When the 9/11 tragedy happened I was on holiday in Manhattan. It was my very first trip to the United States and it’s something I’ve had time to ponder… Should I write about this momentous moment, and my time moving through it? Having witnessed such a horrendous event, my shock and sadness were beyond words… that story belongs to the people of New York. The story that I’m about to tell happened on the day after…
Wednesday the 12th of September, 2001
The offices, the shops, the schools… everything in Manhattan was closed. The city was in a state of shock, in sorrow, uncertainty, and mourning – and so was I. But I’m here, I’m here as a tourist in town. My original plans could no longer go ahead as no theatres, restaurants or museums were open. As if in defiance of the sorrow, after such an unimaginable attack on the U.S. soil, it was a sunny and warm, and what should have been a very pleasant late summer day in New York City. I did not want to spend my day sitting in front of the TV, watching and listening to more reports of the disaster. It was just too much. I had done enough of that. So I decided instead to get out, into the sun, and go for a walk to Central Park.
Deciding between a black T-shirt with jeans or my silk floral dress; I hesitated a little and went for the floral dress to wear. The print on the fabric, light pink roses against silver-grey, gave me a sense of gentleness and renewal. ‘At a time like this,’ I thought, ‘we need some positivity, some tenderness perhaps more than ever!’ Then I turned the news off, believed that some fresh air would do me good, or at least take my mind away from ground zero. I planned to walk all the way up to Fifth Avenue. From where I stayed, the 38th Street East, between the First and Second Avenue; it was only a short distance to Fifth Avenue and it had always been a pleasant walk.
It was very empty in the street. ‘Where are the crowds?’ I wondered. I’ve only been here two and a half weeks, but I had never seen the Fifth Avenue this deserted, vacant. Truly ‘New York City is a ghost town!’… they kept repeating this phrase on the news last night and they were right. I heard vehicles with sirens drive past from nearby streets. Quiet now, for a little while; then the noise from a helicopter, maybe two, flying past. I saw men in uniform, the NYPD… Yes, the city continued to be on high alert over the possibility of further terrorist attacks. I gazed at all those American flags hanging on the facades of shops – they were everywhere! Block after block, flying high and proud.
Suddenly, there came a tall, slim, African American guy walking past me. He turned and smiled at me and soon walked away. Then within a few minutes, the same man reappeared from behind and he repeated what he did a little while ago – walked past me, turned back and smiled. I realised that he must have walked around the block to be able to do that. ‘Why did he do that? How strange!’ I thought.
‘Hello!’ He smiled. ‘We’ve met twice in one day, it must be fate!’ He said, with the same smile.
‘Is that so?’ I smiled back at this Blair Underwood look-alike figure. Although unsure, I did think his approach was rather cute though.
‘I’m Joseph. And you are?’
‘You are not from here, aren’t you? What brought you to New York City?’ Joseph asked.
As we started to chat, we found out a little more about one another. Just like me, Joseph was going to spend the day at Central Park and he had even brought a rug with him. The tragedy from yesterday was unsurprisingly the centre of our conversation. Where we were when it happened, what went through our minds when we saw the planes crashed into the World Trade Centre. This was bringing not only native New Yorkers together; the September 11 attacks brought everyone in New York closer together. A stranger was no longer a stranger and Joseph and I found we were on the same boat.
‘You are a New Yorker now after experiencing this.’ Joseph was the first to say that to me, though he was not the last. Other New Yorkers were saying the same thing.
And they were not wrong. Emotionally I did feel very involved at the time as this island’s fate and my own fate seemed to merge into one. When Joseph and I reached Central Park, much to my surprise, I saw lots of people who were already there! They were jogging, rowing boats; reading on the grass, sunbathing; or simply just strolling around with their dogs… It seemed just like a typical weekend.
‘This is where we hang out.’ Said Joseph, obviously reading my mind. We quickly found a shady area for him to place his rug.
‘You know what grabbed my attention when I saw you?’ Joseph asked. I shook my head.
‘You walked so proudly in your elegant dress… like you were sending the message out there to the world demonstrating your spirit was not being beaten by the whole thing…’ Joseph went on.
I listened quietly. Although this was not my intention while dressing, I was delighted by his interpretation.
‘…They want to damage our confidence and inject fear into our daily life… Here you are! Fearlessly carrying on with your life in your lovely floral frock.’ he continued.
‘You are wearing a yellow shirt! Is there a message behind it too?’ It was my turn to ask.
‘Black, sadness, darkness… I witnessed enough of that! Yellow is sunshine, warmth, brightness and that’s what I want in my life. Remember… living well, is the best revenge.’ Joseph shared with me his motto there and then. He expressed his last sentence slowly and firmly.
We shared a few hours of conversation that afternoon. We chatted about Broadway musicals too. I was full of envy when hearing that Joseph had seen Sarah Brightman perform in the Phantom of the Opera – twice! Twice!! Joseph in his yellow T-shirt in Central Park has become one of the frames in the mind of my New York memories. Time went rather fast that afternoon and before we parted, we exchanged addresses so we could keep in touch. After I flew back to Sydney, for months we sent each other greeting cards; until one day we stopped hearing from one another. Regardless, I often quote Joseph’s ‘living well, is the best revenge’ to others, by now making it my own phrase.
Sunday the 17th of September, 2017
Having read my Let’s Go Floral post on vivalaViv, Kent understood my desire to revisit this day-after-9/11 personal memory – including Joseph’s motto behind it. While no one in their right mind would want to relive the shock of those terrible days; I had made a friend during those very strange times. I wished to re-imagine the meeting that took place on the 12th of September, on the same day, all these years later. This time, however, a lineup of approaching hurricanes such as Hurricane Maria, Jose, and Irma caused a delay. Then the next question I had not yet solved was, how do we showcase positive spirits and being a tourist in Central Park?
I decided the answer might just be in the form of a Central Park horse-drawn carriage ride. Not only is it an iconic tourist activity, it also ties in closely with Central Park. Before the photoshoot, Kent being Kent hired a City Cycle and rode down to Central Park for location scouting. He eventually found a lovely spot and was happy with what he saw. Meanwhile, I selected a floral dress, a totally different one from my Plein Sud number 16 years hence. And I added a cardigan and a Panama hat for my new look.
On Sunday the 17th, with good weather, we could finally do our shoot. But little did we know that it was the day the still relatively new President Trump had returned to New York City. Scheduled from 18th to 20th were United Nations General Assembly meetings and as we walked through Midtown to the park, police activity was everywhere! Dump truck after dump truck loaded mountain high with sand were parked out front of various locations in Manhattan, including Trump Tower. Police cordons, secret service men everywhere – so clean-cut and tidy and same-same – even we could spot them! But our photoshoot must go on simply because we had very few days left in America.
The first part of our mission that day was to find a perfect horse and an equally photogenic carriage… if we were lucky enough. Kent and I searched by looping the Grand Army Plaza where the horse-drawn carriages assemble a little like a taxi rank. We didn’t see anything we fancied at first. What we did spot were some paired-off ‘undercover’ agents standing by in their black T-shirts, their visible earbuds, and their obviously well-trained dogs. No doubt The Plaza hotel on the corner had some very important guests. The irony was, 16 years later, on the day I tried to re-channel my personal diary on the day after 9/11 attacks; the atmosphere surrounding me felt strangely similar to that other high alerted day I still remembered.
Kent and I walked another loop of the Plaza trying our luck, and another loop and another… and then we saw Bruno.
Bruno, tall, handsome and well dressed. This white horse first caught my eye with his ornate white plumed headpiece. His silver-studded leather harness accented with red pads matched my red, white and black ensemble. The carriage itself, gorgeous with red velvet seats and decorated with romantic red and white roses. Without a doubt in mind, Kent and I quickly walked up to his master, a smartly dressed Italian American (of course!) and the rest? I will let the images do the talking. If ‘living well is the best revenge’ is the motto from Joseph, we hope this set of photographs deliver his message.
September 2021, marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks… With the current threat from the COVID-19 Delta variant, we’ve found ourselves living in fright, in great concern once again. At the time of writing here in Sydney, we have entered the 12th-week lockdown. Fighting the global pandemic for the second year, we can each find solace in practicing our own version of ‘living well’, which is well-being. I want to keep this article as a reminder to myself… The truth is, we can’t prevent challenging times from happening, but I do hope we all find a little tenderness, positivity, and hope in this chaotic, ever-changing world.
Special thanks to Kent, who has created a set of stunning fashion portraits to help me re-telling this tale. Like what you see? You too can book Kent for a location shoot.