Beauty Behind the Sadness: What Happened After 9/11

I lived in midtown Manhattan on September 11, 2001. On that morning, I was awakened by my friend Paula in Massachusetts. She told me to turn on the TV because something had happened at the World Trade Center. And, so my day began.

Besides the endless looping of the television images of the horrific event happening three miles to the south, and the images of the smoking and falling towers from my rooftop, I have so many specific, indelible memories of moments from that day.

But today I want to write about what happened after the towers fell.

Sometime in the afternoon, I felt that I needed connections beyond phone calls and emails from friends. I left the house and headed downtown to my sanctuary, Middle Collegiate Church, located about a mile above Ground Zero, and a stopping-off place of refuge for those fleeing the site. Getting to Middle was not too easy, as public transportation had been shut down. Somehow, I commandeered a livery driver and I got in with a couple of strangers who were also headed downtown.

Inside the sanctuary, I recognized a couple of the church leaders who had lived nearby and were able to get there and open it up. We exchanged hugs and greetings, and then I went to a pew to pray. In the silence, I could hear muffled sobs from a few of the people in the room. Maybe a dozen of us were there, each alone and seated in various places around the space. Connected, and yet not connected.

After the exhausting events of the 11th, when I finally turned of the television and hit the pillow, I was out like a rock, a full dead sleep. There was no work to go to the next day, so I did not set an alarm.

I awoke on the 12th to another sunny day, and the most bizarre sound that I’ll never forget: the sound of birds chirping. In any other context, this would be normal. But I lived on the fourth floor of a tenement building in midtown Manhattan. I had never heard birds chirping — and only the sound of birds chirping — from my apartment before. Not a sound of traffic or street noises or aircraft overhead (thank God).

For a few minutes, as I lay there, I wondered if everything I remembered from the day before had been a dream. Then, more frightening, I honestly thought I might look out the window and see a gray Armageddon of toppled, charred buildings, and that, somehow, I was the last survivor on Earth. It was that quiet.

Later, as I went out to the market to buy a few things, there were others around. We nodded at each other, even offered a small, sad smile.

For the next several days, many of us noticed that cars were not honking — unheard of in impatient New York City. I specifically remember it was exactly a week later, on the 18th, that I heard the first honk around Times Square — and a group of us on the sidewalk instinctively turned and glared at the offending driver. That peace was broken.

My friend Sandra had heard about folks going down to Christopher Street and the West Side Highway to cheer on the emergency workers returning from Ground Zero. That sounded like something positive and fun to do in light of the recent events.

When we showed up, there were about a dozen to twenty people of all ages and ethnicities standing on the island on the east side of the street. It was a New York party! Some were dressed in bright colors and garlands and beads, and one or two were dressed in almost nothing at all. We threw glitter and banged the tambourine. One guy even had a sax. There was a fabulous drag queen. There was no formal organization, but when some would leave, others would come in. It was round-the-clock.

As the workers from the pile would drive up the highway (otherwise free of traffic, as it was still closed to other vehicles), we would do our shouting and cheering. The guys would slow down and reach out to give us high-fives, with big grins on their faces, despite the horrors they had likely seen that day.

Make no mistake, there were likely many of us there who did not like President Bush and were still unhappy about the way the previous year’s election turned out. Some of us might have been alarmed at the words of war that were already coming from the White House. Some of us might have harbored thoughts that perhaps the Administration could have prevented this in some way.

But none of that was voiced. We didn’t know or care who others voted for during those sad yet magical days. We simply cheered the rescuers. We flew our flags. We left candles at the hundreds of memorial sites that sprang up around the city with photos of those missing, accompanied by written pleas from surviving relatives who wanted us to call their number if we saw their brother, their sister, their son, their daughter, their mother, their father.

There would be time later to debate the response to these unprecedented attacks.

A few weeks after 9/11, Rev. Gordon Dragt, the then-minister of Middle Collegiate, invited an imam to give the Sunday sermon at the church. At a time when there was so much suspicion and even hatred of Muslims, this was a radical act of public healing, a way of dispelling fear that might have been present in some of the parishioners.

* * *

That fall and winter, the sadness lingered. As I recall, we did not have one snowstorm that winter, but many rainstorms, as though the gods were crying.

In April, my cousin and her grandson came to visit New York for the first time, and so I gave them the full tour. We did the usual things: the Brooklyn Bridge, Fifth Avenue, Times Square, and all the good eats we could find. We even went to Ground Zero, where many were still wearing masks all those months later.

As we were walking around, though, I noticed something that I’d never remembered in previous springs. Seemingly, on every traffic island and sidewalk and in all the small parks, there were daffodils everywhere. This couldn’t just be a bumper crop, could it?

It turns out, there was something to my observation. Hans van Waardenburg, a Dutch tulip mogul, created the Daffodil Project and managed to get the Netherlands to send a half million daffodil bulbs to New York for planting so that we would have something to cheer us up after that long winter. Yellow is also known as the color of remembrance.

To this day, because daffodils multiply, every spring you can see New York City awash in yellow blooms. In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg named the daffodil as the official flower of New York.

And so, in the wake of such destruction and horror, there were moments of tender connection and beauty. We would have to get to the difficult questions of how to respond to the attack, and that response would bring regret among many politicians for years to come, right up to this year’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan.

For a time, we were united in our grief.

It’s sad that, twenty years later, in the midst of a pandemic that has killed 700,000 of us, with more to come, we can’t get there again.

I am an author, freelance writer, and singer/songwriter. I split my time between Brooklyn, NY and my native Massachusetts. I teach at City College of New York.