New Yorkers


Sometime before 11 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001, as I was on the phone to my brother telling him what was happening in the city he had called home for many years, a co-worker popped her head into my cubicle and told me “We’re walking to Queens. You want to join us?” I quickly assented; we had been ordered to evacuate the building, and not knowing the situation on the street it made a lot of sense to travel with others. The world we knew seemed to be crumbling around us—the radio reported, along with towers collapsing, the attack on the Pentagon, and the plane down in Pennsylvania, a bomb had gone off in front of the State Department, the Sears Tower was in danger, and something was rumored to have happened out West. There was plenty of horror and a sickening feeling, but as I prepared to go I also felt an intense curiosity and excitement—what was the world outside our office going to be like? Would there be panic in the streets? We were stepping out into the unknown, and I had no idea what we might encounter on the way home, how long the journey would take, whether I would have to walk the whole way, probably close to 10 miles altogether.

As the co-workers I would travel with started to gather in the lobby, I went across a nearly deserted Fifth Avenue and withdrew some money from my bank (somehow the cash machines were still working), then went to City Market Café to stock up on provisions for the trip: a sandwich, some bananas. Re-crossing Fifth Avenue I saw that I could no longer see even a single tower to the south; instead there was a huge black cloud. I asked my building’s doorman about it, and he confirmed my suspicions: that the second tower had fallen.

At last, all my co-workers were ready, and we headed north towards the 59th Street Bridge. I soon became aware of a strange and wonderful thing. People walked quickly and with a purpose, but there was no outward panic; in fact, people were extremely considerate and respectful of each other’s space, letting people seamlessly merge into the pedestrian flow What I saw then, and what was borne out in the days and weeks to come, bore out my long-held belief that (with a few exceptions) New Yorkers aren’t rude, arrogant, pushy, or obnoxious by nature, but the large number of people crammed into a relatively small area—particularly an area largely dominated by pedestrians—brings out the worst of its citizens’ competitive instincts. September 11’s aftermath blew all stereotypes of New Yorkers out of the water, and the world got to see a whole different side of this city: the selfless, caring, heroic, altruistic side. Most everyone was deeply concerned about the welfare of those around them, both friends and strangers, and more than willing to help in any way they could. I met all sorts of neighbors and coworkers I’d never talked to before. Of course, these things weren’t unique to New Yorkers; we were overwhelmed by the response of the world in our time of need—but we were on the front lines, and the heroism of the firefighters, policemen, Mayor, and other emergency and rescue workers has become the stuff of legend. (I’m sure that most any other city would have shown a similar resilience and strength if confronted with the same horror.) Although there were times—particularly in the early weeks after the attack—when I wanted to be (or live) anywhere else but in New York, I’m glad I’ve been able to stand with my city through this longest year and help out in its healing and renewal in whatever ways I that I have been able to. For the first time since I moved here 20 years ago, I have truly felt proud to be a New Yorker. [Written September 10, 2002]

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tonyhoffman@earthlink.net