Throughout American history, every generation has had what many would call a defining moment. Some are stand alone events, like the Apollo moon landing, the assassination of President Kennedy, or the Great Crash of 1929. While others are more drawn out, such as World War II, Vietnam, and the civil rights movement. Regardless of what impact these events may have on history, be it positive or negative, they all manage to shape our lives in ways that may not be understood in the moment. It's safe to say that the singular defining moment of my generation was September 11th.
Like many across the globe I watched as the events played out on television, while standing in the UCF College of Business Administration atrium. I had just exited class and made my way down the stairs as I did each day before. As with the others, I stopped on a center landing to check the market on a bank of TVs, except the market wasn't yet open for some reason, and it never did open that day. After the reality of what was happening set in, I ran to my car, attempting to hide the fact that I was sobbing from those I passed by. The overwhelming grief exceeded any I had felt in my short life.
In the weeks that followed, I like many other Americans, found it difficult to move on from the events of that day. It became clear to me that the only way I was going to do so was to pay my respects in person....I needed to see it for myself. So I started doing what I love to do most....I planned a trip.
It was December, and as it turned out, New York was on sale. The events had kept countless tourists away, and some of the city's...correction...the country's greatest hotels were offering rates that hadn't been seen in generations. I booked a room at two of the country's most storied hotels, one night each, for the first weekend in January. I called my brother and told him to get ready...we were going to New York.
When the day arrived for our trip, a winter cold had started to set in with me. It seemed the long hours I had been working may have taken a toll, but I was determined not to let a few sniffles get in the way of this trip. We arrived at the airport for our early morning flight. I could sense the nervousness in my brother as this was his first flight, and it was a troubling time to be taking it, so I tried to maintain a confident appearance. Truth was I was a bit nervous too. I had never been to New York, and while I may have played the part of jaded traveler well, the fact was once we would land I'd have no idea what I was doing. We boarded the plane, took our seats, and taxied for takeoff. As the jet engines roared to their peak, my brother gripped his chair as if we were actually in the space shuttle Endeavor...our adventure had begun.
Upon landing in the Big Apple, we made our way directly to the taxi stand for our ride into Manhattan. There was an attendant directing people to particular taxis. He asked where we were going, and I simply replied..."The Waldorf Astoria." I've had many moments in life when I thought I was a big shot, and this was definitely one of them. As we rode into the city, I think we were both in awe of what we were seeing. Here we were, two brothers 21 and 17, in one of the biggest and most renowned cities in the world, on our own.
We made our way into the grand oak paneled lobby of the Waldorf and checked into our room. After a brief nap, we decided it was time to do what we had come to do. We made our way downstairs and asked the doorman which train we should take to Ground Zero. He directed us to the #6, conveniently located right around the corner, and we were on our way.
Now, I had traveled on subways before, but this was New York. You kinda need to know what you're doing, otherwise you'll find yourself on an express train to the Bronx in a hurry. My brother was quite concerned with my ability to navigate us around this city which neither of us had ever been, but I dismissed him and told him not to worry. We headed to the subway station, boarded the next train, and soon found ourselves on an express train to the Bronx...
Realizing my mistake, we exited at the next stop, and this time got on the right train which was more importantly going the right direction. But my brother would not let me live it down. I had violated his trust in my navigation, and so we would walk or taxi for the rest of our visit. We made our way to lower Manhattan, and soon found the end of an enormous line for the viewing platform to Ground Zero.
It was bitterly cold. I bought a hat and pair of gloves from a street vendor, as this Floridian was utterly unprepared. After four hours of wait, we found ourselves on the platform, overlooking one of the most valuable, sacred, and notorious pieces of real estate in the world. It was so much bigger than the TV could possibly show. The surrounding buildings were still damaged, many with windows boarded over. The headquarters of Merrill Lynch was draped in a mesh net from top to bottom, for reasons I couldn't quite figure out. And then there was the rubble. Much had been cleared away, but quite a bit still remained. There were hundreds of missing persons fliers, and countless notes of remembrance scribbled into the wood of the platform. To say it was a moving experience, would be putting it far from lightly...
The next morning we walked out the Waldorf lobby for a taxi to our next hotel. When the doorman asked where I was heading, I gave the same cool reply as the airport attendant the day prior....."The Plaza." I wish there were more memories of this iconic hotel, but there are few. Perhaps it didn't make that great of an impression, or maybe the cold reception we received from the front desk agent played a role. I'm sure he wasn't used to "kids" checking into his hotel, and without a doubt the low rates had let a lot of "riff raff" in the doors, but this was the first time I walked away and used a phrase I've used often since...."Not in my hotel."
If the previous day had been about remembrance, this day was about celebration and exploration. We hit all of the iconic New York sites including Central Park and Rockefeller Center. While visiting Times Square, we had lunch at the ESPN Club and learned that our beloved "Old Ball Coach" was leaving our Gators. We made a night visit to the Empire State Building, where I became aware of my brother's fear of heights, as he refused to step outside onto the observation deck. Content in our exploration, we stopped for dinner at Hard Rock, the first in the U.S., before heading back to The Plaza to catch some sleep for our return home in the morning.
New York is without a doubt the greatest city in the world. Perhaps there is some American bias in that statement, as I'm sure a Parisian would strongly disagree, but to me it's true nonetheless...on most days anyway. And while I've been lucky to return to her a couple times since, I'll always remember my first visit to the Big Apple and the adventure with my brother. More importantly, however, I'll always remember the reason for the adventure, as the scar on the city, and on my heart, is never far from the surface.
~Insert Dude-like Closing Here~