September 11, 2011

Today is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the plane in Pennsylvania. It was, and still is, a horrible tragedy as so many struggle to cope with their losses.

I was working two blocks from the White House when we heard about the attacks. Our office gathered in the conference room to watch the tragedy unfold on TV, when it was still in New York. Then a picture of the Pentagon, five miles away, flashed on the screen. A half-hour later the building evacuated us to the gridlocked DC streets. I didn’t think the Metro was running, so I boarded a bus. It took us an hour to go two blocks.

Frustrated, I got off and found that the Metro was, in fact, running. People on it were talking to strangers, trying to make sense of the tragedy. I couldn’t go to my usual stop, the Pentagon, so I improvised and found a bus at another stop. I got home and my friends, who didn’t have a TV, asked to come over and watch. I was grateful not to be alone, as we watched the attacks over and over. I tried to call my parents to tell them I was ok, but all the lines to New York were jammed as people checked on their loved ones. I finally got through to them at 9 p.m. on my friend’s cell phone. I asked if my cousin Peter, a Brooklyn cop, was at the site.

“He’s from Brooklyn,” my father said, dismissing the idea, “He’s not gonna be a there.”

He was there, and so was my cousin “Baby” Louie, a Westchester County volunteer firefighter. I found out later that Louie had had a close call as his chief changed his mind about sending the team into the second tower just before it collapsed.

We learned a lot about ourselves that day, and in the days after. We learned that the U.S. was not invincible. We were not safe. We learned a lot about character – the character of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the character of our president, George W. Bush. But to me, we learned the most about the character of New Yorkers.

We New Yorkers get a bad rap. I grew up in suburban New York, and although I’ve lost most of the accent and haven’t lived there in 13 years, New York is a huge part of my identity. When my Virginian mother-in-law first met me, she told her family “I never thought I would like somebody from New York.” Every city with a baseball team hates the Yankees. Everyone knows that New Yorkers are rude, gruff and selfish.

So in the days and months following the attacks, people around the country were surprised to see how New Yorkers pulled together. How everyone, whether they lost someone or not, was affected by the tragedy. How Mayor Giuliani led this population of callous cads to support each other and grieve together.

I went to New York several months after the attacks, and as I walked through Grand Central Station, my chest wrenched when I saw all the “Missing:” posters on the walls and bulletin boards. Months after the attacks, no one had taken them down. I could not imagine the pain that these people felt. I went to Ground Zero. The emptiness was what hit me the most. I could see clear across Wall Street to the water. Before the attacks, Wall Street was its own fortress of capitalism, blocking out the city around it, and now its greatest monument was gone. Ground Zero was fenced off, and people had tied flowers, pictures and cards to the fence, tributes to those who were lost.

As wounded as they were, New Yorkers started to pick up the pieces. They told their children why Daddy or Mommy wouldn’t be home again. They got their affairs in order and tried to move on. They leaned on each other when standing by themselves was too much. And the whole country, and much of the world, saw them – in news interviews and pictures of the tributes; reflected in Mayor Giuliani’s speeches; in the financial markets, resuming their work. They saw that rude was really resilient. They saw that gruff was really generous, and they saw that selfish was really supportive.

Some New Yorkers tried to bring some good back into the world. Public relations pros David Paine and Jay Winuk started 911dayofservice.org, to encourage people to volunteer and do good deeds in honor of those we lost. Scott Heiferman founded Meetup.com to bring community back into our cities and towns.

After the attacks, and always, I’m proud to be a New Yorker. The people who survive the attacks to this day make me even prouder. My heart goes out to all of the people I left behind there, the people who lost family and friends, and the people who’ve had to recover from the horrors of that day. I hope that every September 11th, our country will remember the courage and the support that they saw in New Yorkers those days. I hope that even without a great tragedy to unite them, they’ll be able to follow New York’s example.

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