Wedded To New York

In love with the city and each other, a Towson couple returns there to be married -- and to help the healing

November 12, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

THE SKY was black and the air a little nippy when Tawnya Murphy and her fiance arose at 2:30 a.m. on a recent Thursday, the day they had picked to change their post-Sept. 11 world.

They bustled about their Towson house, frantically stuffing final essentials into a large suitcase. One black pin-striped suit. A burgundy spaghetti-strap gown. Dress shoes. A tie. A crisp, white shirt. Their birth certificates.

Then they woke up Murphy's 7-year-old daughter, Mishayla, and her mother, Dianne, who would drive them to the station and deliver tight hugs and firm kisses before bundling the couple onto a Greyhound bus bound for New York.

But this was no ordinary weekend trip to Manhattan for Murphy and William S. Cunningham.

Like many couples around the world who have visited America's most romantic and mythical of cities, Murphy and Cunningham took a trip to New York several years ago and fell in love.

Strolling through a snowstorm in 1996, Murphy and Cunningham realized that they were crazy about each other - and New York. They ushered in 2000 holding hands in Times Square - not far from the spot under a WWF billboard where Cunningham, 31, proposed to Murphy last December.

"My thoughts of New York have always been wonderful," said Murphy, 29, who works for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services. "Now they are of death and destruction. I want to change this."

And so after Sept. 11, when terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center, destroying the skyline Murphy and Cunningham had loved, they decided they would get married. They would do it in New York - and take back their city.

They had met in a now-defunct bar named Graffiti's on Padonia Road in Timonium May 11, 1996.

Murphy was with a girlfriend trying to escape an "icky old guy" when she looked across the dance floor and spotted Cunningham. Tall, lanky and studiously handsome with his dark hair and glasses, he wore a confident smile.

He noticed her too: a pixie-faced woman with a luminous smile. So, he walked over to introduce himself. By the end of the night, she had scrawled her number on a bar coaster and handed it to him.

"I remember going home and saying, `Mom, I just met this really nice girl, but I met her in a bar. I don't want to date a barfly,' " Cunningham said. "And she said, `Well, you were in a bar, too, and you're a nice person.' So I called Tawnya."

That December, the couple took their first weekend trip together and went to New York. And, this year, on Valentine's Day, she gave him The Unofficial Guide to New York City, with a long note scribbled inside, telling him why New York reminded her of him.

"It is exciting (Times Square), calm (Central Park), responsible (stock market), fantasy (FAO Schwartz ...), artistic (the Met), manly (Brooklyn), soulful (Harlem), peacekeeper (WTC), amazingly talented (Broadway), beautiful (autumn time), & awesome (the skyline at night on the ferry toward NJ after you proposed to me).

"You took a city that millions live in and made it ours," she wrote. "You couldn't have picked a better place to ask me to be your wife."

On Sept. 11

The morning of Sept. 11, Murphy was starting the second day of her new job as an assistant housing caseworker when Cunningham called.

"Honey," he said, "a plane just crashed through the World Trade Center."

"I'll watch it when I get home," Murphy replied, "I've got to do my job."

But Cunningham called back. "A second one just crashed into the World Trade Center," he said.

Murphy hung up and raced home.

In the following days, the couple joined the rest of the country in front of their TVs, helplessly watching rescue workers at the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

That's when the idea struck them.

They had planned to wed Oct. 26, 2002. But now, at a time when the world and all priorities seemed to shift from minute to minute, when bombings, war and military strategy were part of their everyday conversation, a year suddenly seemed too far away.

"If you think about it, the people in the World Trade Center had plans later that day," Cunningham said. "Some were going to take their kids to baseball games, some were going to have dinner with family or loved ones, but now they're gone. You really have to evaluate what's important, and for us, we'd been waiting a long time."

So they decided to go to City Hall in New York to get married.

"In a way, it's like we're saying, `We don't want to let what the terrorists did ruin our lives,' " Cunningham said. "What they wanted us to do was stop what we're doing. We're not going to be scared any more."

Surveying their city

They began reclaiming their city the morning of Nov. 1.

From their midtown hotel, they headed first to Times Square. It had been there on a busy sidewalk that Cunningham had suddenly fallen to one knee on Dec. 27, pulled out a ring and asked: "Would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

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