In early March of 2000, I found my way from Ozone Park to Sunnyside, Queens, for the inaugural St. Pat’s for All Parade. The parade was unique because it welcomed LGBT groups to participate. Most other St. Patrick’s parades at the time did not.
It was the first St. Patrick’s parade I marched in, representing a human rights group that monitored the contentious marching season in the North of Ireland. The parade included many of the standard Irish groups and local politicians but also featured an LGBT marching band, a traditional Korean dance troupe, and other organizations that are not strange in Queens but do stand out in a St Patrick’s Day parade. The parade gathered news coverage (Hillary Clinton was there, running for Senate) and a few religious protesters upset that St. Patrick’s name was being use to make friendly with the gays.
During the march, I noticed a Catholic priest in a brown robe shaking hands with people aside the parade route. Oh no, I thought to myself, what litany of lies did the parade organizers tell this poor priest to get him here? He’s going to have a heart attack when he sees the gay marching band.
But that priest did not have a heart attack upon seeing the gay marching band. The priest was Father Mychal Judge.
Father Judge is most famous for being the New York Fire Department chaplain who perished in the September 11 attacks; he is listed as the first official casualty of that day. But long before his untimely death, Father Judge was a bridge between the multitudes of New York communities. At a time of increasing hostility between the Catholic Church’s leadership and LGBT groups, he made it part of his mission to minister to gays and lesbians and people with AIDS. He was dedicated to helping the homeless and people suffering drug and alcohol addiction, and he led a peace mission in Ireland. Few others would have been able to shake hands with cross-wielding protesters and break bread with a gay marching band on that same morning in Queens.
In his last homily, delivered the day before he was killed at the World Trade Center, he spoke to firefighters in The Bronx. He spoke about the unpredictable nature of life and how everyone has their part to play, that each one of us has a place.
“That’s the way it is. Good days. And bad days. Up days. Down days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job – which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call. No matter how small. You have no idea what God is calling you to. But he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.”
September is freshly ended and with it, most of the commemorations of the September 11 attacks. One of the best traditions, the Stephen Siller Foundation Tunnel to Towers 5k, is held the last Sunday in September.
On a rainy October evening, I was making my way home from midtown after a long workday. A fire engine was driving down the street and was stuck at an intersection of 6th Ave. and 31st Street. Despite having the right of way, the firefighter at the wheel waved pedestrians across.
I discovered I was crossing Father Mychal F. Judge Street, a segment of West 31st that runs past his church, St. Francis of Assisi. It was named in his honor in 2002. FDNY Engine 1/Ladder 24 station is nearby. It would have been disrespectful to ignore the sign and continue on with the regular rush of the afternoon commute. I stepped out of people’s way and took a photo of the sign.
There are few New Yorkers who represent the resiliency and humanity of our city the way Father Mychal Judge did. His sacrifice has special meaning for firefighters and those who lost loved ones in the September 11th attacks, but the life he lived symbolizes the best of us and serves as an inspiration the world over. It always will.
In March of 2001, I saw a procession of people marching behind a fire engine down a street in Greenwich Village. I followed to see what was happening. It was a 90th anniversary commemoration in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which remains one of the deadliest event of its kind in New York. Firefighters stood at attention near their fire engine as people read the names of the 146 young women who perished.
Less than six months later, the September 11 attacks became the deadliest day in New York City history (displacing not the Triangle Shirtwaist fire but the General Slocum disaster, which killed more than 1,000 people).
What lesson I take from the September 11 attacks is that New York City’s spirit can’t be defeated and that New York City will be here forever.
The crucible of city life creates a population that can’t be broken. While crime is lower, it doesn’t mean survival has gotten easier. People are too busy to be scared, and New York was back up and running in less than a week. We pause to honor the dead but realize it would be an insult to the memory of those lost for us not to continue our lives.
Terrorist work to create fear in a population, which makes it all the more pointless for them to attack New York, a city that overcame collective fear a long time ago.
What we keep from the attacks are the demonstrations of our valor and courage. Every year in September, people come from around the world to run or walk the Tunnel to Towers 5K, which traces the route of Firefighter Stephen Siller, who ran through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel on September 11th to get to the site of the attacks where he gave his life for our city. Firefighters from every corner of the globe will often run in full firefighting gear as Siller did. If you’ve never taken part in one of these, you owe it to yourself to do. You won’t regret it, I promise you.
One of New York’s greatest punk bands, The Bullys, lost a founding member, Firefighter John Heffernan, in the attacks. Every year they commemorate his life with an awesome punk rock show. The defiant sounds of blaring punk rock and The Bullys incessant musical “fuck you” to all manner of poseurs and pussies defines New York more than weeping and flowers, though those have their place too.
People I had worked with, immigration inspectors at J.F.K. airport, went to Manhattan on their own time to do what they could, people lined up for hours on end to donate blood. New Yorkers stood on the West Side Highway into the wee hours of the morning to thank first responders heading home from long shifts on the pile. These are the images and lessons I remember about New York City from those days.
New York City is older than America. It was a force on this continent before it was even New York. It will still be here two thousand years from now. Live in it to the fullest or leave.