The TV Told Us To

The Seattle Times
September 12, 2002
By Alex Tizon

TIMES SQUARE — We stood on the exact spot where the glitter ball slowly descends at the turn of a new year, the place where people go to bathe themselves in waves of neon, where noise is part of the point. But at 8:46 yesterday morning, the crowd here, as motley as it gets, did its best to observe the national moment of silence. They did so because the TV told them to.

Unlike the formal scene at Ground Zero, there was no master of ceremonies here, no schedule of events. Times Square, like most of the city, was left to its own devices, which in this case meant turning to the giant television, the Super Ultra Jumbotron that towers over it.

From her celluloid platform, the goddess-anchorwoman Katie Couric told us what to do. Her lips moved, and the scrolling caption announced the arrival of The Moment. People on all corners stopped. It was a twitchy, awkward, uncertain stillness, but quiet, perhaps as quiet as Times Square gets. One thing evident, besides the true solemnity that descended on a few, was that many people were not sure where to put their hands. What exactly is the protocol for a national moment of silence?

Some looked around to see what others were doing. Do you bow your head, close your eyes? Do you put your hand on your heart? Or do you do as Regina Keely did: Find a quiet spot and lean against a building as if on a smoke break. Keely is in her 50s, an auditor who works in the Square. Her white hair stood in contrast to the black marble wall that pressed her back. She has tired, blue eyes.

“I lost a nephew,” she said, holding out her left hand where from her wrist dangled a simple ID bracelet that read: “FF Tommy Foley, FDNY Rescue 3.”

Or do you do as Angel Bravo, a slightly tattered man of 40, tattooed en masse, a native of the Bronx, who stood below the giant Jumbotron with his hands raised in the air, holding a flag, head tilted skyward as if he were at a Foursquare revival.

All morning long, the names of the 2,801 dead at Ground Zero scrolled across the bottom of the Jumbotron. Most people only glanced at the moving list. Some, like a father and daughter from Utah who held hands in the middle of the crowd, seemed determined to read every name.

On other Jumbotrons, news bulletins announced the high state of alert of the military and of police departments all over the country, including and especially in New York City.

There was, along with the sobriety in the streets, a sense of anxiety. Wouldn’t it be a terrific coup for the enemy to smear the date of September 11 even more with a second spectacular attack?

Traffic was lighter than usual at the Square, presumably because many people took the morning off. But cops were everywhere, and they seemed hyper-vigilant, as if they got orders that morning to take a second look at anyone carrying a suspicious package.

Ten minutes after the moment of silence, a few blocks from Katie and company, a large crowd had gathered at the foot of a former Westin hotel on Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street. The building, probably 40-plus stories high, appeared under renovation. Two FDNY ladder trucks screamed toward the scene. One fire truck had already arrived, and firefighters in full gear were closing off the area with yellow tape.

People craned their heads upward; some pointed at some unidentifiable object. Whispers spread quickly in the crowd: “I heard it was a bomb threat,” one man said. Someone else said “a guy’s throwing stuff from the roof.” One woman got on her cellphone and excitedly informed the other party that something BIG was going on in Times Square.

It turned out, according to an older uniformed firefighter who looked like he was in charge, that it was nothing more than some loose scaffolding at the top of the building. It was windy and the scaffolding was swaying more than it should. If it fell, it certainly could have killed people, but it was nothing to phone home about.

“We’re all (expletive) paranoid,” said a disgusted William Deegan, who stopped on his morning walk to see what the fuss was about. He is 52 years old, a working therapist. He wore shorts and a T-shirt and looked as if he’d just gotten out of bed. “The whole country’s (expletive) paranoid,” Deegan said flatly before lighting a cigarette and walking off.

So it was that kind of day. Somber and quirky, full of remembering, shadowed by nervousness, visited by cameos of people who would just as soon move on. But almost more than anything, New Yorkers did what they did a year earlier, and what Americans now instinctively do in times of any hint of tumult or drama: They watched TV.