Learning how to be an American on that dark day in the city of my dreams
It’s true the skies were so blue in New York City on 9/11. But I hadn’t noticed. I was too busy being a hurried New Yorker, living on a graduate student’s meager budget and thinking about an upcoming exam on mathematical logic.
I was in Long Island City in the borough of Queens when the first plane struck. I saw the smoke in the sky, noticed the location, and every sense of logic and reasoning abandoned me. I knew my younger brother was on his way to Brooklyn College, on the always-late 2 Train into Flatbush Avenue. We were both graduate students at the time, far away from our family, which was scattered in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
If my brother was trapped underground, I needed to be there, near him.
So I embarked on the E Train, which was, as usual, relatively quiet; New Yorkers don’t say much, especially during rush hour. For the next 10 minutes, the train chugged through the dark underground path.
I lost the capacity to process much beyond my immediate surroundings, but I gained the sense of being very present. The intercom crackled, only audible enough for us to gather that a building had been attacked. Then, silence, and the train came to halt.
My fellow passengers and I looked at one another. In silence we registered our own presence and complete lack of control in this closed space, underground.
I said my prayers, the ones my mother taught me, the ones that allowed me to say, “God I leave it with you, to show me the way.” I have no doubt that many of my fellow passengers said their own similar prayers, in many languages, all in the same goal, in hopes of the same outcome.
Approximately three hours passed, and during that time, we were given no information. There was not an angry word, nor an impatient sigh, about a lost workday. In that silence among strangers, there grew a sense of solidarity; a sense that we would all live or possibly die here, together. Suddenly there was another crackle on the intercom, followed by somewhat incomprehensible instructions.
Then parts of the subway doors opened up. We all made eye contact as we made our way toward the doors. Strangers walked in line, helping others to step out ahead of them. These were the same New Yorkers who would have rushed out to their destination on any other ordinary workday. We could not see much, but using our hands to feel the walls, we navigated the narrow path for several minutes until we found an opening that took us up toward a subway station in Lower Manhattan’s Washington Square.
When we reached the top we were met with a wall of smoke reaching to the skies and a sense of critical emergency. We had no idea.
All cellphone reception in Manhattan was down at this point, but I spotted a line of people for a payphone. I did not have a quarter, but a stranger did.
I was able to call my brother. He told me a second plane had hit the Twin Towers and that both the buildings were down. He had called our mother, and he and his friends were trying to make their way back home.
I stood in the shining city of my dreams; the high sky was still very blue. I burst into tears and a police officer helped me off the street. He asked me where I needed to go, and then pointed me in the direction of the Williamsburg Bridge.
“Keep walking with people,” he advised.
I thanked him and walked, while he stayed with his fellow officers to continue helping others.
I walked from Manhattan to Queens on the Williamsburg Bridge, with my fellow New Yorkers, my fellow humans. I stopped at a street stall in Queens to buy sandals, because I had removed my heels and had walked barefoot for several miles.
Along the way, people shared their water bottles, pulled each other along, waited for slower people, walked politely around those who stopped to look back at the destruction behind us. We asked each other, were the people in the buildings able to escape? Who could have done this? We did not know, but the impending anguish lay heavy in the air.
Strangers put their arms around each other to comfort — blind to, and uninterested in, any differences in race, religion, ethnicity, political perspective.
Americans taught me how to be an American on 9/11. Strangers of every shade, of every faith, of every political persuasion showed me the shining spirit of America that beams through the smoke of staggering devastation.
I did not read about 9/11 in textbooks or newspapers, I experienced it with fellow New Yorkers on that Tuesday as we walked over the bridge, with the forever-changed skyline behind us.
I experienced the American characteristic of unspoken solidarity among strangers, who are bonded by this land where we cherish our freedom to be individuals.
I experienced the American characteristic of indefatigable resilience in the face of unfathomable desolation. And I experienced the American characteristic of warmth, compassion and collective humanity.
When I finally arrived home after 10 that night, I found my mother, who happened to be visiting the United States, waiting for me with my brother, in the darkened streets near my apartment, holding up some candles.
Americans taught me how to be an American, on 9/11, on that day when thousands of our fellow Americans perished, leaving their immeasurable loss seared in the memories of their family and friends.
I owe it to their memory, to my fellow travelers in the train, on the streets and across the bridge, to embody those American characteristics that lit my way to safety. I remembered them during my swearing-in ceremony when I became an American citizen in 2011.
I learned from them that being an American has nothing to do with any political affiliation. Being an American has to do with our collective solidarity and humanity when we stand up with each other, for each other, for our freedoms, for the freedoms of others, especially when times appear dark.
Americans showed me on a dark day why they are the shining beacon of the world. Today, as parents, my husband and I hope to ensure that our children’s torches are lit by that same unfaltering flame.
Nazli W. Hardy, MBA, Ph.D.,
Published in Lancaster Newspapers