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Fleeing Upstate On 9/11

The pandemic has made clear how lucky those of us are, who have been able to shelter in nature and work from home. But the realization of my good fortune dates back much further than the Covid virus and March 2020 when we, and many people we know, left New York City for the country.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001 I was walking our dog around the block on the Upper East Side when I heard a doorman at one of the buildings we passed say “747” to someone. For some reason that struck me as odd so I logged onto my computer as soon as I returned home. That’s when I discovered that the first plane had hit the World Trade Center.

Much of the rest of the day was spent in front of the TV, as it was for millions of Americans and others around the world at the Twin Towers collapsed in a cloud of rushing debris, taking over 2,700 souls with them. There were lots of unsubstantiated rumors that day. One of them was that a toxic dust cloud was traveling uptown. So my wife and I loaded our children, whose schools had been cancelled anyway, and the dog into the car and tried to leave the city.

There was no guarantee we would succeed since we’d heard that many routes out of Manhattan were blocked. Indeed, when we got on the West Side Highway, our normal weekend escape route from the city, all seemed to be going well until we hit a wall of standstill traffic just south of 125th street. We got off and wandered through Harlem until a small bridge, that I hadn’t crossed before and that connected Manhattan to the Bronx, materialized in front of us.

It took us a few minutes to cross to the other side but once we did we encountered almost no traffic the rest of the way upstate. The only vehicles were heading in the opposite direction and they were all emergency vehicles.

It had occurred to me somewhere along the West Side Highway that I was a journalist, if not a very diligent one, and that I should have stayed to report the unfolding story, even though I’d done some of that during the afternoon. The news happened to be in the rearview mirror. But, from a purely personal perspective, it was also out the front windshield as we sought safety for our family.

I felt guilty for abandoning the city where I grew up, guilt a novel sensation to be evoked by bricks and mortar, even by a scarred skyline, now suddenly missing one of its most important landmarks. So I decided to write about that. At the time I was working for the New York Observer, a salmon-colored weekly newspaper, and I was asked to contribute my reflections about the terrorist attacks.

What I realized is that the most precious thing about New York isn’t its skyscrapers, as spectacular as they are. Or its stores, restaurants or theaters. It’s the humanity that fills them, the people that travel its streets and take its subways. It’s the cross-pollination, both conscious and unconscious, sought out or simply absorbed, that occurs when strangers are forced to share a densely populated island and four related boroughs connected by bridges and tunnels.

When we arrived upstate the stars seemed to shine more brightly than normal; the silence was more intense. That wasn’t my imagination. The weather had been severely clear that hellish day – severe clear not just poetic license but an aviation term used to describe the unlimited visibility on 9/11 – and since the FAA had closed the entire airspace of the United States the song of crickets wasn’t drowned out by the common rumble of jets far overheard.

We spent a night or two upstate before returning to the city. Police and FBI checkpoints slowed traffic as it approached city bridges, the Henry Hudson among them. For months afterwards my mind registered crossing that bridge back onto Manhattan as a point of no return. On the one side was serenity and safety. On the other was potential destruction and death should there be another terrorist attack.

I don’t think in those apocalyptic terms as often as I did in 9/11’s immediate aftermath. But I still do occasionally, since the memories of that day can never be erased. One of the only beneficial side effects of the attacks is that it brought Americans and the world together in solidarity, however briefly. New Yorkers treated each other with uncharacteristic kindness. The Stars and Stripes sprung up on many buildings to honor the dead but also as a symbol of resolve to carry on.

Twenty years later that unity has been squandered. Will it take another 9/11 to resurrect it? Let’s hope that’s not what’s required.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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