For many New Yorkers honoring the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the most fitting testament to progress was that a day so unforgettably extraordinary could not have been more peaceful, pleasant and ordinary.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I stood with a handful of friends on the roof of George Washington University’s Fulbright Hall and watched the smoke rise from the Pentagon. An army tank parked at the campus shuttle bus stop. Guards in riot gear patrolled the sidewalks with oversized guns and dogs eager to sniff out the slightest traces of terrorism. We called our parents and anyone we knew in New York. Was everyone safe? Who was doing this? What does it all mean? We didn’t yet realize that, as Americans, many who were studying foreign policy, this would prove to be the most defining day of our young lives.
Ten years later, I am riding my bicycle on the West Side Highway path and enjoying the cool breeze along the river. The afternoon clouds are low and thick, casting a steel gray light over Downtown Manhattan. The tennis courts are full. The dog walkers are out. The rollerbladers are taking up both lanes as they always do. Guys are checking out the girls running by. Guys are checking out the guys running by and everyone is checking out each other in the magnificently open and distinctive way that New Yorkers do. It’s a quiet Sunday in the city.
At the North Cove Marina two young boys and a girl chase each other around a flag pole. They laugh and scream and do all the little things that little kids do. The girl runs off and the boys quickly follow after. Once they catch her she runs the other way and the game goes on and on. They are wearing untucked white t-shirts, each a size or two too large, with a photo of a man’s face printed across the front.
Ground Zero is mere blocks away yet, as joggers pass by and a family throws breadcrumbs at geese in the water, all I can think of is how refreshing the breeze feels. Most people at the marina walk with newspapers, dog leashes or ice cream cones in hand. A few hold American flags or signs displaying the name of a particular person or rescue department.
Then, as I turn the corner onto Liberty Street, I hear a name called out – Glenn Wilkenson. It quickly echoes before being replaced by another name. Jeff Willett. I stop. The realization of what the names mean holds me still like a stiff arm from one of the countless guards protecting the area. I stand with a group of people at the barriers and listen. Brian Patrick Williams.
A middle aged woman with purple hair and a camouflage-print skirt stands fixated on the large screen replaying the morning’s memorial service. She has a soft, distant look on her face and her eyes are glassy, but not tearing. Next to her a tall blonde man in a gray business suit gazes at the ground and next to him a couple in matching, green Jets t-shirts holds hands. A dozen cyclists stand by their bikes while a woman with dreadlocks down to her waist walks up and weeps as she looks at the space where the towers once stood. We watch the video monitor in silence as the remaining names are read. Zucker. Zuckelman.
A few more minutes of silence pass and the purple-haired woman walks away, then the cyclists, the Jets fans and soon I am on my bike riding towards my apartment, teary-eyed and reflecting on the names with each revolution of the wheels.
Planes from JFK, LaGuardia and Newark fly overhead and kids play with large bouncy balls while their parents chat nearby. A man with ripped pants and a collection of plastic bags yells obscene nonsense at the USS NY dominating the view to New Jersey. Tourists with large cameras stare at the man while an older couple barely an arm’s length away talks nonchalantly over a shared a cup of strawberry ice cream.
Despite the planes, the children and the sameness all around, I am reminded by the signs, the t-shirts and the television reports that life has been profoundly altered as a result of 9/11. Ten years gone and troops are still fighting. Police and fire fighters and a staggering number of men and women are still working to make the United States a better place. Lives are still on the line. At Ground Zero, crews have been breaking their backs day and night so that the families of those who perished can find closure. Hopefully they have found some today.
When I return to my block I get off my bike at the Italian sandwich shop on the corner. The owner, a lifelong New Yorker, is outside. He greets me with his trademark smile and a “How you doin’?”
“Pretty good,” I say. “How you doin’?”
“Perfect,” he says.
To me, that’s progress.