Monday, September 11, 2006

I Am A New Yorker

It's the 5th anniversary of September 11th. Of course we all know that. Even if we lived in a hole, the media coverage and people reminiscing with questions of "where were you...," there's no way that you couldn't remember... but truly, it's a date that no one will ever forget.

They said then that if you lived in NYC during September 11, 2001 that you were automatically a "New Yorker," even if you'd only lived there for a few months. It was a badge of honor; a badge of pride. I was late for work that day. My bosses were on a business trip in Asia and I had overslept. Starting my day with the Today Show, I was waiting for the weather report, but realizing I was really, really late, was just reaching for the power button when the special report cut into the broadcast with the news that what they thought to be a small plane had hit one the towers of the World Trade Center.

I stopped to watch the report, picking up the phone to call the office to tell them what had happened and let them know I was going to be late. I hung up the phone and stood in front of the t.v., bag over my shoulder, poised to walk to the subway. I watched the live coverage and saw the second plane hit the second tower. I picked up the phone to call the office and tell them what was going on and to get out of our midtown office building and try to get home.

I have never watched the post-event coverage; the documentaries; the recent movies. I could never bring myself to, nor could I ever follow the seemingly endless conspiracy theories expounded in the press. Seeing it first hand was enough; watching the live coverage as the shadow of the second plane skirted across my television screen and exploded into Tower 1; Seeing what seemed like paper floating out of the upper floors of the WTC and crying out in realization that they were bodies-- people who couldn't bear what they faced inside the building, thinking, and knowing, their only escape was to jump; Hearing the chirping sound in the erie silence after the towers collapsed-- the sound that the alarm that is affixed to a firefighter's suit when there is no movement makes so that rescue workers will be able to find a fallen comrade-- a sound that still brings me to tears and that I cannot bear to hear, even today; Sitting on my fire escape, watching the smoke billow from the WTC before it collapsed; Climbing to the roof of my apartment and photographing the smoke after it did; The sunset that night-- the most brilliant orange, pink and red peppered with gray and black-- from the fire and smoke emerging from the now commonly known "Ground Zero."

I watched some of the
Naudet brother's updated film on CBS tonight. They were filming a documentary of a probie firefighter's (Antonios "Tony" Benetatos) academy experience and first blush with being a firefighter when the attacks occured. They could very well have sold their footage for a great deal of money-- but they didn't. They donated the footage and didn't take a dime for it... heroes, perhaps, in their own right.

I remember the World Trade Center... I remember the time I spent there; never expecting that it could be a site of so much pain... so much death. In college, I sang there with my acappella group; I stayed at the Millenium Hilton, across the street from the WTC, which was all but destroyed, for the final "hurrah" with my roommates in the Spring of senior year; I saw Eddie From Ohio perform at Borders in the basement of one of the towers; and often shopped in the mall in the basement when I had a dentist appointment at 26 Broadway; I met friends for lunch in the park between the towers, where all the street vendors and food carts convened; and I remember the night GCC took me for a romantic dinner at Windows on the World... and we were confused about how to tip the multitude of waiters-- the head waiter, our waiter, the host and the sommelier (and he called his mom to check). It was inconceivable that these buildings-- fortresses, really, could be so vulnerable; that all those people could perish.

I was lucky. I don't know anyone who died on September 11, 2001. But I know many who did. Friends who lost friends, co-workers and family members. GCC, a NYC Police Officer, was supposed to have been in court in lower Manhattan that day, but thankfully it was canceled and he was safely at home, asleep after having worked a double in Harlem. I, and his family-- who were all out of town and frantically calling me when they couldn't reach him, was relieved. If he had been at, or near, court that morning, he would have been one of the first responders to the scene. When I did finally reach him, I remember being in tears that he was okay; and I remember he being frantic that he couldn't get into the city to help. M.L., pregnant with Max, walked home from Soho, all the way to Astoria. Before the phones went dead, I was able to get in touch with C.M. who had made it home but couldn't reach M.P. We later learned that he had been trapped in his office building which neighbored the WTC when it collapsed; after being dug out he walked more than 5 miles home, covered in ash and soot, and upon arriving home, got into his shower, fully clothed, turned on the faucet and sat with the water pouring over him.

I haven't actually been in NYC on September 11 since that fateful year. In subsequent years I was traveling for business... and then I moved away. But it's not something I'll ever forget. I always joke that, when asked, I don't know where I'm from. But in my heart, I'll always be from New York... and NY will always be a part of me. A lot of it has to do with going to school in NY state and moving to NYC after graduating, and the combination resulting in the discovery of who I was and what I was made of. But some of it, too, is September 11... living through it and feeling the connection and camaraderie with fellow NYers. Sure-- time has progressed and life has resumed; but those who lived through it? Lived in NYC during that time? It's a connection that we'll always have... no matter how much distance we put between us; no matter where we move. It's something that will always be a part of us.

People think I'm crazy because I love NYC so much... "Why would you want to live there?" they ask. "It's so expensive, dirty... people are so mean." The reality? I can't believe that I ever left. It's the only place that I've ever felt was mine; a place where I belong; a place that I almost feel guilty for leaving. But in my heart, I know that I'll go back. Despite its faults, expense, general craziness, NYC is a place where so many people, of varied backgrounds, sensibilities, and, well, homes, come together to find a common ground; a place where all of these people who strive to be, and accomplish being, "individuals" can still come together and rejoice in being a single thing: A New Yorker.

"I don't think it's so much the severity of an event that alters who you are; it's how you interpret it that changes who you are."-- Tony Benetatos

"The legacy of the World Trade Center should not be one of death. The legacy of the World Trade Center should be life-- and humanity."-- Naudet September 11 documentary


Hero to the Masses said...

Nice quotes.

I'm all out of sorts today. Kind of scattered. It's hard for me to concentrate on stuff.

Hope all is well in your head and heart today.

Christina said...

Thanks for sharing this. 9/11 is our generation's Kennedy assassination and Pearl Harbor rolled into one. It's still too close for me to comprehend or even recall how the world felt before then.

alohab said...

Not sure if you remember, but I met Gedeon Naudet, in fact, he stayed at my house with our childhood friends. He was such a great person. We were so taken with him. It was not until the day he left that we discovered that it was he and his brother that made the amazing 9/11 documentary. We asked him about it, and I told him how amazing I thought it was, and how incredible that they did not sell their footage. He was so humble about it, and said that they could never sell it, that they would not have felt right about trying to make a profit from something like that. He was truly a good man. Someone that everyone should know in their lives.