Time in a Bottle

The Kitsch Vendors of 9-11

"If I don't got it, they don't make it!" The vendor with the dreadlocks and the wooden Star of David necklace is shouting, but that's clearly not the case: while his table a block from ground zero does have teddy bears with red, white, and blue patches over their hearts, he does not offer the key ring with the towers suspended in water in a little bell jar that is for sale just around the corner ("Two for five! OK, two bucks"). Nor does he have tiny red, white, and blue baby-shoe charms, or snow globes of the old skyline with red, white, and blue metal chips instead of flakes, or the loose disaster postcards like the guy at the corner of Dey and Broadway is selling under a sign that says "Fire Sale, 2 for $1."

The streets from the Rector Street subway station to St. Paul's Chapel are lined with flea market tables, but most of the vendors won't speak to a reporter, even when anonymity is assured and the questions are as simple as "What's your bestseller?" "Fire is the best, but they don't want us to sell them to you," whispers a man with a gold tooth, meaning that the fire department sweatshirts are only supposed to be sold by official vendors, a lot of whom are supposed to be vets, and a portion of the profits are supposed to go to the Twin Towers Fund.

Finally, a grizzled guy with gold chains around his neck and a table laden with NYPD baseball caps and shirts puts down his Diet Coke and agrees to talk. His wares are set up on the corner of Liberty and Church, in front of a boarded-up Brooks Brothers that never reopened, down the block from an abandoned 1-800-Mattress store, its grimy neon sign dark in the window. "The mood of the people who are buying this stuff is—they're still in shock," he tells me. He's been selling souvenirs down here for 30 years. "Wall Street has been good to me," he says without irony. His bestsellers these days are the commemorative books, and, of course, the T-shirts. "You know, whenever you go on a trip, you've got to bring home a T-shirt."

Flag-waving at St. Paul's Chapel, across from ground zero
photo: Jake Price
Flag-waving at St. Paul's Chapel, across from ground zero

He nods in the direction of a nearby table, where a crowd has gathered around an elaborate display of DVDs playing a video of the actual day, with somber music in the background. "I don't sell bad taste. Some of these people around here are selling videos of people jumping out of windows. That is bad taste. I believe right now some of the people selling things out here are not giving money to the fund. I believe that some people are not even citizens. There's a group of 10 or 15 people out here who don't have IDs or tax numbers."

He picks up a commemorative book called Terror in America, with a picture of four members of the uniformed services on the cover and the caption "Allah may forgive you, but WE won't." "I made this book," he tells me. "I just brought it out. If I do 10,000, I'll give a quarter to the fund. This other book I stopped selling, I only have three or four left and that's it." The other book has four pictures on the cover, one with the towers intact, the other three with them burning. "The company that makes this book, they're in Oregon. I don't think they gave any money to the fund. I know this company sold 300,000. Frankly, I have a problem with the fund—the money should go directly to the unions."

I buy his book, the one with the business about Allah on the cover. Inside, there's an essay by New York Times journalist Max Frankel called "The Oxygen of Our Liberty," and you can bet a million dollars Max doesn't know it's in there. The first paragraph reads, "Here lies a souvenir of horror, a blazing abituary of American innocense," and goes on to discuss the "spectable." It's easy to make fun, but there's something endearing about the mistakes, a human touch missing from all those slick television memorials. In its own way, and though they're poles apart politically, Terror in America shares something with the sign taped to the marble exterior of Century 21, a handwritten poster that says, "Say no to Cheney's call for more death," and is signed by someone who calls himself, or herself, Rags.

Not that there aren't plenty of other tattered, handwritten memorials down here. Even the historic placard in front of St. Paul's Chapel that describes its landmark status is not exempt from this outpouring of homegrown feeling: "We can only stand strong as the twins once did," someone has scrawled over the text about when the church was founded. Right next to it, someone else wrote, "No more war," but it has been crossed out.

I don't see any pro- or anti-war graffiti a few blocks south in Battery Park, but there are plenty of vendors near the new site of the Sphere, the 45,000-pound steel and bronze sculpture by Fritz Koenig. The Sphere, which was installed here on March 11, formerly resided on the World Trade Center plaza, and, though it is obviously battered, it somehow survived. (According to Koenig's friend and translator, Percy Adlon, "They found intestines of one airplane inside a hole that was ripped open in the top of the sculpture. They found a Bible in there, an airline seat, papers from offices on the top floor. It became its own cemetery.")

It's the day after Labor Day, and there's a union rally in the park, thousands of people in union T-shirts waving banners and listening to luminaries like Mayor Bloomberg. (The unions stopped having their Labor Day celebrations on the actual day years ago; too many workers didn't want to cut short their three-day weekends for a parade.)

"How's business?" I ask the one vendor willing to talk to me, whose table a few feet from the Sphere is full of surprisingly elegant etched crystal paperweights. The paperweights at the front of the table are $10; the rest are $15. "These would be $75, $50, in a store!" he tells me. For $10, you get a skyline or a streetscape with the towers in full view; for $15 the choice is far larger—there are renderings of Marilyn Monroe and Christ and even Justice dressed as a woman, blindfolded and holding scales.

"Business is terrible," the dealer laughs. "The tourists aren't down here because of the rally. And these union people, you can't sell them anything. They won't take out their money."

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