A Town’s Long Road to Recovery


The man walks into the bar, shakes hands with his friends, orders a beer. He looks like every other man in the place, but he’s different, and everyone knows it. They try not to stare.

Seven hours later, the man’s friends are gone, but the man is still standing in the same spot at the bar, drinking, talking. No one needs to ask why. The whole town knows the man’s son died in the World Trade Center, along with nearly 50 other people who hailed from here. His son boarded the 5:43 a.m., or the 6:34 or one of the other 42 Long Island Railroad trains that run into Manhattan each day, and he never came back.

For generations, this small town 17 miles east of Manhattan has straddled two identities. Simple country village, enclave of vast wealth. A cross between “Our Town” and Fat City. Even before F. Scott Fitzgerald romanticized Manhasset and used it as the setting for much of “The Great Gatsby,” the town had a reputation as one of those lovely places where the American dream rings true, and often comes true.


Now, Manhasset has a different reputation. Like nearby Garden City and Belle Harbor, Manhasset will always be known as one of those tiny dots on the map that took a disproportionate hit Sept. 11.

Elsewhere in the country, people may be moving forward, gingerly trying to get back to normal. Here, where the loss was so focused, the grief is fading more slowly. In this 350-year-old community, discovered by Dutch cow farmers just before Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity, residents find themselves, in Fitzgerald’s words, “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

“Everything feels different,” says Casey Ryan, an agent at Spruce Realty, on Plandome Road, Manhasset’s main street. He frowns, and watches people going past his window. “Everybody in this town knows somebody who was killed.”

Optimists among Manhasset’s 18,376 residents like to say the gloom is lifting. They talk with tight smiles about the resilience of residents, the indomitable human spirit, the fresh start that comes with a new year. But each day brings new evidence that things are not normal.

The sadness ebbs for a time; then, like the tide in Manhasset Bay, it returns.

At a local church, the priests call that awful Tuesday in September “our Good Friday.” At a fancy women’s boutique, a customer returns all the expensive lingerie she bought Sept. 10 because she can’t imagine ever feeling frivolous and romantic again. At Manhasset High School, there is talk of canceling the Senior Frolic, and the Tower Foundation is canceling next month’s live auction. At Shelter Rock Elementary School, teachers call off a series of lessons on building self-esteem: The lessons emphasize family ties, and four children in the fourth grade alone lost their fathers.

“There’s a pall over Manhasset,” says Lillian Orofino, owner of Olive Duntley Florist. “People are just going through the motions.”

“People who were born here,” says her husband, Ray, “who grew up here . . .”

He stops and wipes his eyes with a rough, stained hand.

”. . . don’t live here no more.”

The Orofinos’ son worked in the World Trade Center. He should have been at his desk the morning of the attacks. But after keeping his staff of 28 computer technicians working late into the night Sept. 10, he gave everyone--himself included--the next morning off.

When the Orofinos first heard that the World Trade Center was in flames, they didn’t know their son was safe, sleeping late. They locked up their shop and dashed to his house.

Later, after their relief wore off, dread set in. They began to hear names, an endless roll call of names. People who weren’t so lucky. People who hadn’t yet stepped safely off one of the trains pulling into Manhasset’s station like troop trains limping back from battle.

Burke. Cosgrove. Coughlin.

Customers. Neighbors. Friends.

Quackenbush. Robson. Seaman.

Among the dead were men the Orofinos knew as boys and watched grow. Their big round faces were as welcome in the shop as new daisies. They may have come to the Orofinos to buy orchids for their mothers, corsages for their prom dates, roses for their wives. Now, the Orofinos were making floral arrangements for their funerals.

In those warm days of late September, there was a sickening false spring in Manhasset as the town bloomed overnight with condolence bouquets.

Along with every other business in town, the Orofinos’ flower shop sits on Plandome Road, the only commercial strip. Like a cardboard set for a play about small-town America, Plandome Road is the backdrop and foreground of life in Manhasset.

Beginning at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, the road runs down a gentle hill, past the bars where the men hang out, past the hair salons where the women hang out, past the soda fountains where the teens hang out, all the way to the yacht clubs, where the rich float out on Long Island Sound.

You can always read the mood of the town on Plandome Road, residents say. Especially now, with the stores empty, the bars and churches packed. At Leo’s, where the bartenders honor the missing regulars by wearing neckties adorned with U.S. flags, a New York Police Department officer talks about the staggering number of hours he’s logged at the World Trade Center site and the things he’s seen.

“I thought I’d seen it all,” he says--then closes his eyes and slowly shakes his head.

At St. Mary’s, where roughly 40 members are gone, Father Peter Dugandzic says flatly: “We will measure our lives from that point,” meaning Sept. 11.

Plandome Road is the route of nearly every funeral, and every Memorial Day parade, the town’s grandest event. “The parade takes two hours,” says Patricia Roberts, the local parks commissioner. “And no one leaves until it’s over.”

Plandome Road is where residents come for an egg sandwich at Manhasset Deli, a scotch and soda at Dunhill’s, a slice of pizza at Gino’s, a fishing license at Town Hall. Plandome Road is the site of the old-fashioned bandstand, where summer concerts are performed and where the town gathered in September for a wrenching candlelight vigil.

May Newburger, supervisor for the town of North Hempstead, of which Manhasset is part, looks out the window of her Plandome Road office and predicts things will be normal again one day. But she wonders if normal is the right goal.

Since the attacks, she says, people have been more tender with one another, and the town has felt more intimate. She worries that people will forget the lessons learned in tragedy. She thinks often of Emily, the heroine in “Our Town,” who regrets in her grave that she didn’t spend more time looking at her fellow human beings.

“That’s what we’re doing now,” Newburger says. “We’re really looking at each other.”

Of all places on Plandome Road, the train station is the town’s clacking heart. Late nights, when Plandome Road is empty, the traffic lights pulsing yellow in both directions, the train to Manhattan can be heard everywhere in town, the steady click of its wheels echoing from the frozen Manhasset Bay to the oval skating pond.

Vincent Camaj, 23, can hear the train when he goes to Edison’s Alehouse for a drink with friends. He tries to ease the grief over his father, Roko, who washed windows at the World Trade Center for more than 25 years. At closing time, he gives up, goes home, past the train station, past Town Hall, past St. Mary’s, to the house his father bought on a window washer’s salary.

Some nights, Camaj finds his mother weeping softly in her room, trying not to wake the rest of the family with her sobs. One night not long ago, Camaj fell into a fitful sleep and saw his father.

“You OK?” his father asked.

“Yeah,” Vincent said. “I’m OK.”

“Good,” his father said. “Because if you’re OK, then I’m OK.”

“I talk to him all the time,” Camaj says in a back booth at Edison’s, stirring his Long Island iced tea. “Dad, what do you want me to do?”

Camaj’s father always rose at 4:30 a.m. and caught one of the earliest trains, often reaching the city in time to see the sun rise from the roof of the World Trade Center. Among Manhasset commuters, he was the exception: Most hold down high-paying jobs in the financial industry. During the morning rush, they parade single file up Plandome Road, a pinstriped platoon.

As the portal to Manhattan, the train station has become a natural focal point for the town’s grief. Some weeks ago, the parents of a young man who disappeared in the World Trade Center put up a flier in the station waiting room. They were anxious to find a baseball cap their son lost at the station last summer. The hat--with his scent, his sweat, his hair--was at least something of their son they could retrieve.

Many say the train station would be the logical site for a monument now being planned by Manhasset officials. Others say the train station became a monument Sept. 11, its parking lot filled with cars whose owners would never return.

“We had 73 unclaimed cars in the lot that day,” says Roberts, the parks commissioner, standing in the lot.

One car sat there for more than a month. It belonged to a broker killed in the attacks, and his widow was unable to bring herself to move it.

Roberts and her staff alerted the police officer who patrols Plandome Road, and the car wasn’t ticketed, wasn’t towed, wasn’t touched. In fact, a steady procession of visitors covered it with flags, candles and notes.

Occasionally, the widow would appear. People would watch as she settled into the car’s front seat and stared straight ahead, trying to summon the strength to turn the key.

At last, the widow’s father-in-law came and moved the car.

Louise Molloy, who recently helped raise $135,000 for the families of Manhasset victims, grew up elsewhere on Long Island but became part of the community when she married a native. Recently, a few old friends visited Molloy, and she took them to Louie’s Manhasset Restaurant for lunch. The friends marveled at all the people who stopped by Molloy’s table to say hello.

“They said, ‘You have a million friends!’ ” Molloy recalls. “I said, ‘It’s not friends, really. It’s just how it is here.’ ”

Louie’s is where residents stop before boarding their morning trains to Manhattan. Newspapers, cup of coffee, see you tomorrow, Louie. Just after Sept. 11, Lillian Orofino went there to search for faces.

There can’t be a perfect list of the dead in Manhasset, because the town claims many who grew up here, or had roots here, but didn’t live here at the time of the attacks. So Louie’s, Orofino knew, would be the best place to gauge the town’s loss: If someone stopped appearing at Louie’s, the reasons were likely to be ominous.

After a few weeks, she spotted a man she hadn’t seen since the attacks and nearly hugged him. She didn’t know the man, but she was overcome with joy, and relief, because she’d presumed he was dead.

“That’s what happens in a small town,” she says. “You don’t know everybody. But you know everybody’s face.”

Today, the cooks at Louie’s still watch the faces, still listen for those special orders no longer ordered. The man who came in every morning--short stack of flapjacks, regular coffee, two sugars--will never come again. On weekends, he would bring his wife and children. Now, when the wife and children stop in without him, it breaks everyone’s hearts.

There is a rumor in town that the wife and children of another vanished customer are selling their house, moving away. Hard times, say the people sitting at Louie’s counter.

Walter France, a Plandome Road real estate agent who coached the local Little League teams for years, says 4,500 houses make up the town of Manhasset, lovely Dutch Colonials and tidy old Tudors, some with lawns running like fairways from the street to the front door. Each year, 160 houses are sold, half to people born in Manhasset, “kids who want to come home.”

Coming home to Manhasset is a coup: Of 40 houses currently on the market, the least expensive is $575,000. Three are priced at $3 million, four at $2 million. “The working class doesn’t come back anymore,” France says. “It’s all Wall Street.”

France sits in his office, monitoring foot traffic along Plandome Road. Minutes ago, he says, a mother stopped in to say hello. Her son died in the World Trade Center. “She had a smile on her face,” he says, “and a wet handkerchief in her hand that she was crying into.”

France coached the woman’s son 25 years ago. Of 13 players on that eighth-grade basketball team, he says, three died in the World Trade Center, a fourth lost his brother-in-law. “Three boys on one team,” France says. “What are the odds?”

A few steps up Plandome Road, at Phil’s Manhasset Sports Shop, Little League players still bound through the door after school, as they have since the store opened in 1947.

Some days, the boys actually spend money on a new mitt or a pair of tube socks. Most days, though, they just spill soda, knock things over, roughhouse, until one of the clerks chases them off.

Same as always. And yet, not the same, because some of the boys have lost coaches, uncles, fathers. So the clerks go easier on them these days. “They can break the place up if they want,” says Tim O’Connell, a financial advisor who volunteers at the store.

Phil Ruggiero, the 90-year-old owner of the shop, remembers when Plandome Road was a dirt path. He’s seen an endless procession up and down Plandome Road--sons and daughters of Manhasset marching past his window, followed by their sons and daughters, and nothing has ever really changed. Until now.

“This is the worst thing to ever happen to this town,” he says.

On Memorial Day, Ruggiero notes, the parade starts at the bottom of Plandome Road and ends at the top. The whole town turns out, there are flags everywhere, and the local newspaper publishes the names of every resident who died in war.

Same thing every year.

But this year, the newspaper also will publish the names of those who died in the World Trade Center--a number that exceeds the town’s total dead in the Civil War, World War I, Korea and Vietnam.


Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this report.