NYC cab drivers’ stories of 9/11 continue to haunt them, forever redefining what it means to be a cab driver in NYC.
I grew up on the East Coast, and my father made the commute from Connecticut into New York City for many years. Since the horrific events of September 11, I’ve made it a point to travel to NYC to support the theater and the arts—and to support the people who live in this still-fractured place. Every time I’ve gone, I’ve made it a point to talk to the New York City cab drivers. I get in the taxi, tell them where I need to go, and then ask, “Were you driving on 9/11?
I have never found cab drivers so talkative, so willing to talk, so needing to talk. And without exception, every driver I’ve asked over the years was indeed driving on 9/11.
Without further prompting, each one of them told me their stories, rushing their words out, speaking in excited tones. They talked until they reached my destination and even then, I would sit with my hand on the door handle, listening to them for as long as it took. It seemed as if they wanted to make sure I understood how horrible it was, how they still suffered from nightmares, waking up with hearts pounding and sweat pouring down their bodies.
One of the drivers told of how he had saved for years to own his own cab and how he was at the World Trade Centers that September morning after dropping off a passenger right before the second plane hit. He described that stranger-than-fiction morning as he sat in his beloved cab, stunned, watching the unfolding confusion, trying to decide what to do. And he talked of the shock and the sudden urgency when it dawned on him that his life was in danger.
He called his wife, abandoned his cab, and ran with the hundreds of other New Yorkers. He ran for his life, and he ran for his wife’s life. He met up with her, and together they ran for the life of their child, who was in a nearby day care center. The three of them ran for their lives as the second tower came crashing down, the rubble spreading smoke and fumes like desperate fingers searching for help. His hard-earned cab was gone, but they had each other, they had their family, and that was all that mattered.
The one cab driver that stayed seared in my mind, the one that haunts me even now, was an older man, a Muslim, who had been a U.S. citizen for over 20 years. His accent was thick and his patriotism fierce. He loved this country; he was an American citizen. He told of the dozens of times since 9/11 when he has had passengers, fellow Americans, who have screamed at him, told him to go back to the Middle East, called him names, slandered him, cursed him, spit at him, and blamed him for the actions of others.
To be driving on 9/11 and witness what happened to a city that was his home for over 20 years, to be treated like the enemy by his fellow countrymen, was demolishing. But he was not bitter, nor was he full of hatred. He quietly said, “This is my home. This is my country. They just don’t understand. They may never understand. I pray for them.”
Consider this the next time you are in New York City. When you get into that inevitable cab, ask your cabbie if he was driving on 9/11. You might be surprised by the gratefulness they will have to be given the opportunity to exorcise their demons from that terrible day.
Even though a decade has passed, the decade, for many, feels like a blur.
—Photo Brian Hillegas/Flickr