It was about 5:20 on the morning of September 16, 2001 when the sound of a jet flying overhead broke into my sleep. I announced to myself as my eyes snapped open, “The airport is open!”
Normally, I don’t hear the planes. Airliners noisily pass on a regular basis above the South Shore area of Boston where I have lived for ten years, so much so that when Massport decides to build a new runway or change flight patterns, towns on the South Shore complain about the noise. Sometimes the jets come in so low, I can read the insignia on their vertical stabs while standing in my driveway.
After 9/11, days of an eerily quiet sky accentuated the feeling of isolation. Flights at other U.S. airports had resumed on a limited basis on the 13th, two days after the horrors of 9/11. But not at Boston’s Logan airport. Because the two planes that were crashed into New York’s World Trade Center Twin Towers departed from Boston, Logan airport became a crime scene and remained closed longer than other airports around the country.
I’m not sure how others in Boston felt, but I harbored a strange, irrational sense of guilt after the attacks of 9/11. Half of the hijacked planes had come from Boston. Somehow, I felt responsible, and even tainted. The terrorists had been here among us. As investigators pieced together their movements prior to the attacks, I heard on the radio where one of the hijackers had shopped for groceries. It was a store I had frequented in the past. Hypothetical images of passing an Al Qaeda terrorist pushing a shopping cart in the frozen food aisle stick in my mind to this day.
As workers sifted through and cleared the rubble in Lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon, and as investigators examined the Flight 93 crash site near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the country struggled with the business of getting back to business. The president asked us to go out, live our lives, stimulate the struggling economy and not let the terrorists keep us down.
As part of that mission, Major League Baseball resumed play, the National League on September 17th and the American League on September 18th. The Red Sox were at Fenway for their final homestand series against Tampa Bay, then Detroit and finally Baltimore before going on the road to finish out the 2001 season.
The games against Baltimore were particularly significant in that 2001 was Cal Ripken’s final year of playing major league baseball. After 21 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, the Iron Man was retiring. The Orioles’ September, 2001 series against the Red Sox would be the last appearance for Ripken as a player at Boston’s Fenway Park.
And I had tickets.
Now at the time, the decision to go to a major public event was not a particularly easy one to make. There were fears that more terrorists lurked in our midst, waiting to snuff out additional innocent lives in places where large numbers of people gathered, to hit us again while we were still reeling from the attacks of 9/11.
In the end, however, people gave Al Qaeda the finger. They looked for some normalcy, some distraction from the pain, and some folks found it in baseball. I was one of them.
On the evening of Thursday, September 27, 2001, I and a friend sat above the left field foul line at Cal Ripken’s final game at Fenway Park. The crowd seemed to be subdued and perhaps a bit wary, but there was also a sense that we were all united in our grief, and if something tragic were to befall us, at least we had been unwilling to let fear keep us from coming together.
The people at that game also seemed to be pulling for Cal Ripken. I know I was. In each of his four at-bats, people cheered him on. It didn’t matter that he was on the opposing team — those of us in the stands were hoping for the best for him, to get a hit or even a home run during his last game at Fenway. There was a feeling of collective generosity, and perhaps even a gladness that we could all be gathered in this place. I’m not sure that people cared who won or lost. Perhaps it was just that we appreciated Cal Ripken, the game, the players and each other.
And so with the people in the stands rooting for him, Ripken faced Derek Lowe in the top of the second inning. Despite the crowd’s encouragement, Cal struck out looking, and people seemed genuinely disappointed for him. He faced Lowe again in the fifth and got to first on a walk, but was stranded on the base paths after the third out.
Lowe was pulled after the fifth inning, so when Ripken came to bat in the sixth, Tim Wakefield was on the mound. The knuckleballer was throwing wild that night and only worked one inning, hitting Ripken with a pitch in the process that sent him to first base. Ripken scored on Batista’s double to deep left field and the crowd congratulated him.
When Ripken came up to bat in the eighth, Banks was on the mound and there were two outs. We all knew that this was likely the Iron Man’s final at-bat in Boston. People were cheering for him, giving him encouragement, maybe even hoping to see Cal knock one out of the park with two men gone. One man yelled to Banks, “Give him a meatball!” I don’t know whether the pitcher heeded that request and purposely threw something fat and hitable into the sweet spot of the strike zone, but Ripken took a cut and sent a line drive into right field. The crowd roared.
The fairy-tale story was not meant to be, however — right outfielder Darren Lewis caught Ripken’s hit ball to end the top of the eighth. As Ripken jogged to the dugout, people in the stands came to their feet with applause and cheers. Cal stood before them and tipped his cap, and he and the baseball fans of Boston said goodbye to each other.
Now you might be asking yourself, “What does all this have to do with the focus of this blog?” To answer that, I need to tell you one more story.
By about the fifth inning I was really hungry, but I didn’t want to go to the concession stand because I didn’t want to miss any of the game. The hawkers who came by didn’t seem to have anything I wanted and my friend wasn’t hungry so he wasn’t planning to go get anything either. I had resigned myself to eating after the end of the game when the guy at the inside end of our row stood up and excused himself on his way to the aisle.
I figure that, at the time, he was in his late twenties. He seemed to have a little bit of sadness about him, but then again, a lot of people did – it was two weeks after 9/11. He also was by himself, sitting alone quietly and taking in the game.
I stood up to give him room to get by. As he passed, I asked him, without really thinking, “Are you going for food?” He stopped and regarded me. He had medium-length brown hair and was wearing a dark-colored jacket. I don’t remember the color of his eyes, but he had a kind face.
He replied, “Yes,” and so I asked, “Would you mind bringing me back a hotdog?”
Now the folks in Boston are no-nonsense people, and normally, a question like that after a half a game of drinking Sam Adams would get you a full-bodied retort, perhaps even, in some cases, something along the lines of, “What do I look like, a f—ing waitah?”
But these were not normal times. Two weeks after 9/11, all bets were off and the people around us knew that. They seemed to have heard this exchange and were watching us with mild interest, as was my friend.
The young man didn’t say a word, and only stood for a moment looking at me. I looked back at him. We didn’t know each other, and no words had been exchanged between us, but something was happening. There was some sort of connection, something spawned from 9/11 that brought strangers together, that brought the two of us together that night in section 32, box 164 of Fenway Park. As we stood there looking at each other, I felt as though I had just asked an old friend if he would do me a favor, and I swear that he knew that I would gladly do one for him.
He finally replied. He did so with a simple question.
“What do you want on it?”
I said, “Ketchup, please,” and he turned to go up the concrete steps in the direction of the concession area.
The people around us were still watching me when my friend blurted out, “What are you doing? That guy isn’t going to bring you back a hot dog!”
“Yes he is,” I said with confidence.
“No he’s not,” he said, shaking his head. I glanced at the people who were still watching this exchange. I couldn’t tell if they shared his expectations or mine. My friend continued, “Why do you think he’s going to do that?”
“Why indeed?” I wondered. Well, because I just knew.
“I’ll bet you ten bucks he brings me a hot dog,” I replied. “With ketchup!”
“I’ll take that bet,” he replied immediately and we shook on it with everyone looking on. Then he shook his head and with a low chuckle said, “You certainly have a way about you…”
We sat down and those around us turned their attention back to the game, but I think we were all waiting to see what the guy would do.
Time passed. Batters batted, pitchers pitched and fielders fielded, but the young man did not return.
I began to wonder whether he was okay, whether he had lost anyone he knew or loved on one of the hijacked planes or in the twin towers. Perhaps his sadness was too strong to allow him to stay at the game.
And then, he appeared in the aisle. I think we were all startled at that point, considering that he might not come back at all. We stood to let him by, and as he passed me, he placed a warm, silver foil-wrapped object in my hand.
It was a hot dog.
“Oh. Thank you very much,” I said to him with all the sincerity I could muster.
I dug my left hand deep into the pocket of my jeans and pulled out some cash to pay him, but he moved past with a half-wave of his hand and said softly, “That’s okay.” I looked around to see my friend and the people near us watch him go back to his seat and then they all turned back toward me. I looked down at the object in my hand, peeled back the foil to expose the steaming dog nestled in its golden bun, looked up at my friend and said, “With ketchup.”
A half-smile came to his face, and also to those who had been watching this scenario from the neighboring seats.
My friend reached into his wallet, extracted a ten-dollar bill and held it out to me. I nodded toward the end of the row and said, “Give it to him.” He nodded in agreement, turned and handed it to the person next to him who passed it down, hand to hand, person to person, until it reached the young guy at the end of the row. The man looked back at me and my friend. I silently mouthed the words, “Thank you.” His face softened a bit, he nodded and stuck the bill in his pocket.
And so what is my point?
My point is, that with the tragedy and horror and sadness and loss of life that was 9/11, there followed a spirit of support and togetherness in that time that brought complete strangers together. I and the other 32,718 people in attendance at that game, and all the concession people and ushers and players and coaches and trainers and cops and umpires that evening in Boston’s Fenway Park — we were angry and scared and grieving and raw, but above all that night, we were brothers and sisters. Cal Ripken was my brother. I believed then, and still do now, that had a threat presented itself that night, he would have done his best to dispatch it with a swing of his bat for all of us, just as we would have done for him.
I keep thinking of this sense of togetherness on this 10th anniversary of 9/11.
In the wake of the ridiculous backlash against trans man Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing With the Stars and the deplorable beating of trans woman Chrissy Lee Polis in a Baltimore McDonald’s, I am wondering, how did this good-will manifest itself for trans people in the aftermath of 9/11?
At the time, I did not know I was trans and I was doing my best to live as a female. But now, ten years after the attacks, living as my true self and seeing the discrimination, violence and prejudice against trans people in this country, I am looking back and wondering, did things become any better for trans people after 9/11, even for a while? Did any of you readers who were out as trans ten years ago see a positive reversal in any negativity you had received from the people in your lives or even from complete strangers?
Because, if you did, if after 9/11 people were able to put aside their prejudices and fears about people like us who are different from them, if people were able to unite under the banner of humanity, then there is hope that with time, we can again reach that place of acceptance and tolerance, together, as a society.
I look forward to your replies and comments.
–ATM, with condolences and deepest sympathies to those who lost someone in the attacks or results of 9/11
The final score of the game at Fenway Park on September 27, 2001 was Orioles 4, Red Sox 2. It was the 2991st game Cal Ripken had played in the majors.
American flags were raised in memoriam by airport and airline employees at Boston’s Logan International Airport Gates B32 and C19, the gates from which the planes that were crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, departed on the morning of September 11, 2001. Those flags were dedicated in 2008 and remain at the gates to this day.