For One Day a Year, New Yorkers Unite

New York City is made of stories. Every person you pass, or bump into, or get in the way of has a story to tell. Some are happy, some sad. Some tell the stories of their childhood in a country far away from this island. Some will tell, in a thick Brooklyn brogue, stories of the pizza shop their parents built.

There are more than eight million stories here – and most never get told.

It’s been said that New York City is the only place in the world where you can feel totally alone in a crowd of millions. It can be isolating, living here. New Yorkers don’t talk to each other. We keep our heads down and our eyes averted while we hustle to our destination. We live in such a perpetual hurry that we never even have time to care about the stories of the people hurrying alongside us.

New Yorkers have an astounding and unique ability to live so close together, but somehow so far apart. It’s disheartening, and makes this big city of bright lights and splashes of color feel small and grey. But when New York comes together, it comes together like no other place in the world.

When something happens to pull all the tiny gears and cogs together, New York becomes the world’s most stalwart, intricate and well-oiled machine. When we’re functioning together as a unit, we become something more than New Yorkers. We become New York.

On September 11, 2001, this city pulled together like never before. The people of New York, shocked and terrified from the moment that first plane made impact, looked past their own well-being, and reached for the hand of their fellow man.  People stumbling on downtown streets stopped and helped each other to stand. Complete strangers threw arms around one another and shared strength and support.

Those trapped in the towers’ upper floors held doors open for one another, and patiently waited their turn in the line that crept slowly down hundreds of stairs toward safety.

On that day, we didn’t avert our eyes or keep our heads down. We stood shoulder to shoulder against those who sought to do us harm. We built a wall, and refused to let the terror in.

Already 10 years have passed, and already it seems New York is unchanged. We bury our heads in our newspapers and we choose to stand on the subway rather than risk a brush of our thigh against another’s thigh. Once again, we’re all alone in a crowd.

The unity isn’t gone though. It lives under our skin. It’s become a part of our identity as New Yorkers. The abhorrent events of that balmy Sept. day stick with us, and every year on the 11th it happens again. That silent current starts to run through us, and the city hums with the energy of the strength and solidity found in loss and remembrance.

Last year on the anniversary I found myself in a tiny park by the water in Downtown Brooklyn, sitting on rocks lapped by murky East River waves, staring across to Manhattan, and the two incandescent beams of light that stood in the towers’ place. There were dozens of people there, in couples and groups or by themselves. It was quiet, but every once in awhile someone would start to talk, telling the story in muted tones to whoever happened to be listening.

New York City is made of stories – some of them happy and some sad, but all of them unique. The story of September 11 is the one story we all share. It unfolds through different eyes, in different languages and voices – but the story is the same, any way it’s told.

On September 11, 2001, the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. On one night every year, it happens again. The hustle, the noise and the solitude of life in New York City fade and we keep quiet and just listen to one another. We are a community perpetually connected by a story we tell each other every year on the 11th of September.