I was listening to a local morning radio show and the traffic reporter told us that there was a problem at the World Trade Center involving a plane. Over the summer was the anniversary of when an Army plane crashed into the Empire State Building in the 1940s due to thick fog. Fourteen people perished. News footage had played on New York 1, a local TV news channel, during its regular "On This Day in Local History" feature. So, when the traffic news was reported casually, many thought it was like the 1940s accident. Until, just a few minutes later, the co-host seriously said "Put that caller on the line." One of the show's regular listeners, who was on the street and saw the first plane hit the tower, shouted that it wasn't a small plane..."it was like a 747! Like a 747!" The horror and urgency in his voice immediately changed the whole attitude of the show. I turned on a live local news program and saw black smoke gushing out of a huge hole in one of the towers. I got Frank on the phone. He was watching TV too. We still weren't sure what had happened. We just knew that this crisis would tie up traffic into and out of the boroughs. We'd probably have to cancel our Funny Girl dinner and movie plans. Then, while we were on the phone, the second plane hit. "We're under attack," he said.
In college, I was taught that the most shocking thing Americans witnessed on live television occurred during the Four Days in November -- days that started on Nov. 22nd, 1963 when President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The four days ended with JFK's funeral. While being transported in custody, Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of shooting the president, was himself shot. He died later. The crime was seen on live news coverage. I was in elementary school then.
We had no idea early that morning of the pure evil at work in those crystal blue skies above us. After the plane hit the Pentagon and the plane crashed in Pennsylvania -- and after we watched in more horror as the Twin Towers collapsed individually -- I went to nearby St. Vincent's Hospital to see if I could give blood. I wasn't the only one. Hundreds of other average New Yorkers had the same idea. We stood behind barriers. The 7th Avenue entrances had been sectioned off for ambulances. But no ambulances arrived. That was so eerie. We saw all that horror in our city on live TV and we didn't hear the sirens of ambulances speeding to the entrances. I ran into a friend who said, "There were people jumping from the windows." His face was stark. His business had an office in a lower level of the first tower. All the employees made it out safely. Those were colossal structures, two of the tallest buildings in the country.
Today, as I've done since the tragedy, I watched the televised memorial services with the reading of names. I bow my head and say a quiet prayer when the bells are rung. It's like a holy day of obligation for me as a Catholic. A day on which you must give spiritual attention -- like Easter. I cry at the simple, eloquent, touching messages we hear from relatives of victims after they've read names. We are reminded of the power and depth of little ordinary words: "I love you," "I miss you," and "Till we meet again." Little words, simple words that tell a great story that has the light of grace and eternity. I heard the name of someone from my neighborhood. I lived two short blocks away from the firehouse where Angel Juarabe, Jr worked. We'd see him and fellow firefighters in the neighborhood all the time. We loved seeing them go food shopping at the working class supermarket one block over on 8th Avenue. They'd always be wheeling two shopping carts. One would be packed full with pasta and meat. The other would have canned goods, paper goods, produce and beverages. There was something sweetly goofy about watching them shop. We lost neighborhood members, firefighters of that engine company, that day.
One night after the attack, I sat at the counter. By then, we were all growing accustomed to a certain smell in the city. It was the sharp, unwelcomed smell of destruction, death and loss. We were hearing constant bagpipes in funeral services for the many fallen firefighters, bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace." I sat at the counter, not really for a big plate of food. I wasn't all that hungry. I wanted to see if the familiar faces of the kitchen staff and other restaurant employees, faces of some people whose names I didn't even know, were all there. I wanted to know that these neighbors of mine were safe. Next to me sat a slim, short-haired, friendly blonde musician from the neighborhood. She always had such a cool tomboy look about her. She was also a regular and one of those customers you always loved seeing. My favorite waiter took both our orders. She tenderly asked, "Is....is everybody...here?"
A bit above a whisper, I leaned over to her and revealed, "I came to see the same thing." She exhaled in a way that let me know we were sharing an experience. We both exhaled when the waiter said, "Everybody's fine. We're all here." She got tears in her eyes. She hugged the waiter. So did I. That place and staff...with some workers whose names we hadn't even known at the time...had become important in our hearts.
We'll never forget the pure evil that we witnessed on live television Sept. 11th. Something else I'll never forget is the kindness and gentleness that followed. New Yorkers connected. Color, creed, age, looks, income, sexual orientation --- none of that mattered. In the immediate days and weeks to come after that wickedness, good people were not taken for granted -- good people in the neighborhood, at work and in the family. We appreciated each other. We cherished politeness and common courtesy.