About fifteen years ago I got a new job. I was living in Hartford, CT at the time and was hired to be the General Manager of a restaurant in Stamford. This made sense to me on many levels. The woman I was seeing at the time lived in Stamford, and the restaurant I was hired by had it’s original location in Hartford, so I would do most of my training there before moving down. Salary was negotiated, benefits were explained and all the paperwork was filled out, and I was ready to report to my first day of work. Like most new jobs, it started on a Monday.
Monday, September 10th, 2001 to be precise.
Training went on pretty much as scheduled, although as anyone who was alive then could attest to, everything was done with this palpable sense of dread hanging over it – “This is how you fry calamari, and I can’t wrap my head around what happened. I’ll be the first to admit that my mind was hardly in the game and my approach to the training was half hearted at best. Some of this was certainly due to the fact that I found it odd I would train here and not at the location I would be running (something that made far more sense once I got to my location and saw how poorly it was being run and how little training I would actually get there) but most of it was the same reason I think everyone who wasn’t a first responder at the site was doing things halfheartedly: suddenly nothing made sense anymore, what was going to happen next, why had this happened at all.
Thursday of that week I was training in the kitchen. It was a particularly slow night, as most nights were in the first few weeks after the attack, and after three hours of doing almost nothing and learning even less, I decided to call it quits. My buddy Johnny was (and still is) tending bar at a place called the Spigot, and I decided I would stop by and have a few beers with him.
When I say that the Spigot is just another neighborhood bar, I mean that in the greatest sense possible. There is really nothing to distinguish it from many other bars – enough televisions to watch all the football games, dart boards in the corner, a jukebox, Golden Tee and Megatouch machines – but it was the type of place people would still come and visit years after they left the neighborhood. My future landlord (when I moved back years later) bought the house he did because it was walking distance to the bar. In the winter, when storms made the roads treacherous, you’d lose track trying to count all the sets of footprints from people walking there. Hell, I was there one Saturday afternoon when an entire wedding party showed up between the ceremony and the reception because the Spigot was where the couple met.
When I got there that Thursday evening, the bar had a decent crowd, but you would never know by the lack of noise in the place. Conversations, if they were happening at all were muted and stilted. Worse was the fact that it seemed like you couldn’t do precisely was what people went to bars to do: escape. At that point even ESPN and other sports networks were showing coverage of ground zero, channeling the feed from their parent companies. Those televisions that were used to bring pleasure and happiness to people now served as a dark reminder of the strange new world we were living in. The only heartbreak they were supposed to bring us was our team losing in the last seconds.
Johnny did manage to find one station that wasn’t focused on the events. ESPN Classic was still showing it’s regular programming, although to this day I believe they might have made some small switch. For those of you who don’t know, ESPN is located in Bristol, CT, maybe 20 minutes from Hartford. I’ve even seen some of the on air talent drinking at the Spigot. The game they were showing that night was the Hartford Whalers against the Boston Bruins.
Johnny had the game on one of the televisions, right near the end where he would sit when he wasn’t serving customers, which naturally made it the end I would sit at. I honestly don’t know if he could have put it on more televisions because as morbid as it was, people seemed to need to see what was happening in real time. It was more than just watching a train wreck and being unable to turn away. This was a need for people to find some answers, get some reassurance. This event was beyond what most people would comprehend, and I’ll argue that in those dark days even the people with the strongest faith had a hard time finding answers, much less solace.
But a funny thing would happen when people who were sitting at the tables would come up for a drink. Naturally they would approach the end of the bar Johnny and I were at, and as he made their drink or poured their beer, their eyes would be drawn to the television. There they would see the familiar colors and uniforms of the beloved Whalers, who even then were a thousand miles down the road doing business as the Carolina Hurricanes. The customers would get their drinks and pay for it, but still stand there for a couple of minutes watching the game.
Did it provide answers, clear up the confusion? Not remotely. But what it did was give these people (myself included) a bit of a respite. It was a time capsule, back to not only when the Whale called Hartford home, but before people flew planes into buildings, before the world would be turned upside down, before we no longer knew who our enemy was. Sometimes the customers would talk to us, about having gone to games at the Civic Center, of seeing Gordie Howe play, of how they grew up watching them and teaching their kids to love the Whale, but mostly they were silent, just experiencing a little break from the insanity that was the new reality for a few minutes before going back to their table.
Moments of grief, whether they are as grand as 9/11 or as personal as the loss of a loved one, cause us to ask many forms of the same question: why? We each in our own ways try to find answers, all to varying degrees of success or failure, but even the best answers I don’t think really do the job completely, because the loss is always going to be there. There will always be a Before and an After. We are all changed in some immutable ways that can never be unchanged, not matter how complete an answer we find. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to find a way to get back to the Before, to be reminded that things were once okay and that they will be again, if only for a few moments. That game probably did as much as anything else to help the few people who saw it that day come to some sort of terms with the new After they were living in.
And the best part about it was that it was a game the Whalers won.
Bonus track: Even if you’re not from Hartford or don’t follow hockey, there’s still a good chance you’ve heard THIS SONG.