Why New Yorkers Are So Tough

By Alicia Colon
Rightgrrl Contributor
September 21, 2001

When I was in first grade, we were all issued dog tags that would help identify our bodies in the event of a Russian nuclear attack. We would have regular air raid drills and practice diving under our desks while being warned to stay away from the windows to avoid the flying glass. At night, searchlights scanning for enemy aircraft lighted the skies over Manhattan and every day at noon, there would be a blaring siren signaling that this was just a test. I always thought it was silly because if an enemy chose to attack at noon, no one would run for cover thinking it was just a routine test. Once or twice a year there would be a citywide air raid and everybody would have to get off the streets into shelters and subways. The next day's newspaper would show a deserted street on its cover as if to wonder where the eight million people disappeared to. Anyway, my generation of New Yorkers has always been prepared for something horrible to happen to us- and it has.

In the back of our minds we have always known that we would be the prime target because everything is situated here and we are considered by many to be the hub of the Western world. There would be no post nuclear movies made about our survival because we did not expect to. I say all this in explanation for what I have always known. New Yorkers are tough and the above is only part of the reason why.

We are also an international city composed of refugees from all parts of the world where atrocities are a way of daily life. They have sought shelter here but they also bring their baggage of horrific memories, which we in the city absorb into our own psyches. We grow up living next door to survivors of either the holocaust or the ton ton macoute. We work with those who've lived under Communist oppression and sometimes they even marry into our families. Even if some of us have never been personally involved with these survivors we've been affected by their resilience and we wonder every day if we will ever be able to match their courage. I have always admired the stalwart performance of the Londoners during the Blitz and I've always felt that we have been so fortunate to have escaped devastation of this magnitude. On September 11, 2001, our luck ran out.

Eight days after the World Trade Center collapsed and two days after attending the funeral of my friend's fireman brother, I ventured into Manhattan on the Staten Island ferry expecting to dissolve into tears at the sight of the missing towers, but I didn't. As the ferry neared the city, I found it difficult to remember where they had once stood. The smoke had disappeared and the tip of Manhattan is still pretty impressive. I did not see anyone else fall apart either. We all wore that same stoical look that seemed to say that its time to get on with living.

As I got closer to the site of the devastation I was surprised that the smell of smoke had pretty much dissipated although when the wind blew my eyes stung with the particles of dust flying through the air. However it was the smell when I reached Liberty Street that was unmistakable. My husband once described the smell that my dogs used to occasionally bring home as, "cairn." They would get into some garbage that had rotted and he'd use this Southern term, which is a bastardization of the word carrion. This is what you smell at ground zero, decaying, putrefying flesh.

By this time, most New Yorkers realize that we will never see our friends and relatives again. My friend, Donald Foreman, a Port Authority cop, is among the missing and I will miss seeing him every Sunday in the first pew at St. John's. But I am not writing this out of doom and gloom but to let everybody know that life is coming back to normal in New York at an astonishing speed. We are going out to eat, going to movies, renting tapes, telling jokes and listening to oldies. Listen to the beat, boys, that soothes my soul, I want to hear more of your rock 'n roll.

Grief is a strange thing. Its initial intensity lasts for about two weeks and then it evolves into bouts of emptiness and sorrow but it shouldn't be crippling unless you allow it to be. There are people who are seeking grief counseling who don't even live here but who feel traumatized by what they saw on TV. Give me a break. You know what will help everybody? Get out and talk to your friends and family. Don't stay alone wallowing in self-pity. All things pass, believe me.

A few years ago, I held my sister's hand as she passed away of leukemia. I thought I would never stop crying yet the next day our family was laughing uproariously, recounting all our favorite memories of this first sibling to die. These past several days are following that same pattern. We will ache for a long time but we will laugh again and the sooner the better. I received a funny email depicting the proposed New World Trade Center- New York style. It consisted of five new buildings with the tallest one in the center as if giving the world the finger. I use this bawdy picture as wallpaper on my desktop and it makes me smile.

But the thing that gives me the greatest hope took place at that fireman's viewing. The funeral parlor was filled with the young men in dress blue suits paying their respects to their fallen comrade and knowing they would be going to hundreds more in the near future. Although their expressions were somber and sad, every once in a while I'd catch one or two of them checking out my beautiful six foot daughter as she stood with me waiting on line to pay our respects to the family. My heart leapt. Life does go on.
Alicia's column archives can be found at www.aliciacolon.com

Copyright 2001 by Alicia Colon. Not to be reproduced in any fashion, in whole or in part, without written consent from the author. All rights reserved.