My New York City

I was the tourist every local in arguably every city would despise, but one I think those native to New York City have a particular distaste for.

I had a fanny pack and travelers checks and a disposable camera, for goodness sake.

I was a young high school student from Anchorage, Alaska, a member of a nationally recognized choir lucky enough to attend a competition in the Big Apple and as nervous as I was excited.

The attack on the World Trade Center had happened months prior, the dust still settling and the city's wounds still exposed and raw and fresh. We didn't know what to expect, other than the assumption that some of our initial plans would change.

And they did.

We couldn't go inside the Statue of Liberty anymore.

We couldn't walk through Time Square due to overwhelming war protests.

And we would be visiting the Financial District, between Fulton Street and Liberty Park, a site we would have otherwise ignored.

I had never visited New York City before September 11th, 2001. I don't know what the people were like or how the energy felt or how visitors were treated, before that fateful day. Outside of notorious stories and episodes of Sex and the City, of course.

So, for me, Post-9/11 New York City is the only New York City I've ever known.

And it was, and is, beautiful.

The people were kind and gracious, yet still as busy and determined as ever.

The city itself seemed to be breathing a labored sigh of hesitant relief, unsure of the road ahead but thankful it had been able to walk a few steps forward.

The lights were still shining and the noise was still overwhelming and the energy was just as intimidating as I had imagined.

And those who were there were more than willing to share their stories of bravery, heartache and loss.

They were exposed and raw and fresh, just like the city itself.

The trip was a whirlwind of site-seeing and practicing and performing, but there was an afternoon in particular that will be forever engrained in my mind. One that I feel honored and simultaneously saddened to have experienced.

One that embodies all I believe New York City to be.

We were ushered onto a tour bus, driven by an elderly African American man who was as kind as he was informative. We had one destination scheduled, yet he was more than willing to share tidbits of knowledge about the other parts of his city as we made our way toward Manhattan.

The closer we got to Ground Zero, the more somber and serious his voice became.

Quickly, his stories changed from that of historical factoids to those of personal, anguished experience. He told us about that day, and the friends and family members he had lost. He told us about his decision to volunteer, bussing survivors away from danger, their faces covered with ash and debris and blood that both was and wasn't theres.

He told us that he was born and raised in New York City, and along with her buildings and the people who worked in them, a piece of him was destroyed that day.

With tears in his eyes, he bid us farewell as he stopped a block away from Ground Zero. He couldn't bring himself to re-visit the site yet and, as best we could, we understood.

We walked off the bus, one by one, already better people for having met that man. I don't remember his name or his age or the company he drove for, but I will always remember his face: kind and weathered and pained and determined.

He is my New York City.

We walked the block towards Ground Zero, the street as busy and rambunctious as any other in Lower Manhattan. People were pushing through one another and obliviously swimming in their phone conversations and racing from one exceptional place to another.

And then we were there.

And then, there was silence.

As we walked towards the armed guards and the makeshift memorials and the fences, people slowed down. Phone calls ceased and personal conversations were cut short and the city itself grew silent. For that one block, where the debris was still being lifted and sorted and remains were still being uncovered, no one said a word.

It was as if sirens shut off and horns stopped honking and everyone - young and old and rich and poor and black and white and native and visiting - knew this was a place in need of healing.

It was as if everyone knew it needed whatever space the city could give it. Even if that space was found in the absence of sound.

That moment.

That point in time where the world stopped spinning and laid her eyes on the remains of a symbol so violently attacked.

That moment is my New York City.

Of course, things have changed since then. The fences have gone down and The Freedom Tower has gone up. Instead of names on paper and pictures taped to poster board, there are names etched in stone and memorialized in granite.

Of course, New York City to others is not the New York City I remember.

But, for me, New York City will always be the kind, exhausted man who shared his stories with a bus full of visitors from Anchorage.

For me, New York City will be the silence everyone shared on the block that remained.

For me, New York City is the place that welcomed an otherwise annoying tourist - exposed and raw and fresh - reminding her that while the place itself is magnificent and awe-inspiring and one-of-a-kind.

It is its people that make it so.