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Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and as the day approaches, I find myself thinking about bridge-and-tunnel people.
That’s a New York expression for the folks who come to Manhattan to work or play from places just across the water – notably, the “outer boroughs” of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx, or the Long Island and New Jersey suburbs.
It’s not exactly a compliment in New York society. Bridge-and-tunnel people are the types that the velvet rope at Studio 54 was meant to keep away, and that the MTV reality show, Jersey Shore, holds up for ridicule.
Before we go any further, I must admit that I am a bridge-and-tunnel person myself. I grew up in what many people consider to be the archetypical American suburb – Long Island’s Levittown development, where thousands of cookie-cutter homes were mass-produced at a clip of up to 30 a day to ease a housing shortage after the second world war. Since then, I have spent the better part of my adult life in the New York metropolitan area, but have never had a Manhattan home address.
And as we look back on September 11, I think it’s worth recalling that on that day all the jokes about unfashionable people from the wrong side of one of our rivers stopped. Rather, with the whole world watching, the bridge-and-tunnel people of New York showed what they could do when an accident of history demanded grace under pressure.
Whatever the geopolitical significance of the World Trade Center attack, the event was, for those of us who were in New York, not unlike a natural disaster – an earthquake, a hurricane, an asteroid strike. We never saw the faces of the enemy. They didn’t return. There was just debris and fire and smoke – that unforgettable smell of our dead burning.
Our immediate response was not especially political. It was practical. And it was American. Power can be remarkably decentralised in this country, and New York had no shortage of leaders on September 11 – not only the mayor of the city, but the police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers who rushed to the scene.
At Ground Zero, bridge-and-tunnel people played a particularly prominent role for reasons of basic economics. One of the sadder facts of life is that many of the people who risk their lives to save those of others in Manhattan can’t afford to live there. Combine a government salary with a kid or two or three and pretty soon you are crossing a river a couple of times a day, usually pretty slowly.
As I watched the television reports from Ground Zero, I remember taking comfort in the overwhelming familiarity of the people involved in the rescue effort. One of the ironies of life in Manhattan these days is that real New York accents have grown scarce as the city attracts the best and the brightest from around the world. But as I watched the bridge-and-tunnel people taking charge, dere was no mistakin’ da cawfee-drinkin’ yooman bein’s I grew up with in Lawng Guyland – and it was good to hear their voices.
We all shared a lot in those few days, and the result was that an intimacy developed among New Yorkers. A tenderness prevailed in town – maybe even love. It was easy to miss given all the anger that New Yorkers felt toward the jihadists who had attacked our city. But I felt it.
Things changed, of course. If New York kept its cool in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the US overreacted, repeatedly, in the years that followed. You can see the results in Iraq, Guantánamo, the Patriot Act, the budget deficit, even the general coarsening of discourse in this country.
But I don’t think that should lead us to forget the resolve and the restraint that we in New York demonstrated during those dark days a decade ago. The image that summed it up for me was that of president George W. Bush at the Ground Zero site putting his arm around one of the rescue workers, Bob Beckwith, a retired firefighter from Baldwin, New York, a Long Island community only a few miles south of my childhood home. It seemed to me at that time that the president wasn’t looking to comfort his constituent but was leaning on him for support. That Beckwith was like a rock.
As a Long Island product myself, and a fellow bridge-and-tunnel guy, I couldn’t have been more proud then. And I feel the same way today.