In this week’s big read, Michelle Woods travelled to New York searching for an inspiring story. What she found was strength and resilience, and the realisation that the story is the people of New York. They dream, like we all do, of a better life, a fairer life and a life filled with love and happiness. A dream that is universal.
Michelle spoke to firemen from the FDNY who lost loved ones in 9/11, to a polite stranger who told his tale of survival and an American Idol star who has been living on the streets – and they all, in their own way, told tales of survival.
I sat in a small dark room, fixated by the horrific scenes before me, pouring out of the television. It was footage I had seen many times before, but it was never any less shocking.
That time of year again, when the memory of that fateful day is etched right back into the human consciousness: a painful reminder, September 11th. A day that turned ordinary people into heroes. A day that exposed the vulnerability of the most powerful nation on earth. A day that changed the course of history.
As I sat pondering my upcoming trip to New York, I wondered if life had changed for the people of the city since 9/11. I wanted to find an inspiring story, a beacon of hope, something to restore its reputation as the greatest on earth, by giving a voice to the stories we haven’t heard. Stories of hope and dreams. Tales of courage, and of strength.
Rushing into Glasgow Airport grinning like a Cheshire cat with my suitcase in one hand and lipstick in the other, the anticipation I felt was overwhelming. Seven hours and a sore back later, I finally landed. With the sun beaming down on my face, and the sounds of that oh-so familiar accent I had heard so many times before, the sounds that tell you, you’re in America.
I was eager to find an inspiring story, so I began talking to anyone and everyone that was willing to give me a moment of their time. From firefighters and people on the street, to emailing the commissioner of the FDNY, It wasn’t long before I received a reply. The FDNY got in touch and sent a powerful response which read “with 343 members of our department killed in the September 11th terrorist attack, and as we continue to lose members from 9/11 related diseases, we understand and recognize the important work you do”.
I felt despair and desolation as I read the email back to myself. I began researching online and it wasn’t long before the shocking statistics started trickling in. Iohoud.com reported that “more than 2000 deaths have been attributed to 9/11 illnesses” with the hill.com also saying “over 1,700 FDNY members have been diagnosed with WTC-linked cancers since the attack.”
These statistics are shocking and mind numbing. Seventeen years later and the heroes of 9/11 continue to fall. Yet how many people know about this?
I spoke to a few firemen outside ladder 10. They all asked for my confidentiality in not naming them. They confirmed for me that firemen and residents living and working around the WTC had contracted cancer from toxic exposure. They told me of their frustrations at a government that told them it was safe to work there following the attacks when it wasn’t. Many of the firemen lost friends and family in the attacks. But, despite all of that, not one of them left the firehouse. It was a brotherhood. A shared bond that could not be broken, no matter the sacrifice.
As I began speaking to more people it soon became apparent to me that I was being directed down a different path than planned. I could do nothing but follow the path and see where it lead me. I spoke to a New York native named Sandy, a middle-aged man with shabby hair and piercing blue eyes. Sandy told me of his frustration at the heightened security in the city since 9/11.
“You could talk openly about anything before 9/11, now you can’t, everyone is more suspicious now, “he told me. I spoke to many people who shared the same views as Sandy, each confirmed that they felt a sense of confinement after the horrors of that day.
A few days into my trip and the reality of the situation began to dawn on me. People were scared to speak, afraid to have an opinion, and even more afraid to voice their opinions. The trepidation of having a belief that might go against the official narrative was just too much to consider, but their silence spoke volumes. I delicately approached the subject, being fully aware that I was in a place where casual conversation could conjure up memories of anger, sadness and despair. I couldn’t mention 9/11 without being told that I should watch what I say. It was clear that paranoia was all around me.
It didn’t deter me, however, but spurred me on all the more. I would find my uplifting story, I thought, so I continued on. I spoke to everyone and anyone that was willing to give me a moment of there time, but eventually I hit a wall. What did become clear was that everyone I spoke with was concerned about health insurance, job security, education, and immigration – and nothing could be taken for granted anymore.
Then suddenly, amongst all the darkness that surrounded me, came a beacon of light. A million different colours beamed down on me, inviting me in. It was a sight so spectacular it was like floating in a dream; Times Square, baby!
It wasn’t long before I was soon joined by a man named Daniel Simmons. A polite stranger, who was eager to show me all the hotspots that Times Square had to offer.
We soon began talking. He told me about his plight of trying to survive in a city where rent is unaffordable, health insurance is unaffordable and to live at times was almost unaffordable. “This is New York, you can be rich one minute then poor the next,” he told me. We continued walking as I questioned him some more. I asked about his living situation to which he replied “I’m homeless.” I stared at him for a moment or so, in shock at this latest revelation. I didn’t see any despair or anguish in him. None of the typical signs of hardship that you would usually expect from someone who was unmeasurably down on their luck. He was oozing confidence from every fibre of his being. That is resilience at its absolute finest, I thought to myself as we parted ways.
I soon learned that Daniel’s story was just one of the many faces of dire straits I was yet to meet.
I felt disheartened. I was whistling the same tune that everyone else had whistled before.
The next day I began taking to Samuel Swanson. A former contestant of American idol. Sam moved from Alabama to New York in 2017, with hopes of becoming a singing sensation. Since arriving in the big city Sam has struggled to afford rent and is currently sleeping in a car a few blocks up from the hotel I was staying at. He told me of his trials and tribulations he has had to endure since arriving here. The struggle to afford rent on a low income. Being dismissed from job after job. Having to sleep in a car. Chasing a dream that might never come to fruition. Feeling like an outsider in a big city that could scare even the toughest of hearts. From American idol to the street. The injustices of life.
With my trip coming to an end their was only one place I wanted to spend it. Times Square. As I walked towards the bright lights, a familiar face approached me. Daniel Simmons was hurtling towards me with the biggest smile on his face and a spring in his steps. “I’m not homeless anymore,” he said, eagerly. A few days after I met him he was offered a job and a home. The kindness of a stranger, he told me. My jaw dropped with astonishment at the sudden but incredible turnaround of events. I was ecstatic for him. We walked together side by side laughing away like old friends. “This is New York, anything can happen,” he smiled, with glitter in his eyes and a smug look on his face.
We walked around some more observing all the glorious talent that Times Square had to offer. Young kids dancing away with incredible skill and showmanship. Rappers handing out cds, hustling like crazy in hope that one day their talent will be recognised and appreciated. A young generation working and dreaming of the day that they will finally have their voices heard. Talent and determination was everywhere. You saw it, you breathed it, and you felt it. It was the beating heart of New York City. Everyone was chasing that American Dream. For all the troubles and worries many of the people I spoke to had, it was outweighed by the belief that one day all their hard work will pay off. I respected that. It was a work ethic that was unlike any I had ever seen back in the UK.
It finally dawned on me in a moment of reflection. This entire time I had been searching for an inspiring story about New Yorkers. A story I had already found. It was staring at me the whole entire time ,I was just too blind to see it.
It was a story of strength and resilience. A determination to never give up even when the odds are against you. Of survival and revival, the comeback of all comebacks.
Seventeen years ago New York faced the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil. There are no words in the written language that could ever describe the suffering of that day. Two thousand nine hundred and ninety six people died on 9/11. Many thousands more have died since due to the toxic exposure at ground zero.
New York could have collapsed seventeen years ago. Instead it came back from the ashes stronger and greater than ever before. An example to the rest of the world of what true bravery and sacrifice is in the face of tyranny. The epiphany of inspiration is in the strength of the people. The bravery of the firefighters. Their continued bravery now as many face the harrowing prospect of cancer and even death. From the ordinary folks working two or three jobs and never complaining. To Sam who, despite his situation, was filled with laughter and a lust for life. To Daniel who went from homeless to a home. To all the people from all over who flock here in pursuit of their dreams. To all the talented people hustling away searching for a piece of that American dream. I don’t believe there is such a thing as the American dream, there’s just a dream. A dream of a better life, a fairer life, filled with love and happiness. That dream is universal.
The people of New York City is what makes the city great. A place of opportunity and high energy, with a skyline that never disappoints. All the inspiration any one person could look for is in the survival and robustness of the people, and in the words of Daniel Simmons, “This is New York, anything can happen.”