Profiteers and Souvenirs: An Ebay Story

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10/11/2001

Broadway & W 47th St, New York, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Times Square

I don’t tell many people about the E-Bay thing.

I usually just do the easy version. Like today — four weeks later already — I walked into the salon and when the Dominican beautician who does my hair asked where I’d been (you know that question: “So where were YOU when it happened?”) I already knew my answer would sound significantly more noble and tragic than the stories of people who’d been drinking coffee in their apartments in Astoria, but less so than people who worked right in lower-lower Manhattan, or, God forbid, had loved ones in the towers.

I told him about my 14-year-old son being a student at Stuyvesant High School, five blocks from the site, about how the kids were ordered to evacuate and minutes later my son was running up the West Side Highway for his life. About how my daughter, a student at Cooper Union in the East Village, was looking out an upper-floor window and saw one of the planes go in, and she noticed little particle-like things falling, then realized what the particle things really were. I told my beautician how I’d been en route to LaGuardia to get to Houston, where my dad had just suffered a heart attack, and how I’d seen the smoke from the M60 bus going over the East River, then ended up dragging a small suitcase on wheels all the way back to Manhattan, on foot, across the Triboro Bridge. About how my son spent the first two hours thinking I’d taken off, and he didn’t know the hijacked planes were going to LA, not Houston. How I kept going into bars in places like Jackson Heights so I could see bar TV news, and the news kept saying the kids had left Stuyvesant just before the towers went down, and I was crying in the bars because my cell phone was dead and maybe my son, too..

My kids actually found each other after my son ran from falling Tower 2. They walked uptown, to where we live near Columbia — five or six miles at least from lower-lower Manhattan, and every few blocks they1d purchase a “World Trade Center” postcard. That night they addressed 15 of these cards and stamped them. On each one they wrote: “World Trade Center destroyed 9/11/01. Tower No. 2 fell at” and whatever time it was, to the minute. Then the same for Tower 1. I1m not sure what this was all about. Were they trying to freeze history? To hunker down, like little ants in amber, in a place where even if they couldn1t move, at least they were still around? They mailed all the cards to themselves.

Which brings me to Ebay.

Next day — Wednesday — my son and I went to a tourist shlock store around 47th and Broadway and bought World Trade Center butane lighters and World Trade Center key chains. Thursday I took the subway to 28th Street, where the Koreans have those shops that sell everything by the dozen, and street vendors normally load up on Teletubbie key chains. Now there was no “normally,” and the vendors wanted different goods.

“I need more FLAGS, man,” said one disheveled man to the shop owner.

“We got no mo flag,” the latter answered.

“Mother fucker, I need more fuckin’ FLAGS!”

“Get out my sto, you. Out!”

“Fuck you motherfucker!”

Me, I skulked around politely and found a cache of little plexiglass “snow” cubes filled with water and groady, plastic renditions of the World Trade Center, but instead of snow they have demented-looking plastic coins that, when you shake things up, rain down like luck on the towers. I bought three.

We had about $25 worth of this stuff and suddenly it occurred to me: “Hey, let’s put it on Ebay!” “Hey yeah!” said my boy. Where did we get this idea? Not from a wish to make big money, surely — our asking price for the whole lot was about $35.

I don’t know quite what our motives were. But in normal life, my son is a busker. After school he goes underground at Columbus Circle with his viola, music stand and a few pages of Handel, parks himself on the downtown side of the Seventh Avenue Local stop, and plays for hours for quarters. He makes something from the city, and the city makes something of him. “Busker” has become his adolescent identity: he loves it more than anything. Now he was afraid to go into a subway station. But I think he still needed small change — New Yorker change — to feel human.

As for me, I wonder if it had something to do with Sholem Aleichem? I’ve been diligently studying Yiddish, and two days before the 11th had made a pilgrimage to his grave. It’s in a hoary Jewish cemetery in Queens, one so dense and chockablock with tombstones that it looks like the ghost version of a shtetl. When Sholem Aleichem died in 1916, at least 100,000 people trailed his coffin through the streets of New York, walking briskly but somberly — just as other people walked on the Triboro Bridge when I passed them with my suitcase on wheels. Right before the 11th I was reading Sholem Aleichem1s autobiography — when translated from Yiddish, its title is “From the Fair.” He and his adoring, immigrant public were well acquainted with the feast-day bazaars of Eastern Europe: where Jews, peasants, Polish lords and Tsarist bureaucrats claimed their places in the world by bargaining — over everything from silks to horses to a handful of moldy potatoes. “Life is a fair,” Sholem Aleichem wrote in his first chapter. “Going to the fair, a person is filled with hope.” Now I was afraid to go anywhere. Yet I had the internet. And a veritable cyber-fair: Ebay.

But Ebay kicked us off. We’d never done this before, so first we had to go through the registration process. Click, click. Address. Zip code. Visa number. Expiration date. Then a prim, small-font message scolded us about not respecting people personally affected by the tragedy and ordered us never to come back to E-Bay. Not longer after, articles in national newspapers denounced the likes of us for our perverted attempts to profiteer off other people’s misery.

These days there’s World Trade Center memorabilia for sale everywhere in New York. Massive reprinting from Hong Kong, assembly lines working overtime in Indonesia. Posters with the gleaming, innocent towers. Tee-shirts, postcards, plates, more postcards — all manufactured after the 11th but you wouldn’t know that unless you knew that all this was very hard to find by nightfall of the first day. To know, you1d have to live here. If you did, you1d be of a mind where the big, national questions linger. But where small, local ones do too, even when they’re hard to figure out.

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