I also thought I knew New Yorkers. I lived in the city for twenty years before I moved to the suburbs, and I still go in to work on 23rd Street when I'm not telecommuting from home. New Yorkers are gruff, straight-talking people who are nicer than reputation leads you to believe, but always in a hurry.
Then came Tuesday, September 11th, and I found out I didn't know New Yorkers--or my neighbors--at all. Maybe you discovered the same thing.
That morning, I drove my six-year-old son Jonathan to school in our bucolic New York exurb of Warwick, New York. When I returned to my home office at 9:19 to start my Beliefnet day, there were two phone messages from my husband, Robert Scott, who edits a magazine based one block from the World Trade Center. The first said, "There's been a big explosion. Someone says a small plane hit the Trade Center." The second said, "Hey, there's been another explosion." I called him back, then turned on the television. As I watched, the first trade tower imploded. And then my husband was gone. He could not be reached by landline or cell phone. As it had for countless thousands of others, my long day of waiting had begun.
Thankfully, my husband's journey would take him through "nuclear winter" into the open arms of help and kindness.
Joyce Baldassarri lives in Staten Island, New York, just across the harbor from the southern tip of Manhattan--in full view of the World Trade Centers. As soon as the magnitude of the tragedy became clear, Joyce rushed to the local police department to see what she could do to help, but they were in high alert themselves and had no time to coordinate civilian efforts. So Joyce took matters into her own hands.
She realized that thousands of people who work in lower Manhattan south of the World Trade Center had to be evacuated through a landscape now devoid of oxygen, filled instead with gas fumes and smoke--and covered in darkness and inches of ash. They could not be moved north; there was no way to get past the disaster site. There was only one other way out--to the south, on board the ferry to Staten Island. And so they began arriving, hundreds of men and women who were escaping with their lives but not much else. Jackets, purses, briefcases had been left in offices quickly abandoned.
Before long, they began arriving. Shell-shocked and weary, they found themselves in a warm, pleasant home. Joyce herself signed them in when they arrived, took their contact numbers so that they could be found once they left her house. She handed them her phone number so they could give loved ones a contact number. Then she pointed them to the landlines to home. Once they were finished, they were directed to her upstairs terrace for food and breathing space. Several people needed to take showers and were given a change of clothes, including one woman who had fled the WTC Marriott in pajamas and no shoes. Scores of people found sanctuary in Joyce's home that day. My husband Bob was one of them. I saw God in Joyce's selfless giving.
I also didn't know the determination lurking in Kay Wild, the wife of my husband's colleague Peter. When we finally located our husbands and their co-workers on Staten Island, radio and television reported that traffic was a tangled mess all around Manhattan. All the bridges and tunnels were closed. No one could get close to New York City by car; no one would be leaving Staten Island at all that day.
None of this mattered to Kay. She got in her car in Connecticut and drove south, determined to rescue Peter and Bob and their colleague Linda. She parked on the opposite side of a closed bridge to Staten Island and waited--and waited--until our husbands convinced a taxi to drive them to the bridge, and emergency workers to drive them across. Bob was home by 9 that night. I saw God in Kay's love and determination.
My friend Beth Quinn, a local writer who has contributed often to Beliefnet, wrote a wonderful and ferocious article, the front page of today's local paper, about a Warwick neighbor I didn't know, Linda Gronlund. Linda was on Flight 93 last week, and she was one of the triangle of passengers who determined to thwart the hijackers, even if it meant paying with her life. Beth's article is stunning in its clarity and emotion, as Linda Gronlund's actions were stunning in their heroism. Beth, who describes herself as "a cheerful agnostic" would kill me for saying this, but I see God as clearly in her outrage and defiance of evil as I see him in Linda's ultimate sacrifice.
Yesterday, Dorothy Randall called me from her Army post at the World Trade Center. I met Dorothy when she was a gangly, grinning 9-year-old who was assigned to me as a "little sister" by the Big Brother/Big Sisters of New York. I have watched her blossom into a lovely young woman, a single mother (bereaved by a drunk driver), who has done a masterful job of raising her son in the projects of Queens. She called on break because she is an Army Reservest who has been called onto active duty to protect those clearing debris at the disaster site. "I can see the bodies," she said, "but thank God I don't have to deal with them." She called to make sure we were all right and say she loved us. There is no doubt in my mind who has benefitted most from our relationship. I see God daily in Dottie's perserverence and love.
This disaster has shown me depths of ordinary people I never knew were there before--in many, many different ways. Not everyone can go to help at the World Trade Center. But I'll bet there's a reaching out, a wanting to help others, in your neighborhood that perhaps wasn't as evident a week ago.