Long before lower Manhattan was attacked 12 years and one day ago, September 11th had another, much more joyous meaning to me. Nine-eleven is the day that my mom was born. It was a day for poorly wrapped gifts, for hand-made cards that hopefully made her cry (that's how you know they're good), for birthday ice cream, and for trying give her a rest from being a dedicated parent. But most of all, it was just a time for being together with my family. Unfortunately for thousands of others, two hijacked planes made it a day that people lost their families.
That morning, as I sat in Mrs. Hiduke's science class in 7th grade, I had no real understanding of the magnitude of what was happening. It was something I watched on TV, over and over again, but I'd never been to the northeast, let alone New York City. I was 12 years old and I don't remember ever hearing about the twin towers before that day. Little did I know, doubling my age would place me right there, working in Manhattan, watching as the new Freedom Towers grew taller and taller, once again renewing the island and making its enormous signature skyline whole again.
I have lived here for two years now this month, and the angular, reflective glass exterior of the first Freedom Tower is completed. I have settled down in the great community that is Astoria, Queens, away from all the chaos of the city. It's my home away from Indiana, where I grew up, and is a place where you can actually hear yourself think (or hang out on a large front porch, or grill out in your own backyard).
It's also the home to NY5thGen, a Chevrolet Camaro club that meets almost every Friday night at Astoria Park, looking over where the East River meets Manhattan, providing a perfect foreground for the sunset to seep through and spill its tie-dyed light. It is there where I met and befriended T.J. Ujazdowski, the Chief Marketing Manager of NY5thGen, and it is the starting point of an annual gathering and cruise down to Ground Zero.
After being away from family at school in Missouri for four years and immediately moving to NYC, I've become accustomed to being away from my family on this somber day. Video chats and phone calls are as good as it gets. But thanks to a short Facebook message from T.J., a simple invite to ride shotgun with him, I was inserted as an honorary member into a different type of family.
At first arrival, there were only six, maybe eight cars. I'd seen more than 30 cars gather here before, but it was a weekday, and I wasn't sure how many to expect. Slowly but surely, more and more rolled up, pushing the number to 10, 15, 20, until there were eventually more than 25 members lined along the riverfront road. WIth every person who came up, you saw a similar greeting of waves, daps, pounds, hugs -- the type of affection you'd give your cousins and brothers and sisters when they arrived at a family birthday.
Each Camaro was different in its own way. Some were SS models, some were 1LEs, some had chrome rims, some had black graphite, some were convertibles with scissor doors, and some were pure hard-top ponies. But all of the cars had one thing in common: Somewhere, red, white, and blue was represented, with American flags proudly displayed, whether it was across the hood, over the deck lid, or with mini parade versions waving through the muggy air. Everybody understood that this event transcends the Bowtie brand and represents a salute to anybody affected by that terrible tragedy.
When the sun was nearly down, and the halo headlights began to glow, T.J. brought everybody together for a small speech. With member Sean Kittle, whose father is a New York City firefighter and member Andrew Dickerson, who is a New York City police officer, looking on, T.J. thanked everybody and made it clear that this was a special night made to remember those who were lost and injured, reflect upon the impact it has made on the city and the country, and look forward to building the strength that New Yorkers have shown. He followed with a moment of silence, during which everybody bowed their heads.
As everybody soaked in the drive route and any other final instructions, Andrew and T.J. made one thing clear: Every other day of the year was for burnouts, high-engine revving, and blaring music. This day was for respect.
The route was fairly simple. The train would roll down 21st in Astoria, take the upper level of the Queensboro bridge, down across the island on 59th until they hit south Central Park on 7th Ave, shoot down through Times Square and cut over to to the West Side Highway. From there, they would slowly cruise, two lanes, 25-plus cars deep down the Hudson side of the city, passing the new towers and Ground Zero, and exiting via the Brooklyn Bridge.
LIke I said, it sounds fairly simple. But this is New York. Nothing is simple. Trying to package three cars on a drive in this madness is difficult, let alone more than 25. It was like when you were a little kid, and you'd have a train of 15 kids at the zoo. People cut across, people don't pay attention, people get side-tracked, and people are caught by other trains of people. Stoplights, tourists, missed turns, and not realizing that everybody had already stopped all provided slight obstacles for the group, but several stop-and-gather points along the way, made sure everybody was together.
The ride down the West Side Highway was the most impactful portion of the drive. We led the pack, with Andrew's white ArchAngel's (the photo above) blue glow to our right. The way Manhattan is shaped, the road kinks inward at right about 23rd street. And that was where we got our first glimpse of the bluish white beams towering up into the layered clouds. A rush of thoughts flooded my head, flashing through memories associated with the attack. The feeling was a mix of disbelief that I was actually there, pride that I lived in this beautiful city, and hope for what the final product of the new towers would represent. It was overwhelming to say the least.
The entire time we were riding, T.J. had a patriotic, New York-heavy playlist going that consisted of the Beastie Boys' "Open Letter to NYC," Cam'Ron's "Welcome to New York City," "The Star Spangled Banner" live from Woodstock 69' by Jimi Hendrix, Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind," Dropkick Murphys' "Cadence to Arms" and "Amazing Grace," and Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind," of course. The bagpipes laced the ride as we passed by the lights, and Cam'Ron rapped, "It's the home of 9/11, the place of the lost towers/We still bangin', we never lost power," as we crossed the bridge. It was about as fitting as it could be and was another reminder that I do, in fact, live in what many consider the greatest city in the world. As much as the midwest will always be my original spot, this has become my second home, and in a place where you can easily get lost in the crowd, I'm glad to know the NY5thGen is a friendly community right down the street.
Below is some footage of the drive past Ground Zero:
Captured with a GoPro Hero 3 Black Edition