Readers Reflect: Experiences of 9/11
This is the first in a series of essays that will run throughout the week in which readers reflect on the events of 9/11 and how it changed their lives. Today's essay is by Andrew Strever, of Monroe.
In 2001, I was in my early 20s and the Big Apple loomed larger-than-life. It represented a never-ending party into the wee hours of the morning and always the promise of a good time. In the days after the attack, however, our now-hobbled city seemed to call out to my girlfriend and me as it often did, but the city's voice was somehow quieter, shaky and weary with stunned disbelief. We decided that we needed to approach her streets again that weekend as if she were an old friend laid up in Mount Sinai after a tragic wreck.
Crossing the George Washington Bridge into New York, we saw the familiar skyline that looked so impossibly unrecognizable -- her wounds still smoldering. We approached solemnly without really saying anything apart from distraught whimpers, whispers and gasps of disbelief. We parked in Harlem and decided to make our pilgrimage toward ground zero and the nightmare that we knew awaited us there.
The city that never sleeps was noticeably silent that morning. There were no ubiquitous cabs honking, no New Yorkers walking around to provide some sort of guidance as to how we should be acting or feeling. Even the pigeons that normally carpet the sidewalks seemed to know something was awry as they were nowhere to be seen. In their place, however, we began to notice the first indicators that this was not a dream.
Stapled to every street sign and lamp post, every telephone pole and bus stand there were flyers with faces -- faces that belonged to strangers that somehow became more familiar as we leaned in to read the details and information that identified and gave life to these people. These fliers had been posted by families and friends in an effort to locate the missing immediately after the towers fell. The families showed such desperation and heartache as they tried to maintain hope that somewhere, somehow, their lost love might be found alive and wandering in the madness. The reality that most of these faces were now lost forever, and that the people who loved them would continue to search until they finally lost hope tore at my heart.
There were a few at first; then they were everywhere. Suddenly the entirety of the city, every solid surface, was covered with faces of which I'm sure only a precious few, if any, were ever seen alive again. Then another horrible thought crept in: these were no longer a cry for help, but now epitaphs.
Surrounded by unbearable sadness given way to deafening silence, we found ourselves in front of a stunning sight that stopped us both in our tracks.
More InformationAndrew Strever, of Monroe
At the entrance to Central Park, a beautiful memorial had been unceremoniously erected by the people of New York. The stunning detail momentarily masked the enormity of the display and not until we stood back could we take in the power of it all. Touching words and poignant phrases in rainbow sidewalk chalk covered the entire entrance. Gardens of flower bouquets had sprung up, and candles were burning.
Imagine for a moment your own version of paradise or your own perfect vision of where the innocent might go to play and smile when they leave this Earth too soon. That is how I still envision that memorial today. It was a pure outpouring of human grief. It was what people did when there's nothing left to do but sit down and cry the tears that needed to be shed for so many lost.
After sitting there for about 15 minutes, it became clear that we were not the only people who were around to take this all in. Off to our side, the squeaky wheels of a homeless woman's grocery cart announced her presence and signaled to us a brief return to reality. She pushed her noisy little cart full of everything she owned in this world toward the memorial garden and, just as we had minutes before, seemed to be taking in the experience. I found myself wondering what the events of just a few days ago meant to the homeless and to this woman in particular. I wondered if she even knew what had happened in that cornfield in Pennsylvania, at the Pentagon and I especially wondered if she understood the gravity of what it meant when the two towers fell just blocks away. I then wondered if I understood what it meant.
From the opposite end of the park, a man arrived in his full executive outfit, dressed "to the nines." Clearly a man of distinction and taste, I imagined him to be the CFO of a company that up until that past Tuesday he may have considered to be the most important organization in the world. The man, however, did not stop at the makeshift memorial. He quietly walked toward the homeless woman who was sobbing. Rather than pass her by and continue on his way, the man stopped at the woman's side, reached out his arms and gently embraced her in a hug. She put her head on the shoulder of his Brooks Brothers suit and wrapped her arms around his waist. They stood there in their silent embrace for more than a few minutes. At this point, entirely surprised and warmed from the inside out, I hugged my girlfriend and we all had a good cry together.