Yesterday’s “06880” looked back on September 11, 2001 from the perspective of 3 days later.
Three weeks after that horrific day — on October 5, 2011 — my “Woog’s World” column in the Westport News looked back on the lessons of that day, and the ways we’d changed.
It seems incredible, even obscene, that something good could rise out of last month’s terrorist attacks.
But this much seems true: Americans have come together in ways impossible to imagine in the days before September 11.
The signs are everywhere — flags flap from the antennas of Porsches and pickups alike; George W. Bush’s approval ratings are higher than any politician’s except Rudy Giuliani’s, and the hottest Halloween costumes this year honor our nation’s new heroes, firefighters and police and EMTs — but there has been a subtler shift as well.
Across America, cities and suburbs that less than 4 weeks ago were simply places to live, are now communities.
The changes are obvious in New York City, of course, where subway riders now solicitously usher others onto trains, give up seats and even engage in conversations with strangers; in stores, where sales clerks ask customers if they can be of help, then actually try to do exactly that, and in business offices, where cutthroat competitors have gone out of their way to help rival companies and colleagues in need.
But the changes are obvious in Westport too, and in some ways they are as remarkable as those in the big city 50 miles west.
There was always an excuse for New Yorkers’ rudeness, pushiness and isolation: In a city so vast and dense you could not interact with everyone, so why bother making any human contact at all?
Westporters’ incivility, by contrast, was more willful, less understandable. We chose to live in a supposedly friendly town, most of us, but we often acted in the most unfriendly ways.
Don’t get me wrong; Westport has always been a wonderful place to live. We have nodded to our neighbors, socialized with friends, participated in civic affairs and enjoyed the good life this town offers in such abundance.
But we have tended to do so on our own terms, whenever and wherever we wanted to. And if we did not care to be particularly neighborly, no one could make us.
After September 11, all that is different.
I notice the changes everywhere. I see it in the way Westporters greet the FedEx and UPS delivery persons, the men and women so important to our business lives. A month ago we waited for them with stopwatches; every moment they were late was a catastrophe of epic proportions.
Now we are grateful the overnight delivery arrives overnight, whenever it comes. We understand that planes can be grounded, for good reason. We know too that from time to time the people sending us crucial documents and packages must face even more crucial events in their lives that prevent them from getting those items out on time.
I see it at Staples football games, home and away. Crowds seem larger than usual; in addition to students and parents, the stands are filled with random townspeople. People seem to be enjoying the fall air, watching a bunch of kids trying their best, and gathering together with other human beings in a united group.
I see it in the offers being made, neighbor to neighbor, to look out for one another. Parents appear willing, even eager, to pick up other parents’ children from after-school activities, dance lessons and soccer practice.
They check on elderly or infirm neighbors. They stop one another on walks down the road, and ask how families are doing.
For a long time we believed everyone’s life was his own. That remains true, but we now also know that all those lives are precious — and each of us has an obligation to support and sustain those other lives.
I see it in the checkout lines at the supermarket. Not long ago the woman scanning the tomatoes, taco shells and toothpaste was faceless, anonymous and — if she had to call the manager for help — incompetent.
Today we look into her tired eyes and recognize she is just a hard-working woman trying to do her job. We understand with sudden clarity that the reason she does not talk to us is because she cannot speak English. We wonder, for the first time, if she has a family somewhere far from Westport, and if she sends them money whenever she can.
I see it in the Westport Fire Department’s annual open house. Usually a low-key affair, with a few dads toting young children for a look at the big red engines, last weekend’s event was SRO.
Residents of all ages spent more time staring at the firefighters than at their trucks. They engaged the firefighters in conversation, asking about their jobs, their lives, even intensely personal subjects like the loss of their New York City colleagues. And the Westport men, women and children asking those questions listened closely to the responses.
It would be incredible, even obscene, to pretend that the changes we have seen over the past 3 1/2 weeks are worth the losses our nation has suffered. No one would wish last month’s terrorist attack on our worst enemy. But at the same time, it would be silly to ignore those changes, or pretend they are not welcome and good.
Today, as we move into the next phase of our post-terror attack world, we face tremendous challenges. Turning Westport’s temporary changes into permanent ones my seem a tangential goal.
But if, in the difficult days ahead, we are to be a true community — and not just a town — it is certainly worth a try.