The rising Freedom Tower has stitched together the open wound left by the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. The opening of the National 9/11 Memorial is only days away. What lingers on this 10th anniversary are the stories of how that event changed lives.
The stories reside inside every New Yorker. Conversations inevitably find their way to, “After 9/11….” No doubt that day changed the world. As outsiders, we grumble about shucking shoes, belts, jackets, keys, wallets at airport security. But, quickly shrug off the inconvenience and go about our journey. For New Yorkers, 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, which sits directly across Liberty Street from the WTC site. He fields visitors’ questions like a baseball player hitting practice balls. John never seemed to tire of repeating the events of that day. When it was my turn, I only had one question: “Has anything good come from 9/11?”
He closed his eyes. Then spoke gently: “The people are different.” 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.”
My eyes followed his finger straight out of the engine house, across the street to the noisy construction. “I talk to people. I answer their questions. My job is simple…keep people safe. I answer the alarm and I talk to people.” With that, he smiled and the crowd came back into focus. We shook hands. I left to make a thoughtful walk up Liberty Street.
Of course John Morabito was right about New Yorkers. Not even a tough exterior can mask their strength of character. Several days later, Oswald 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 became a hum as he drifted back to that terrible Tuesday morning. He exhales, “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? Days 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 need to 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.
The stories change shape. The characters change names. After 9/11 life took on urgency. Stop waiting for your dream; make it happen before it is too late. New Yorkers found the positive in an unimaginable negative event.