Hideous construction fences surround the gaping hole that was once the site of the World Trade Towers. Orange vested workers move in and out through well-controlled openings. Visitors lock fingers into the diamond shaped commercial chain link, performing acrobatic pull-ups to catch a glimpse of the cavity.
Eight years after 9/11, the site no longer tells the story. Today, the stories reside inside every New Yorker and how this single event altered their lives.
Hang out with a New Yorker and you will invaribly hear, “After 9/11….” For them, the event divided their lives into before and after 9 /11.
The first time I saw John Morabito of the FDNY, he was sitting in front of Ladder Ten engine. This fire station sits across the street from what once was the WTC. He was adroitly fielding visitors’ questions like a baseball player hitting practice balls. John never seemed to tire of repeating the events of that day. An hour later our impromptu interview consisted of one question: “Has anything good come from 9/11?”
He closed his eyes. Then spoke gently: “The people are different.” His statement was simple, yet profound. He took a deep breath, exhaled and proceeded to explain. “Before the towers fell, New Yorkers were driven.” Realizing what he had said, he stopped and chuckle. “Well, New Yorkers are still driven and always will be.
But, if you ever need help, just ask. There’s not a person walking these streets that won’t stop what he’s doing to help you. Do they smile? Are they drippy sweet like Southerners? No, but they have hearts as big as that hole down there.” Of course John Morabito is right about New Yorkers. Not even a tough exterior can mask their strength of character.
Several days later, Oswald, a Puerto Rican New Yorker, was snipping off pieces of my hair at Lena’s Hair Salon on East 29th. The quiet of the salon prompted his announcement: “After 9/11, I stopped waiting for tomorrow. You know, I still wake up in the middle of the night feeling the confusion of that day.” His voice becomes a hum as he drifts back to that terrible Tuesday morning. He inhales, “Beautiful day today, isn’t it?”
Tragedy has a way of accelerating change while compressing time. In times of crises, decisions that normally take years to finalize, flip into fast-forward mode. On a sweltering July evening, four of us were sucking down egg cream sodas at Veselka’s on the Lower East Side when, out of some mental fog, Andrea blurted out “I was in California when the planes hit.” We froze. We listened. “I stood in the middle of my hotel room, watching the TV, screaming. I went nuts. All I could think of were my friends. Were they alive? Weeks went by before I knew if they were OK or not. That’s when it got personal. The idea of being afraid to take a chance seemed absurd.” One year after 9/11, Andrea liberated herself. She quit her high-powered corporate law job and started her own business as an independent charity fundraiser. This evening, when she smiles, her face lights up with satisfaction and zero regrets.
There are universal truths in our world. Number one is love of family. On a lazy June afternoon, Suzanne and I were on our way to a video interview. Traffic was bumper to bumper on the George Washington Bridge. We seemed to be floating in slow motion. Her cell phone rang. “I need to take this. It’s my daughter.”
The conversation was brief, marking each other’s locations, activities and the dinner menu. She flipped the cell phone closed: “Since 9/11 we stay in touch. I must know she is OK. That day, we were in SoHo. We walked home to Harlem. It took us all day. We were devastated. “ Her long pause begged no response. “We’re always in contact. Imagine that. A mother and her teenage daughter talking to each other. Now that’s a miracle in itself. I just can’t let go. If something happened to her…” She didn’t finish her sentence. She didn’t have to. Fear of loosing a child is part of every mother’s DNA. It hides in the caverns of the soul. And, the fear never, ever goes away.
In Amy Zipkin’s NYT’s article “The Call of the Circus” she tells the story of Nicole Feld who came to New York to live and work at People Magazine. Nicole’s story parallels that of so many others: “After Sept. 11, 2001, I decided to join Feld Entertainment…. I had slowly been making a decision to leave magazine publishing, but the terrorist attacks made me think about family.” Nicole’s family owns Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In a way, she did what kids dream of, running away to join the circus. Only in her case, she ran away to join her family.
Dave Freeman, author of 100 Things to Do Before You Die, died at age forty-seven. “On Sept. 11, 2001, Freeman watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center from his apartment just blocks away. He moved back to Southern California to be closer to his family.” Good for you, Dave.
The stories change shape.
The characters change names. But, the constant remains: New Yorkers have found the positive in an unimaginable negative event.