(A Journey of a Leap of Faith)
A week after 9/11/01 I was in the 68th street subway station waiting on the downtown 6 train. Riding the subway was still an edgy experience as threats and rumours were high and subway riders with tears streaming down their faces a frequent sight. I was 19 and as I stood on the platform with a handful of other silent shell-shocked New Yorkers a homeless man in a red shirt and sitting on a filthy plastic bag began to sing ‘Amazing Grace’.
New York City was my home for 10 years. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. It defined who I am and what I am made of, gave me incredible friends and I will carry the growing up I did there with me all my life.
New Yorkers always remember that day on every 9/11 anniversary and any given day in between. We can never forget. We remember it as we head into subways and see cops with rifles, we remember it when subway trains are stopped, rerouted or delayed due to suspicious activity. Or when avoided terrorist plots are published and you realize your subway was one of the intended targets.
But this isn’t a post to dwell on grief or the awful terrible events of that day or pick at scabs on scar tissue. This is to honor the beautiful moments and those who persevered in such shocking, scary and strange circumstances. This is me saying, after 10 years, I am finally ready to remember all of those moments.
I remember my roommate, who had been downtown and left her cellphone at home that day, finally making it home nearly 6 hours after the towers fell. She came through the door to all of us in our apartment in Queens, frightened, waiting, still in our PJ’s. We had been fielding panicked phone calls from her family and friends all day as we listened to the sirens wail down our street as the fire trucks and police drove in from Long Island to help downtown.
My roommates stoic blank face crumpled at the sight of us and she told us how she walked up avenues wall to wall with people covered in dust. How she asked a cop what to do and he looked at her blankly and sadly said “I don’t know”.
As bridges and tunnels were closed- she had walked the length of Manhattan and over the 59th St bridge towards home. She and hundreds of others hit the Queens side of the bridge to find crowds of people waiting for them- with water, with food, with hugs and cars to take them home.
Another friends mother lived downtown just blocks from the towers. He got on a bike he found in the street and drove through the crowds, to the smoke, to find his mom. She has breathing problems and he knew she wouldn’t be able to negotiate getting out of that area on her own. When he finally found her, he put her on the bike and ran next to it, pushing the handlebars uptown away from what would soon be Ground Zero. A SUV came screaming up the empty streets, headed in the same direction. He waved it down and they stopped; a hysterical women, her two children and her husband were inside. The wife was scared and yelling at her husband to keep driving but instead the man stayed and listened to my friends plea to help his mother. The man squeezed my friends mom into the car and promised to drop her at the closest hospital on his way out of the city. And he did just that. My friend located her hours later at an uptown hospital, linked to an oxygen tank.
I remember the woman sitting across from me on the train. Her hands were covering her face and she was sobbing, the sound of it filling the subway car. I sat across from her, so emotionally overwhelmed from the past few days I wasn’t really able to do anything or offer her comfort. Another woman stood up and handing her tissues, sat next to her as she cried the rest of the ride.
I remember my parents not tellling me to leave New York although I am sure they would have been relieved if I did. And at that point- I think I would have left if they had encouraged it but they didn’t because knew how much I loved being there. I remember sitting on the wood floor of my living room, not even aware I was crying until I felt the tears hit my hand as it held up the phone to my ear. I was talking to my parents, each of them on an extension. I was numbly telling them I didn’t think my dream to be an actress (one I had had since I was a little girl) had any point anymore and maybe this wasn’t something I should keep doing. My parents saw past the trauma and shell shock I was going through and adamantly reinforced that “9/11 did not take away who I was or the value of my dream for my life.”
I remember going as close to the towers as I could the day after the attacks. We found ourselves in Washington Sq Park with hundreds of other New Yorkers. Two African-American men were standing up on a bench began yelling 9/11 was Gods way of punishing the white people. There was so much hate coming from them. “You don’t see God sending those planes to Harlem do you? No, this is to teach these white folks a lesson.” As they kept shouting and emotionally exhausted people stood still watching them, an older, pudgy African-American man, wearing a rumpled shirt, pushed his way through the crowd. He got right up on the bench and in their faces and said ”This isn’t about race. This is about hate. A hate you are continuing. Every race died yesterday. Today is about how we are all human.”
I remember the two cops who showed up to subdue them. They pulled up with their car covered in dust from the towers and wearily got out from the car. The officer looked at the men blankly and said “C’mon guys. Do you have any idea how much death is downtown? Today you should be on your knees, thankful you are alive.
In the time following 9/11, those in the military (and their tanks) were all throughout the city. It was tough to see them as they (and the missing persons pictures and the fact you couldn’t go below 14th Street) were constant reminders things were not right. I found it jarring and hard to process. One freezing October night I was waiting to board the N train near Astoria Blvd. Several people wearing camouflage and guns where waiting on the platform with me and others. As we boarded the train, I took a seat where I could see the profile of one them. She was young, freckled and pink cheeked. As the New Yorkers silently surveyed them as they awkwardly sat on the train, a man asked them where they were from. The young girl spoke “From North Dakota”. Silence. The man then asked “Why are you here?”. “To keep you guys safe in your city” she replied and tried to smile in the face of our misdirected hostility. We all rode several stops in silence and then an African-American lady, who looked like she may have seen better days, stood up. She moved to exit at the door to the right of where the young woman was sitting. As the lady went to leave the train, she paused for a moment and put her hand on the young womans shoulder. “God Bless you , sister” she said.
I was at the gym in Oklahoma City (a long way from NYC in many ways) today. It had all the anniversary footage playing on 4 screens. Footage I haven’t watched since I saw it either out my window or on TV the day it happened. I did my best to avoid watching as I have done so many times before but today it wasn’t really possible. A shot of Chambers Street appeared on the screen and with it so many emotions, the main one being love, that I thought it was best I left the gym before I embarassed myself.
I am proud to call myself a New Yorker, which I will always be in some way no matter where I live. I am proud to call myself an American. And I am deeply thankful I have had the past 10 years of my life unlike so many others who perished today a decade ago.
I think my dear friend Joe Moran said it best: “It’s crazy to think about how much can happen in the course of a decade – how many people can impact your life, how much you can learn, how much you can laugh, how much you can love. I’m sorry that those who perished on 9|11 could not experience all that happened in the past ten years. And I am sorry that we could not experience them and what they might’ve contributed to the world. I am truly grateful for my life, my family, my friends, and my love. I won’t ever take it for granted.”
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home