Heroes and Angels

Subway sign for the World Trade Center Stop

The summer of 2001 I lived in the Water Street Towers as I had a summer internship with the Wall Street law firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

I loved New York but the energy in Wall Street sometimes felt a bit off.

Because of the tall buildings and being right on the water, the winds whip through with more force and speed. If it's windy in Manhattan, it's windier on Wall Street. If it's cold in Manhattan it feels colder on Wall Street.

There also weren't a lot of restaurants... mostly pizza and lunch spots...

And they would all shut down as soon as the markets closed. It was just oddly quiet at night.

But the World Trade Center itself more than made up for it. They had the best food court and there was this amazing department store called Century 21. It was legendary. Whenever I had time that's where I went to relax.

After my internship I moved to Fort Greene in Brooklyn and prepared for my first year at NYU Law. I had been attending for about a month when September 11th happened. I was still reeling from the tragic loss of Aaliyah just a few weeks prior.

Coming from Brooklyn I rode the A or the C train to get into Manhattan. The World Trade Center/PATH station was one of the first stops letting you know you were in Manhattan. Looking back my train was probably passing underneath the Towers when the first plane hit.

When I got off the train everyone was looking up. I didn't understand why my classmates and professor were outside. They explained that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We could see it clearly as the Village is only about 20 blocks north. We were all concerned for the people inside, calculating times and speculating on what may have happened.

But then the second plane hit and EVERYONE understood that we were at war and we were under attack. People were screaming and crying. I was unleashing more profanity than I knew existed inside of me. My only reference for war was WWII documentaries so I thought more planes were coming and that they were going to start dropping bombs on us. It was the most awful fear I've ever felt in life.

We ran inside of a church and were it not for the catastrophe outside it would have been beautiful. Every race and every religion was praying together.

We had some heroes and angels around us on that day as well. One of my classmates was just really strong and calm. He comforted me and sheltered a group of us in his room. Another classmate wanted to help the victims in the towers. Right after the second plane hit he was about to get on the train and go down there. He said he had to do something to help. I begged him not to go because I was afraid he would get hurt.

Not too long after that the South Tower collapsed. This is also the time when everyone's cell phones stopped working because all of the cell phone towers were on the top of the World Trade Center. Years later my best friend said that the only thing he remembers about that day is calling me over and over and over again and never getting through.

The NYU Law professors and staff were our angels that day. They gave us food and a warm, safe place to gather together. There were also landlines and one by one we were each able to make one phone call to let our families know we were safe.

By the time I spoke with my mother I had already started thinking about packing all my stuff because I was sure she was going to tell me I had to move back to Memphis. But instead she was completely calm. She asked if I was alright. She said she loved me so much and she said that everything would be ok. And after that I knew that I would be ok.

Years later I asked how she remained so calm. And she said she wasn't calm.

She was more afraid than she'd ever been in her life. But she knew if she panicked then I would panic and she wanted me to stay focused and keep myself safe.

I don't remember exactly how I got home that day. The A/C line was destroyed at the WTC/Path Center stop. I remember everyone was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. But I think I took a cab later that evening. Perhaps the foot traffic had dispersed by then... or maybe he took me through Queens... I have never remembered.

I just know that I made it safely back home to Brooklyn. And I didn't leave Brooklyn for 2 weeks. I bought a TV. I thanked God for moving me out of the Water Street dorm. I thanked Him for keeping me alive and for being able to breathe fresh air. I mourned the devastating loss. I became a New Yorker through and through.

But I was afraid to get back on the train. I was so afraid that there would be bomb attacks. But over time I felt that if that worst case happened and they blew up the train & I had to go to God before my time... it would be ok as long as I was always, ALWAYS doing what He put in my heart. I knew if I did what He told me to do on earth I’d end up in the right place.

I felt that God took me out of Wall Street and put me safely back in Brooklyn that night for a reason. He put me around all those artists for a reason. I was already seeking a more creative path. That's why I was at NYU and not Harvard.

But September 11th is when I knew my whole life had to align with what He put inside of me. If he spared me from that suffering then I needed to make my life a tribute to all these souls we had lost. I knew He wanted me to teach and be of service to others. So I turned away from corporate law and focused my studies on community development and public policy. I helped get an Education Law course added to the NYU Law curriculum. So I hope everyone will do that to honor the victims. Live your life to the fullest.

And we also owe it to the people we lost that day to try to create a more peaceful world. All the anger, meanness and disrespect on social media and in real life is so out of step with how things were right after September 11th.

I don't know how it was in other cities but in New York everyone was being loving and kind to each other. We helped each other and asked people how they were doing. Complete strangers... in New York City were doing this. It was the worst time in history to live in New York but in some ways it was also the best. You got to see New Yorkers acknowledging each other and being kind in a way they never had and probably never will again.

There's a lot more I'd like to say about American Leadership in the aftermath of September 11th but I can't do that without becoming political. And I think we also owe it to the victims not to politicize their memories. Because none of those divisions existed on that day. None of that matters when you're trying to survive.

I thank the Smithsonian for this opportunity to share because social media is filled with so much bias and profit-based misinformation it's an insufficient medium to document the truth of that day. The truth of that day is we came together as New Yorkers and Americans and we loved each other.

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