When I met my husband in 2006, we’d both been through life-changing traumas; his was living in Manhattan at the time of the WTC attacks. In fact, he was on his way down to the C/E train to WTC to pick up a book he’d ordered at B&N. Over the years, as he watched me agonize through my mother’s murderer’s trial and slog my way through writing the book (all the while compulsively vocalizing my way out of grief), I heard little from him about his own trauma. When I asked him to write something about it today, I found that what he wanted to talk about wasn’t trauma, but that other great human event — love.
A little over five years ago, I moved back home to Austin from New York where I had lived for ten years. I moved to be closer to my family, all of whom live either here in Austin or four hours away in San Angelo. I moved home, which is to say, I moved to the point on a map where I was born and reared. My family is getting older, and the desire to spend time with them had begun to gnaw at my conscience. This is what brought me to Austin.
At least, that’s the story I tell people when asked.
In truth, it was a move born out of sheer exhaustion. New York is, indeed, a city that never sleeps. Or, to put it more precisely, New Yorkers are a people that rarely sleep. They work. From the shoe-shiners in the subterranean Penn Station to the corporate litigation lawyers perched high above the city streets in those vulnerable towers of steel and glass, New Yorkers work longer hours than most of their fellow Americans. As my close friend and fellow Texan-cum-New Yorker likes to put it: She beats you down only to mold you again in her image. She is unforgiving, she is impatient. Between the moment your alarm sounds and the doors of the uptown R train shut, there is simply no time for naivety or niceties. She is overly generous with anxiety, exceedingly miserly with sympathy.
And on this 10-year anniversary of September 11th, I miss her terribly.
“Home is where the heart is” may be a cliché, but it’s true. And NYC, baby, you stole my heart in the weeks following Sept. 11th, 2001.
Roughly 1 in 16 Americans live in the NY metro area. The island of Manhattan measures 22.96 square miles and supports approx. 71.201 residents per square mile. At noon on a workday, there are an estimated 21 million people on the island. Somehow, the city not only functions, but also thrives. New York City is the greatest social experiment in the history of mankind. What blows my mind is the unspoken agreement between New Yorkers to, if not necessarily get along, at least deal with each other somewhat peaceably on a daily basis.
Watching those towers burn from my fire escape, I thought about the Dr. Strangloveian premise that our species is bound to destroy itself by its own hands. I feared the worst. I felt certain that this would lead to weeks of vandalism and violence directed at Muslim-owned businesses. I had been in Los Angeles following the acquittal of the four police officers responsible for beating of Rodney King, and witnessed that city descend into chaos. But while Americans from Dallas to Anchorage proceeded to firebomb mosques and Middle-Eastern-owned stores, NYC remained relatively quiet in the weeks following 9/11. In fact, the city came together as no other city has in the history of our country. In the zone below 14th Street, where only residents could enter, restaurant owners cooked free communal meals, corner store owners gave out everything from bottled water to ice cream, day spas offered free massages. I received a free hair cut from Nick’s Salon. If I recall correctly, Nick had not been able to get home to New Jersey and been sleeping in the shop for three days, but seemed to be on a mission to keep cutting hair, finding sanity and peace in the buzz of a clipper.
One night, a few years after 9/11, I joined a friend who had recently moved to New York for a drink in Grand Central. It was a week that we both had worked 50 hours. Despite the long hours, I was down to my last 40 dollars; rent was due that week. We fell into a long conversation about the quality of life in New York. My friend wanted to know whether it was worth the wear and tear on one’s body and spirit. Unfortunately, I couldn’t say. We left the bar around midnight and wished each other luck in the week ahead. At that hour, the trains run on a delayed schedule. I began the long, arduous journey back to my apartment, wishing I could just hop in a car and drive home. Crossing through an empty Vanderbelt Hall, I stopped to check my phone and send my friend a “thank you” text for buying my last drink. Off in the far corner, there was an old couple waltzing to no detectable music. At that moment, time stopped for me. I stood there, alone, watching as my answer waltzed by to the tune of New York.
Over the ten years I lived in NYC, I found myself pining for the Texas Hill Country of my youth from time to time, particularly towards the beginning. I would moan and groan about the hectic pace of life in the Big Apple and rhapsodize about all things Austin. But now, back home in Austin, when I think about the almost tribal sense of unity I experienced in New York in the weeks after 9/11, I get this chest-swelling, bone-aching longing for the city so nice they named it twice. I look back at my younger self and say, “Kid, what do you know from homesick?”