On September 11, 2001, I was a college freshman at a University about three hours north and west of New York City. That morning, I walked over to my 10 a.m. class and was greeted by a note on the door informing us that we would not be meeting today. At this point, two planes had already crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon and another in Pennsylvania (supposedly headed to the White House).
Perhaps my later class was a blessing, because seeing these events unfold live might have pushed me over the emotional edge. Instead, I caught the continuous replay of the horrifying and unimaginable footage.
Still adjusting to college life, I didn’t allow myself to fully accept what was happening. It took me years before I could properly acknowledge my grieving friends and let myself feel the full weight of the day. Though I didn’t have a strong connection to the buildings that fell, as someone who grew up in the city, my heart will always be there, even if I am away.
But being away came with a good dose of guilt. Guilt I wouldn’t feel again until this year (but more on that later). For years after, I heard the stories from friends and family of how they could see the smoke from across the river in New Jersey, how they ran and ran from the destruction, how they were trapped in subway cars for hours, how they thanked whatever God they worshipped or just plain luck for keeping them alive that day.
And I heard the stories of others who lost their parents, their children, their siblings, their partners and their friends. Every year, I hear a new one. As if to remind me of the magnitude of this loss.
Yet, I wasn’t there. I was away and safe. Still in New York state, but far enough to not be effected. I was in my college bubble. I suppose I could have gone down to Manhattan, gone down to help in the clean up and rebuilding efforts. I thought about it, but I never did. I don’t think I could handle it.
Maybe the universe wanted me away. Maybe I was being protected.
It’s funny how that works.
I felt the same thing this year.
When the Coronavirus started destroying New York City, a large part of me felt ashamed for not being there. While I was away my city-dwelling friends were recounting stories of overrun hospitals, loss of loved ones and constant fear. I felt awful being so far away and not able to share in that discomfort. But, I also missed the comraderie, the sense of community which brought the city together to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and get life back again. Because just like after 9/11, the city fought hard to rebuild and came back stronger.
New York City may seem a bleak and hopeless cause. As more and more people seek new life in the New York suburbs and beyond, one wonders what will become of this great city.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I went out to dinner in Manhattan with some friends. The Midtown streets we dined on were quiet save for a few boisterous twentysomethings attempting to have some semblance of a youth.
It would be easy to say Manhattan was done.
They said the same thing after September 11, 2001. In the aftermath, nobody thought Lower Manhattan, especially the areas surrounding the World Trade Center would ever again be a place of thriving business and tourism. Yet, almost 20 years later, Battery Park has become one of the best neighborhoods to live in, TriBeca grew into the destination for fine dining and business has returned to the World Trade Center.
Of course, the impact of the New Coronavirus is unique. People have adjusted to working from home and cramped apartments seem smaller than ever. People are venturing back to their old lives, but will it ever be normal again?
Probably not. But that’s OK. New York City will be forever changed, but it will always hold a special place in the hearts of all of us who love it despite all its flaws and hardships.