I’ve been struggling with this post. 9/11 was one of the most difficult experiences I’ve ever had. And it’s been 10 years. What could I say that hasn’t been said? But as I’m watching the images on the television that resurface every year on CNN tonight, the memories of the day are flooding into my mind like a tsunami. It was the single most terrifying day of my life, one that changed everything as we know it. But it was also the day I became a New Yorker.
I say that because I’m not a born and bred New Yorker, but you’d never know it if you met me. I now have a New York accent. I’m dark skinned with big, curly hair, and I wear a lot of black. But I was born and bred many miles away in Atlanta, GA. I even went to college there. I loved living there. But when I graduated college, I had a calling and it told me to come to NYC. I had known for several years that I would move here as soon as I could. I had two sisters living here, and I relished my visits. We would hit Broadway and get first row seats to all of Wendy Wasserstein’s shows. We’d have matzo ball soup at the Second Avenue Deli. We’d take long walks on the Upper West Side. I’d spend days just wandering around Greenwich Village. It was love at first sight for NYC and me.
But after I moved here, whenever anyone would ask me if I was New Yorker, I’d claim my stake as a southerner. I was proud of my roots and I wasn’t ready to change my status. Unlike New Yorkers, southerners had patience when you stopped them in the street for directions, nor would they would never keep walking past a couple having an argument. They’d always stop to help.
But then it happened. 9/11. Something happened to me that day. I became an official New Yorker. You would never hear me call myself a southerner again. I was witness to the greatest crime our country ever faced, and it broke my heart. Ever since then, every step I take on the streets of NYC has been one of gratitude and love.
I loved the city before the towers fell. I felt at home as soon as I arrived. But since that terrible, dark day, my affection has increased as I no longer take any of what NYC has to offer for granted. I also feel blessed to be one of the millions living here. But I think of the dead so often. I had several friends who lost husbands, sisters and close friends. The day left a hole bigger than life for so many of us.
I will never forget that terrible day, nor will any of us. But to be in NYC, to experience the fear first hand, this was something else. My husband and I were newlyweds and he was working a few blocks from the towers. I was working in Midtown, and the day started like any other. Fall was slowly making its way into the city, and like any other day, I took my long, brisk walk to work from my apartment on the Upper West Side across Central Park,down 5th Avenue, to midtown. When I got to work, everyone was in the conference room watching it unfold on television and the first plane had already come down. I think I made it right in time to catch the second one crashing into the 2nd tower. We sat in silence. Afraid to get up. Afraid to speak. Afraid to leave the building. Was all of NYC under attack and what should we do? Were our loved ones alright? When I tried to call my husband, I couldn’t get through. I remember my long walk home, back the same way I’d come, only neck to neck with other New Yorkers. We all had terrified looks on our faces. We were under attack but why? We spent the rest of the week afraid to inhale the air outside our window, looking at black smoke from the side of the river a few blocks away and watching the images of our fellow New Yorkers whose lives ended far too soon on our TV screen. One after the other after the other.
As the details unfolded, and I was reunited with my husband who had walked over 70 blocks to get home once it was safe, we realized we were all victims. For several months after that, NYC remained under attack and I remember the constant threats upon our city, at Grand Central and elsewhere, that disrupted our lives. But NYC, with the help of the world, got through it. That day left a mark on our city, but it did not take its heart. As a result of the attack, New Yorkers came together to help each other. Before that, you hardly ever spoke to the people living next door or on the floor above or below you. Sometimes, my neighbor’s eyes wouldn’t meet my own. After that, they did. We, as a city, started to look after each other. We started to protect each other. The city…the people.. changed as a result.
A few days after the attack, my husband and I boarded a plane to go visit his family in Manchester, England. We had always been planning to go that week, on 9/12, and we delayed our flight a few days later until we were able to get out. I had no fear about getting on that plane, rather I wanted to leave. I wanted to run far away, to a place where it didn’t happen. But what I found was another group of people living in fear and disbelief. Where would it happen next?
Unfortunately, we are still living in fear. All of our lives were changed forever that day, not just us living in NYC but all of us. As a New Yorker, we have to tell our story. It’s not easy to explain to my children, ages 6 and 8, but we talked about it at dinner tonight. I’m not sure that they understood, but when I saw the horrified look on my daughter’s face, I got the feelings she did understand and I didn’t pursue the conversation. She will find out more one day, whether I want her to or not.