September 11, 2001, has gone down in history as a day when the entire world stood still. Not only had this day affected the lives of so many Americans, but it affected the safety of the world around us. For me, a New Yorker at the time, this day proved that human beings could unite through compassion and find strength in one another when a common emotion is shared. This strength in unity was our way of paying quiet tribute to those we lost.
As I remember it...
The Day That Changed a City
Walking from my Queens apartment building, I was greeted with a blanket of blue skies above. It was a beautifully clear day; in fact, the clearest that I can remember. The city's stagnant summer air was a distant memory as I felt the crisp September breeze upon my face and the excitement of fall on my mind. I was content with knowing the heat of the summer was finally behind us.
As I hurried down the hill of Woodside Avenue to catch the 7 Train, I couldn't help but ingest the aroma of curry as I passed by everyone's favorite Indian restaurant. Immediately, the smell hit my sensitive stomach, and I grimaced at the thought of chicken curry so early in the morning. Screeching brakes from the distant train instantly shook my nerves as I realized I might be late for work.
Running up the wobbly metal staircase of the subway station, I began to regret staying beyond last call at Maggie Mae's the night before and questioned if I'd ever learn. The thought created a heaviness in my head as I sprinted toward the sliding metal doors of the train. I was relieved to make it just in time and forced myself onto the crowded subway. Begrudgingly, I nudged my way to an empty seat and expressed a sigh of relief as I allowed my body to fall onto the plastic bench. With my heavy head in full throttle now, I began to contemplate the busy day ahead as I set my eyes upon the familiar faces of strangers surrounding me.
My arrival in Jersey City was met with an overanxious stampede of passengers as the heavy doors of the train opened. Annoyed by the impatience of a woman who shoved me aside, I blasted my way onto the open platform. As I approached the escalator that would take me to the outside world, my mind could only focus upon the disappointment of human behavior, and I wondered why I was still in this city. I momentarily longed for home.
Stepping onto the busy street, I was met with the sounds of honking horns and squealing tires. I ignored the traffic light as I rushed across the street and into the brick building that housed my small office. As I sat down at my desk, I had in mind to check my email before anything else. Just as I was about to click the inbox, I heard my office mate's voice from behind me. "Someone's attacking the World Trade Center," he said, with a confused and guarded tone, as the office door swung behind him. Without hesitation, I followed several of my co-workers outside. Approaching the edge of the Hudson River, we saw the Twin Towers blazing less than a mile away.
The crowd around us stood in silence, dumfounded by what they saw just beyond the width of the river. The iconic towers that had for so long made up the Manhattan skyline now stood broken as a black sulfurous smoke billowed from its deep scars and moved against the piercing blue sky. "What's happening?" I thought. "How many people must be in those buildings?" Questions quickly filled my brain one after the other. I gazed in wonder and fell into silent prayer, willing protection upon the souls who were desperately trapped inside the steel framed towers.
Later, after a time of frantic communication with family from home, assuring them of my safety, and learning that two highjacked commercial planes were at the center of this tragedy, I returned to the site along the Hudson River. Moments later, a single tower that had once stood so proudly and reached so deliberately into the magnificent city sky shook and crumbled to the ground beneath it. Women covered their faces to hide their tears as men in business suits yelled in shock. These sounds made me cringe as I steadied my eyes upon the horrific sight and felt the air deplete from within me.
Later that afternoon, as I traveled with my co-workers into the New Jersey countryside for a place to stay the night, I looked across the river and into what was now a blank and somber space. I saw the smoke as it continued to penetrate the cityscape and create a void of darkness, and I wondered how in the world we could pay tribute to the poor souls who perished.
The next day, as I traveled back home by subway, I was overwhelmed with quiet solitude. No one rushed on and off the train. No one pushed others aside to get the empty seat. Instead, there existed a common attitude of humility and patience among the passengers. Collectively, we were hopelessly aware of the anguished cries of our broken city and the precious lives it lost. This, I gradually came to realize, was our way of paying tribute.
In the days that followed, the city memorialized the victims with pictures that covered every inch of train station walls and along city sidewalks. Every New Yorker, every American, every human worldwide was in mourning and desperate to commemorate the sudden loss of innocence. Enraged though we were, we'd see it through, confident that evil would not conquer the human compassion that was in our hearts.
The Value of Loss
As New Yorkers, we quickly learned to value our united strength while staring down adversity with a steadfast loyalty to one another. Today, as we arrive at another anniversary of that heartbreaking day, may we continue to unite in the memory of all who were lost and never take a single day for granted no matter how ordinarily it begins.