Monday, April 15th, my tax extension safely in the mail, I accepted my friend Mark Shanahan’s invitation to meet for a beer and discuss life as we sometimes do. We joined up a little after 9:30 at the Broadway Dive, a familiar and convenient haunt for us on the Upper West Side, the kind of place “where everybody knows your name.” Most nights multiple silent television screens at the Dive carry sports action from near and far. And indeed, games were still on view, including a continuous loop of the Masters playoff from the day before. Mark and I concurred on the artistry and sportsmanship of Angel Cabrera, then talked about what was happening in our own lives, all the while following another continuous loop: a bomb exploding on Boylston Street in Boston, a fallen runner with people hastening to his aid, first responders rushing in to pull away flags and barriers, a young couple fleeing the scene with the man pausing to reach down and pick up an object, victims being wheeled off on gurneys and in wheelchairs, police directing traffic and stringing tape to cordon off the bomb site, followed by a silent newscaster at safe remove elsewhere in Back Bay. Then back to the top, the explosion, television marking time with what little was known in the hope more details were soon to come.
Years ago, when I first graduated from college, I drove a cab in Boston. Had I told Mark about that? “Thousands of times”, he reassured me. Then, as another shot of a reporter on a quiet street came up, Mark hastened to say that he had lived for a while just down the street from where the reporter stood. Mark’s an actor and he’d worked in Boston with the Huntington Theatre Company. His housing was just off camera, nearby.
Our discussion rambled through Boston memories, work, the 2013 Yankees and a 1981 Mets retrospective airing on a screen next to the disaster, until Mark pointed out a patron sitting at the very end of the bar in the Dive. The man looked remarkably like Norm from Cheers. Cheers, the Boston bar just down Beacon Street , used for external shots for the television show. Cheers, not very far from the spot where some of the reporters were parsing the events of the day, sorting reality and fiction. In New York, a Norm look alike nestled on a corner barstool chatting with friends. But for the fact that the Dive is smaller than Cheers, or at least the Cheers set, this “Norm” could have been in the middle of shooting a scene. On the screens above, the news loop continued, far from the norm, a new Boston Massacre.
We continued to study “Norm”, the uncanny resemblance. He’d aged a bit from when I’d last seen him...on the air, to be sure. Mark had seen his doppelganger, the real actor, more recently, in Houston. The actor being George Wendt. Mark was performing at the Alley Theatre in Houston, when a 2007 tour of Twelve Angry Men played at Theatre Under The Stars, also in Houston. Mark had made the time to see that production and spoke highly of George Wendt’s performance. We finished our beers and continued our speculation on Norm. Overhead the Boston bomb exploded again and again, and Angel Cabrera continued chipping to three feet on the 18th. While the Mets’ retrospective moved to the 1986 World Series with Mookie Wilson stepping in against Roger Clemens, we got up to leave.
Norm/George was catching some fresh air outside the bar talking to a friend. As we passed, to my surprise, Mark interrupted to tell George how much he’d enjoyed George’s performance in Houston. I was unaware when exactly Mark’s conversion to conviction had taken place, but he was right. George Wendt was every bit as at home at the Dive as Norm was at Cheers. A few pleasantries passed, we said goodnight, and Mark headed uptown. I turned back to go downtown and interrupted Mr. Wendt again, to ask about an actor he and I both knew. Out of curiosity I asked what brought him to our “home bar” on the Upper West Side. He couldn’t have been more gracious. He’d been doing a play reading and stopped in with some New York friends. Not wanting to intrude any more than I already had, I turned south toward home. (When I got home and told the tale to my wife, she quickly reminded me that Mr. Wendt was currently appearing in Breakfast At Tiffany’s on Broadway.) Monday night, a dark night for his show, provided time for a reading and a chance to relax with friends at the Dive, where not everybody, but indeed somebody knew his name.
As I said good-bye to George/Norm, I turned and looked down Broadway. Six or seven blocks downtown, right outside what looked to be my building, flashing lights from all sorts of emergency vehicles flared over Broadway. I hurried on toward home. I was relieved to discover the activity was cordoned off a block below our building. Broadway was closed off in both directions between 95th and 97th streets. The scene was filled with ambulances, police cars, fire engines, and emergency services vehicles.
For all the bright lights, the scene was remarkably silent. I suspected a possible situation at the 96th Street IRT station. I asked a fellow bystander what he knew. He gave me a brief explanation before he aimed his camera at a bomb squad technician advancing on a suspicious package near the side of the island dividing 96th Street.
This was not a set for a television series. I’ve seen plenty of filming in my neighborhood. This was not Boston. Or was it? I was in the same position as the news people in Boston, thrust into sorting reality from fiction. It was a swift sort. I left the scene, electing not to watch a bomb technician do his work from less than a block away. I went home and watched from two blocks away and five stories high. I watched until the yellow tape was taken down, watched until the lights went off and the emergency vehicles headed off, watched until traffic moved up and down Broadway again. Then returned to my living room to watch, yet again, a bomb explode on Boylston Street in Boston, a fallen runner with people hastening to his aid, first responders rushing in to pull away flags and barriers, a young couple fleeing…unreality that was all too real.