nobody up there could have been safe. We didn’t feel safe, and we were a perfect thousand miles away.
The rest of the day was wracked by sheepishness, nervous chuckling, and potent alchemical concoctions of confusion and denial. I distinctly recall my Spanish teacher, who was born in Brazil, laughing about the whole thing. Her husband was a commercial airline pilot who had apparently insisted to her that America was so, so safe. And here she was, throwing her hands up, as if to say "Que Sera, Sera." It was insulting and it was wrong. (Hell, I don’t know her story; maybe a chuckle is how she and her family dealt with the far more immediate dangers of an upbringing in the developing world, a place I don’t understand, and probably cannot.) But as the hours and the days passed, we all eventually got on the same page, didn't we? Lee Greenwood was cool again, the flag was cool again, war was cool again. Well.
Before the dust and particulate matter and fiberglass insulation had settled at the bottom of the island, I remember feeling rather bummed out that the annual Florida-Tennessee college football game was to be rescheduled from Saturday, September 15th, to the first day in December. Down in Gainesville, SEC football is king and Steve Spurrier is Jehovah, after all. Was I insensitive, petty? Was I an asshole for wanting my September Saturday?
No. At least not then. I just needed the normalcy. I needed the coherence of a routine, something, anything.
I needed my sports.
* * *
It really was a rope.
In the long view, perhaps that swaggering Texan might have served us all far better if he had stuck to the baseball thing instead of starting World Wars Four through Six, because homeboy just whipped that thing right in there.
In perfectly crystalline fashion, we needed him to do a sports thing, and he delivered. It didn’t matter that the 2001 World Series ended in Phoenix, Arizona, with the hometown Diamondbacks bouncing the three-time defending champion Yankees with a walk-off winner in Game 7. The facts and figures didn't matter in that moment — that moment — so much as the sentiment. Yankee Stadium was a crock pot of nervous energy ready to erupt.
And when it did precisely that, nobody on earth was thinking about how much they hated the Yankees. George Bush understood that. He’s a baseball fan. He takes his ball seriously: one of his self-stated favorite players is Julio Franco, damn it! With one pitch, we all got to see how much he, the man in the big chair, needed baseball and sport and normalcy every bit as much as we did.
And of course, it needed to be in New York. It had to be. There isn’t any other place big enough for all the anxiety, ideology, anger, splendor, and jubiliation that the swaggering Texan packed into that one little stitched-up sphere.
* * *
Hudson River Blue was founded in late 2014 as, ostensibly, a soccer blog covering one team in one league. Much of the time, that’s what it is; our goal is to be the most rhetorically succulent and stylistically distinctive New York City FC hub on the Internet. But you may have noticed that we have our moments in which we take a big step back in an effort to try to take in as much of this city of ours as our senses will permit.
We recently debuted a video series about cheap eats around town. We’ve reported on the local supporters clubs for FC Barcelona and Manchester City. We’re in the process of launching a podcast that will cover not just our favorite team, but a broad range of creators, innovators, entrepreneurs, and problem-solvers animating these Boroughs as well. The city is big enough for it. Those awful, wretched, heart-stopping attacks proved fifteen years ago that New York's community is its true wealth. Forget Wall Street; they don't breathe life into this place as much as strangle it. 9/11 proved that you can snatch away the life of a he or a she, but you cannot kill The We. And that’s what we want to illuminate.
We’d be wrong not to try.
I mean, hell, look at us. We’re still here. SNL is still on the air. Giuliani is making sneering cranks great again. The Yankees are flipping the script and cracking that ass like the baseball gods intended. The Freedom Tower casts a brilliant shadow over Lower Manhattan where the grand old WTC twins used to stand, a splendid, dead-ass middle finger to that hateful lot who foolishly assumed they could halt our hustle.
The coherence came back. The routines came back. Because The We never left New York. And for as long as we’re fortunate enough to have your ear over here at HRB, we’re determined to do our damnedest to do justice on that account.
All the best,