From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

The Cops from
Madison, Alabama

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I wondered when I would finally feel the sadness. I wondered why other New Yorkers I passed in the streets of Manhattan looked so pained while I felt so numb. I really began to wonder if I was human. I felt nothing at all. Nothing.

It started several days after the sky fell on September 11, when I looked out my living room window in Westfield, New Jersey, and saw friends and family visiting the pregnant wife of a thirty-one-year-old man who was missing in the rubble. I tried hard to cry, but—as much I would like to say I felt courage and resolve—what I really felt was an almost paralyzing fear brought on by the sheer audacity of the acts.

At work in Manhattan, I found it even harder to feel pain and sadness: I work across from the Empire State Building, and that building’s new status as New York City’s tallest skyscraper gave all of us in the surrounding neighborhood a case of the jitters. It’s hard to feel sad when you keep looking up at the sky waiting for something to come crashing down.

Several days later, my wife and I attended an interfaith service. I passed a sign with the names of a number of those from my hometown who had been lost. So many were parents of young children. I could feel a little lump forming in my throat. But I still could not cry.

The pent-up emotions finally hit like a ton of bricks when I least expected it: I was out walking in front of the Empire State Building. I wanted to simply be in the presence of the New York City police officers now guarding that building. And as I drew closer, I saw that the building’s entrance was being protected by police officers from Madison, Alabama. And I lost it. I ran upstairs to my office and finally shed the tears that had eluded me for three weeks.

You have to understand. Most New Yorkers are hopelessly provincial, still living with the illusion that they live at the center of the universe, as if this wonderful complex, diverse universe could even have a center! Some are even still fighting the Civil War, with a view of the South that is as up-to-date as a Matthew Brady photograph. I know people who never even leave Manhattan, as if—having found paradise—they have no reason to go anywhere else.

Yet there they were out in front of the Empire State Building, a group of wisecracking, cynical New Yorkers who had surrounded these officers and were looking at them with the reverence usually reserved for members of the clergy. And these big, strong, confident, reassuring police officers from a place that no one had ever heard of were actually calming the nerves of people who had seen things that no one should see and felt things that no one should feel.

I don’t know where Madison, Alabama, is. I don’t know how many people live there. I don’t know what petty disputes are currently being fought out in its city council, but I bet some group of citizens has been making a lot of noise lately about the lack of a stop light at some especially congested corner. I don’t know if a peaceful river runs through town or where the lake is in which you can fish and swim. I don’t know where in town you can taste the best barbecue, and I certainly don’t know a soul that lives there. But I do know that on a fine, sunny day in my hometown, three weeks after it seemed like the world was collapsing around us, a bunch of courageous and compassionate cops from Madison, Alabama, were just what we needed at precisely the moment we needed it.

To the good and decent people of Madison: thank you for your sending us your bravest and finest. Just the sight of their Madison shoulder patch and the decency and confidence they demonstrated gave me an incredible dose of hope that—whatever comes along—our almost instinctive compassion as a nation will overcome any adversary.

And do me a favor: Promise that someone from Madison—wherever it is—will get in touch with me the next time a river overflows (is there a river nearby?), the next time a fire leaves some people homeless, the next time—God forbid—that a place of such obvious kindness and decency has its reckoning with pain and loss. I’d love to help.

Steven M. Gorelick, Ph.D.

In light of recent events, we’re all New Yorkers . . .

Reprinted with permission Jeff Parker. ©2001 Florida Today.

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