I was living in Washington, but now I am back in New York, and while I do not regret my years in Washington at all, New York is where my heart is. The people in my life I love most are there. There is also the city itself. You live in New York by choice; it is where you put down roots. Washington, though, always seemed to me to be full of people who lived there not because they enjoyed the place, but because they wanted to be close to government and power. Their jobs, and, more often than not, their identities, depended on it, and their connection to the city itself seemed tenuous. I speak now as a New York chauvinist, of course, but I think last September 11 was indicative.
I was in Washington then, and watched television all that morning. By early afternoon, however, I could no longer stand my own passivity. I am not a professional patriot — Washington, incidentally, abounds with them — but my country was under attack, and I had to make a gesture. I left my apartment on Connecticut Avenue, and walked downtown towards Independence Avenue and the symbols of America’s greatness. I would join the crowds I was sure to find on the Mall or near the White House. They would be holding hands, waving flags, and probably singing “God Bless America.”
But it did not work out that way at all. As I walked down Connecticut Avenue all of Washington seemed to be walking or driving the other way. Downtown was emptying out. The Mall was deserted, and our national monuments abandoned. Washington felt like a ghost town. Rather than taking to the streets, the patriots, I imagine, were all in the supermarkets stocking up on batteries, candles, and bottled water.
That was on a Tuesday. Meanwhile, in New York all that day and the next, bridges and tunnels were shut down, and air and road travel suspended. I could not get there until Thursday.
I found a somber city, although the remarkable thing was how much of life was going on as usual. New York had suffered a great blow, but even though the toll in lives and treasure was still unknown, it was clear the city would recover. The people who live there actually liked the place and they simply would not allow it to fade away.
A smart friend mentioned to me in the weeks after September 11 that while the attack had left Washington depressed, it had made New York angry. I think there was something to that, and certainly anger is a useful emotion.
Meanwhile, in the endless recycling of September 11 stories for today’s anniversary, I note a small item in Newsweek. Mental-health officials, it seems, estimated that 1.5 million New Yorkers would need psychological counseling after September 11, but only a tenth as many showed up to receive it. That made sense, of course. Mental-health officials and much of the media to the contrary, people were getting on with their lives.
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