I grew up on the East coast, and my father made the commute from Connecticut into New York City for many years. Although I’ve been living in Colorado for the past 25 years, since the horrific events of September 11, 2001, I’ve made it a point to travel annually to NYC to support the theater and the arts, and to support the people who live in this fractured place.
Every time I go, I make it a point to talk to the New York City taxicab drivers. I get in the cab, tell them where I need to go, and then I ask them, “Were you driving on 911?”
I have never found cab drivers so talkative, so willing to talk, so needing to talk. And, while uncanny, without exception, 100% of the drivers I’ve asked over the years were indeed driving on 911.
Without further prompting, each one of them tells their stories, rushing their words out, speaking in excited tones. They talk until they reach my destination, and even then, I sit with my hand on the door handle, listening to them, for as long as it takes, as they seem to want to make sure I understand how horrible it was, how they still suffer from nightmares, their memories still haunt them.
One of the drivers told me of how he had saved for years to own his own cab, was at the World Trade Centers that morning, had dropped a passenger off right before the second plane hit. He sat there for a while, stunned, watching the unfolding confusion, trying to decide what to do and then realized with shock and then urgency that his life was in danger.
He called his wife, he abandoned his cab, and ran with the hundreds of other New Yorkers…he ran for his life and he ran for his wife’s life. He met up with her, and together they ran for the life of their child who was in a nearby day care center. The three of them ran for their lives as the second tower came crashing down, the rubble spreading smoke and fumes like desperate fingers searching for help. His cab was gone, but they had one another, they had their family and that was all that mattered.
I've heard dozens of stories over the years. Compelling stories.
The one cab driver that has stayed seared in my mind, that haunts me even now, was an older man, a Muslim, who had been a U.S. citizen for over 20 years. His accent was thick and his patrioticism fierce. He loves this country, he is an American citizen. He told of the dozens of times since 911 he has had passengers, fellow Americans, scream at him, tell him to go back to the Middle East, call him names, slander him, curse him, spit at him, blame him.
To be driving on 911 and witness what happened to a city that was his home for over 20 years, to be treated like the enemy by his fellow countrymen was demolishing. But he was not bitter. He was not full of hatred. He quietly said, “This is my home. This is my country. They just don’t understand. They may never understand. I pray for them.”
Over the years since 911, I make my annual trip. I’m going again in January. And when I get into those cabs, I will continue to ask the driver if they were in The City on 911. I know there is a good chance I will come across a driver that will have a story, will be anxious to tell their story, welcomes the opportunity to tell their story, MUST tell their story…over and over and over again.
Consider this the next time you are in this great proud place. When you get into that inevitable cab, ask your cabbie if they were driving on 911, and you may be surprised at the gratefulness they will have to be given the opportunity to exorcise their demons from that terrible day.