The day a city of strangers became a community of survivors

On Sept. 11, 2001, I bought a turkey. A 13-pounder. Standing on the roof of my apartment building in West Greenwich Village, I watched the first of the two towers of the World Trade Center fall. Standing in the middle lane of Seventh Avenue, surrounded by hundreds of gaping, incredulous New Yorkers, I watched the second come down. The woman next to me burst into tears. I turned and headed for the supermarket.

My first thought was bottled water. If New York City was under attack, if thousands of gallons were going to be required to fight the attendant fires, water pressure throughout the city would drop. (And, in fact, it did. Our toilet wouldn't flush for several hours.)

My second concern was food. If New York City was under attack, there would be a disruption in food delivery to Manhattan. (Lower Manhattan, including Greenwich Village was, in fact, quarantined for several days with nothing but emergency vehicles allowed in.)

Perhaps this is what went through my head as my hand fell upon the turkey. Never did I consider for a moment that the gas and electrical lines to our apartment building might be shut off, and that I would have to explain to my wife, Mary, why we had a large Butterball slowly spoiling in the darkened refrigerator.

Fortunately, the gas and electricity stayed on. And we ate roast turkey for a week.

Mary made it home safe but sooty from her office five blocks from ground zero. We watched CNN along with the rest of the country, turning it off now and then to climb to the roof to gauge the wind direction of the thick smoke pluming downtown. On Sept. 11, it blew east into Brooklyn. On Sept. 12, it began to waft north, and with it came the nauseating, acrid smell of everything burning that is capable of burning, including the unmentionable.

We did not know any among those who died. We knew others who did. And we, along with thousands of other New Yorkers, grieved before the lighted candles, and wept at the hastily Xeroxed photographs of the missing, taped to store windows and the sides of bus shelters.

We ached on that first night for the sound of an ambulance - any ambulance that would indicate that someone had been pulled from beneath the rubble and had a chance at survival. The evening of Sept. 11, 2001, was a quiet one. Deathly quiet.

Here is an angle to the 9/11 story that doesn't often get told: The story of thousands of men, women, and children, who, while enduring far less than those whose lives were ripped apart by the events of the day, chose not to spend it solely in the vicarious glow of television news coverage. These thousands lined up to donate clothes and blood. They walked the streets, gathered in homes and public areas to share stories of resourcefulness, courage, and generosity. (If your home was in Tribeca or Battery Park City, you couldn't go home if you wanted to. Many residents of those neighborhoods were unable to return to their ash-filled apartments for weeks.)

I visited with relatives in Texas several months later. One, in all earnestness, remarked what a tragic day Sept. 11 had been for all Americans - an assault on our national soul.

I agreed, but deep down, the statement made me resentful. How could those who were not here on that day really understand? New Yorkers lived for months with tangible reminders. An explosion at a Con Ed plant the next summer brought back uncomfortable memories for many in my neighborhood.

The blackout that hit New York the following summer became a citywide block party, in large part due to its favorable comparison to 9/11. To this day, we New Yorkers wince at the sound of low-flying aircraft. I recall standing on an Upper East Side corner on the day of President Bush's first visit to ground zero and calming a man - a total stranger - desperately in need of assurance that the military aircraft flying overhead didn't indicate some new attack upon the city.

The city of strangers became, almost overnight, a community of survivors. And so I feel proprietary about that day. A nation was kicked in the gut, but the wound to New York City went deeper. The wounds bound us together as a city, but the price was high.

The night of Sept. 11, 2001, Mary and I walked through the Village. Most of the bars and restaurants were dark, but then we'd chance upon a coffee house that had defiantly kept its doors open. And through these windows we could see New Yorkers huddled around tables, some even laughing bravely, doing what they do best: being "New Yorkers."

Which brings me back to the turkey. I don't know what possessed me to buy it. It was an idiotic thing to do, but in the end, it all worked out.

We New Yorkers are still in the process of working our way through Sept. 11. Getting through each new anniversary helps.

And getting through it with a roast turkey sure doesn't hurt.

Mark Dunn is a playwright and novelist living in New York City. His most recent book is 'Ibid: A life'

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