The summers after I graduated college were good ones.
I was in my early 20s, working as a finance bro in Boston, living with friends, and just taking things easy. I had written a book, Jinn, which had found some success. Not life-changing-retire-immediately success, but the novel had sold well and there was a film option in the works. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would take me almost fifteen years to write anything else. I didn’t have the maturity to really dedicate myself to anything, especially something with such delayed gratification as writing.
That first summer was a summer of hanging out with friends, going to the gym, talking about women. The first Fast and the Furious movie was starting a franchise around racing and I dumped most of my savings on a used cherry red Yamaha Virago motorcycle. It was as responsive as an old sofa and as safe as a fraying tightrope, but I loved that old bike. I rode around with nowhere to go and my whole life ahead of me, one long empty road that stretched out for years with nothing planned on the horizon.
I was as American-privileged as a John Hughes movie; there was some early twenties angst, some still-lingering post-teen struggles to fit in, blah, blah, blah, but overall my life was Coca-Cola and blue jeans. For me, America wasn’t a country, it was a corporation. A place where people came to pay the bills and have some laughs.
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Then came September 11, 2001, when so many good and brave people died in such a terrible, way and all I did was watch it on television. On that morning, I stood in my living room and I watched on a flickering screen as two hundred miles away, thousands of lives were extinguished.
I had a winning lottery ticket in life. I was born in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston, and lucky me, that meant I touched down in the good ol’ U.S. of A. I knew about being a United States citizen, I knew the pledges and the songs, but I didn’t know a thing about being an American. I had never served my country. I had never served anything except for myself. Because in America, you don’t have to. We have the freedom to be selfish. We have the luxury of safety. Of jobs and prosperity. And I took advantage.
The period we call American history amounts to little more than a blip on the timeline of the world. And yet, in this brief few hundred years, our country has been responsible for some of the greatest moments in humanity. We live in a place that cured Polio and created the internet. We sent a man to the moon and to the bottom of the ocean. We’ve called Kennedy and Ali and Monroe and Chavez our own. This is the greatest country in the world, and the only thing I had done to repay my debt was to pay some taxes.
After the attack, I felt anger. I felt sorrow and confusion. But I also felt unity. I felt connected to the people around me, to Americans, in a way which I never had before. I felt my heart glow to be part of something greater than myself, one that had produced so much greatness. I wanted to finally serve my country. If told to me by another, I would dismiss these feelings as gratuitous patriotism, but on that day I felt it as a raw burst of emotion deep within my core.
So I joined the New York City Police Department.
That was quite a few years ago now. And I am still here. Still on the job. I don’t know if that makes me better qualified to be an American than when I was 23. That’s not a question as easily answered. Life can seem a lot simpler when you’re young and I know now there are many ways to serve. But I also know that a lot of good people lost their lives on that day and I’m proud to wear the same uniform as some of them.
I’m proud to serve with those that serve the city. We’re not just protecting New York City, we are New York City. We’re of all races and religions and orientations. We’ve spoken dozens of different languages, practiced many different religions, and we’ve immigrated from countries that no longer even exist. Despite these differences, we’ve come together as Americans to serve a common purpose. We have given over to something bigger.
As I write this, I can see the tribute in light memorial rising up over lower Manhattan commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Towers.
A testament to what happened. A reminder to what could potentially happen again.
But the city sleeps because out there tonight are thousands of men and women patrolling the streets, as we have been for 170 years, ready to give our lives to make sure it never does.