A Perspective from Manhattan before, after and onward September 11, 2001
Tuyet A. N. Tran ©2001
Viettouch has had a Manhattan sister connection and a common bond that exceeded the expanse between California and New York. What I am about to share only reflects my perspectives along with some friends who grew up in Manhattan, who regard our home city as a giant backyard that connected to our different homes. It is entirely possible that I betray my affection for the city that is my hometown when I write that I have always known about the hearts and generosity of average New Yorkers underneath their crusty and tough exteriors. I hope my untidy description of the city before September 11 might explain how many New Yorkers seemed to gather themselves quickly in time of crisis.
Perhaps it's best that I started with the Upper West Side neighborhood where I grew up. I would walk only two blocks east to find the rows of project housings on upper Amsterdam. A short walk north on Amsterdam would bring me to the Cathedral St. John the Divine, then Columbia University, then Harlem's bustling West 125th Street. I have since moved to another neighborhood downtown Manhattan. The neighborhood differs dramatically in some instances, but not so in another, due to the people. We often find ourselves in all kinds of circumstances where we continually interact with one another, if not share the daily grind of riding the subway to schools, to work, to shop or for more pleasurable destinations.
Many New Yorkers are voluble in expressing their opinions, even at times to bewildered tourists who only needed directions and not, opinions and commentaries. I once passed a group of men and women waiting at a bus stop, all were talking at once as they, each told some tourists armed with maps, the best way to reach some place in Manhattan. I was amused though felt slight pity for the puzzled tourists, who probably ended up more confused than before. New Yorkers are often maligned or disliked by those from elsewhere who attribute particularly obtuse behaviors to only New Yorkers. Admittedly over the years, my friends and I have shared countless laughter about a plethora of New York's quirks and idiosyncrasies that invariably confounded and annoyed others, who might not have always felt comfortable in New York City.
Five days after the World Trade Center attacks, on one of my daily treks downtown, I met two women and their children who came to cheer on the firefighters from Puerto Rico. In less than five minutes, we were chatting as if we were long lost friends, about the awesome loss of lives, the bravery of those firefighters, the smoke-filled atmosphere didn't bother the women though it bothered me. I had planned to walk eastward so they decided to join me. I asked what brought them to Manhattan from the Bronx. They quickly shrugged their shoulders and replied, "Hey, it's nothing for us to come down here, pay respect and let you know we're behind you and, thank our guys from down there, know what I mean." I was moved and told them so. We continued our trek eastward when some FEMA emergency vehicles inching their way along side, we all stopped, spontaneously applauded and shouted with abandon, "Thank you, thank you." One woman added, "Thanks guys, for comin' in. Hey, really nice Jeep." Their kids burst out laughing aloud at the last comment. Ah, a moment of levity for me as I laughed along. Before we all parted our ways, I suddenly realized that I had not introduced myself yet, I offered my name and asked for the women's and their children's names. Just as they were crossing the streets, they all turned back, waved and shouted my name then, "you take care," before disappearing behind a slew of people. I was inexplicably comforted by these women and their kids knowing full well that our paths in the future may or may not cross. I think my young nephew's words from several years ago, best summarized my thought, "It is so huge, tons of people but I don't feel alone or lost somehow, weird huh. I like it though." It is this kind of encounter that I have struggled for years to explain to friends from other states, the reasons for my affection, ease and humor about my home city.
On September 11, 2001 people across our nation and other countries saw the very noble essence of New York City firefighters, police officers, medical rescuers, volunteers, to name a few. I am grateful and proud that the city pulls together in time of crisis. I will admit that I was astounded by the amount of people from across the nation came to assist, help and give of themselves to New York City. I met medics from Pennsylvania, Ohio, firefighters from Los Angeles, rescuers, volunteers from all corners of the United States who came to Manhattan for the first time. Suffice to say the newsmedia had blanketed the networks with such information but to this New Yorker, it is a humbling experience to be able to say thank you so much, directly to these selfless givers.
It is a long road back for Manhattan and its residents to return to near normalcy. I, for one have to adjust my grammar in referring to the World Trade Center complex in the past tense. On a more trivial level, I was still receiving promotional mails from some companies in the World Trade Center and some others, on Liberty Street. Manhattan's telephone book will have to change; tourism trade materials such as maps and guides will need to be updated; the World Trade famous twin's images once emblazoned on a myriad of commercial flyers, products, pamphlets, cabs, buses and more, will all have to be removed, if not blackened over the location. On the surface, the City has moved along by necessity, subway riders have returned to scamper along quickly to catch the next connecting trains; New York University campus is getting noisy again, some students are grumbling that there are no more free coffee and cookies like the days that followed September 11; others are impatiently waiting in line to hand over their insurance applications while others are racing to their classes.
The changes in our lives are often not so overt and obvious for example, when I visited a University official, whom I've known, greeted me with quiet comfort as I was happy to see that he was OK. We exchanged quick updates and hugged one another before I left his office. On a separate visit to another University official, she hugged me with relief and joy. Like many, I received my share of telephone calls from friends and family across the US and overseas. I also received phone calls and e-mails from my NYU friends throughout the entire ordeal, well after knowing that each of us was physically OK. These brief moments reminded me that all is well. A good friend of mine and I promised one another that we should not be so lazy in keeping in touch, even if we are often far too busy. I'm certain that I am not alone when I write that each of us was encumbered by the daily grind, meeting demands of life are now more careful to stop for a brief phone call or a short visit without the usual fuss. The humanity that thrives from within remains intact and unyielding even as we, each returns to the expressionless if not, unapproachable and tough exterior.
I admit that I am still unnerved and saddened by the sirens of ambulances and police escorts wailing up my street, carrying the remains of a firefighter, police officer, Port Authority police officer, found from the unimaginable heap of steel and debris. I am still checking the view from my windows to see if the smoke plume has receded, adjust my field of vision to the Manhattan skyline, and always glad to see the Statue of Liberty from afar. I think of the emotional toll exacted on the firefighters, rescue workers and their wonderful dogs who persistently toil amidst broken steel beams, debris, dangerously shifting ground, awful air and dust, in search of bodies and remains of the missing.
I know that it won't be long before New Yorkers start to complain, squabble, bicker over nonsensical matters and stuffs, and offer long-winded directions to unsuspecting tourists again. I am returning to write another revision to my thesis, as I plan to continue to volunteer long after the national newsmedia change their foci on other pressing issues, like the New York Stock Exchange, war, peace rallies, cyber-liberties and computer virus or worms.
To those people out there somewhere, thank you for affirming my deep beliefs in the goodness of humanity. To the cynics, well, it's a democracy so go ahead and chortle away.
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