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Why We Will Stand Tall and Scrape the Sky

November 22, 2001|JUSTIN DAVIDSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dear son,

Will you remember, decades from now, the way when you came home every day, you got out of the elevator on the 33rd floor--your floor--and paused by the window to examine New York City--your city--for a minute before heading down the hall? First, hoisting yourself up to the windowsill by your elbows, you looked down and marveled at the tops of buses that inched along Broadway like small, numbered tubes. You laughed at the tiny, foreshortened people, nothing but heads and bug-like feet. Then you lifted your gaze to the skyline, the Hudson and the two boxy towers glinting at the far end of Manhattan.

In the weeks since those towers vanished, two of your nursery school classmates have joined the fitful exodus from New York City, seeking safety in the low-rise suburbs. A third child has announced his family's departure. Perhaps their parents had always planned to go. Perhaps their jobs disappeared, or to them New York City suddenly stopped seeming fun. I don't know why they chose to leave, but I do know why we will not.

You are a city kid. No sooner had you learned to walk than you were swaggering down upper Broadway, undaunted by the moving forest of scissoring legs, the rolling dollies piled with boxes, the screech of bus brakes and the thudding of a drill. You refused to hold a hand, confident that all those knees would part before you. And yet, one Saturday morning in the country, when I slipped you into a carrier backpack and took you on an early morning walk through the woods, you cringed at the breeze and whispered nervously: "Daddy! There. Are. No. People!"

You are at an age when fear emerges in unsuspected ways, affixing itself to all the wrong things. An old lady's smile in the elevator, a man's beard or a loud voice can send you scurrying for the cover of your parents' legs.

Yet just this morning, I rescued your languid fingers from the hinges of our front door--a moment's inattention and they would have been crushed, a fact you registered with a nonchalant shrug: It didn't happen, so what's the problem?

The adults around you are not much different, now. We fear disease delivered in the mail, which could kill us, it's true, but almost certainly won't. We have learned to imagine airplane parts hurtling onto the living room couch. Meanwhile, the ordinary terrors--car crashes, street crime, the old, familiar illnesses--have receded into the realm of "It happens; so what?"

You want to feel protected, as every child does, yet already you have intimations that safety is a delusion, a story we make up so as not to go insane. You understand the elements of what happened Sept. 11, though not the unimaginable carnage. You can grasp the disappearance of a building, but not (I think, I hope!) the fact that on that terrible day, thousands of people were transformed into so many handfuls of dust. You know that American soldiers are hunting Osama bin Laden in an Afghan cave, but when I mentioned that this would be a good time for Superman to make an appearance, you gave me one of your don't-be-silly grins and said, "Daddy, there's no Superman in real life. That's just in a movie."

Your parents, too, were city kids. Your mother grew up in New York, when the city produced plenty of daily horrors of its own. I grew up in Rome in the 1970s and early '80s, when Italy seemed powerless to stamp out the sudden bursts of hatred and death. I remember the kidnapping and murder of the politician Aldo Moro. I remember the explosion that tore through the packed Bologna train station in August 1980, when Italians were heading for their annual few weeks of leisure. I remember the police car that sat outside the American school I attended, and I remember thinking what a meager defense that would be against a determined killer of children. I remember reflecting, too, every time my family got on a plane, that as Americans and Jews, we would be among the first to be dumped on the tarmac to show that the hijackers meant business.

Despite all this, my parents never considered leaving Rome, to the puzzlement of relatives back in the U.S. who could not conceive of tolerating a daily dose of dread. Yet I grew up in love with a city that seemed largely safe to me. We, too, will stay, because this is our city now, because it has given us so much and because it needs us to have faith.

You were born in Manhattan, but I, like so many others who converged here, felt like a New Yorker as soon as I got off the plane. This is a place that asks no questions when you arrive and has no standards for admission to the fold. People from other parts of the world may encounter legal barriers to living in New York, but not social ones. There is no city in the world that makes it so easy to fit in. In that sense, this is the most American of cities.

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