I went back to my hometown, Manhattan, last weekend for the first time in five weeks. The previous weekend I’d spent there consisted of packing up my best friend, Stacey’s, apartment after she perished in the World Trade Center on that certain double-digit day in September.
In September, the city was, well, scary. Different. Empty. Quiet. Not quite right. Neighborhoods were barricaded. Army tanks waited at stoplights instead of taxis. Bus stops were smothered with photos and descriptions of the “missing.” Police and fire stations were besieged by candles, flowers, and still more pictures. Pedestrians walked around stunned. Everyone made eye contact. Frightened. Inquiring. Concerned. It was beyond unsettling. I had become accustomed to ignoring everyone in the city! And where was the traffic? Things I had previously found to be nothing but irritating (gridlock, noise, crowds) were markedly absent. And I missed them.
But by last weekend, the city had regained a semblance of normalcy. This time, I didn’t have to show my ID to the cops before getting into my boyfriend’s apartment in the West Village. My brother could occupy his Tribeca apartment again. My friends were back at work. I even took the subway with only a modicum of malaise.
Yet certain things seemed to have changed for good. The eye contact thing? Still happening. When I went running on the West Side highway, past what had been “military headquarters” just a few weeks ago, people smiled broadly as I breezed by. In line at the Museum of Modern Art, no one complained about the half-hour wait. At the 26-mile mark in the New York City marathon, hordes of fans swarmed, shouting, cheering, energized. Runners, clad in “I love New York more than ever” t-shirts, carried flags. And everyone seemed a little less jaded.
On the surface, it almost looked as though nothing had happened. But the feeling was quite different. As the fliers of missing people came down off the walls of the city, so did a general layer of cynicism, snobbery, and arrogance. New Yorkers had woken up and focused on what was really important in life. Friendliness. Compassion. Empathy. Respect. I could feel it in everything I did, from grabbing the paper in a deli, to watching the Yankees game with friends.
Just as the city may appear to be “back to normal” to the casual observer, so might I. I look the same, I wear the same clothes, I have the same friends. But underneath, I’m just as changed as Manhattan. I’m more cognizant of my values, priorities and beliefs. I take more time to appreciate the people I care about. I am more easily shaken, more anxious, more fearful, and more emotional. I am less certain that everything works out for the best. But I am more convinced that everyone I meet is unique and special, and I’m more interested in discovering how.
If the last two months have taught me anything (besides the net present value formula), it is that people can be courageous, brave, giving and selfless, even in the worst of times. While I’m primarily at HBS to obtain an MBA, if I can internalize some of those characteristics along the way, it will all be worth it.