Humans of New York is something of an Internet phenomenon — spontaneous but elegant photographs of people spotted on the streets of New York City, captioned briefly with some of their words of wisdom.
Nearly 6 million Facebook followers have signed up to scroll more than 5,000 subjects there, not to mention the Web page and Twitter audience, a New York Times best-selling photo book and copycat sites in cities as far apart as Portland and Tehran.
Within this one phenomenon is another: 25-year-old Rob Howard, graduate of Clearwater’s Bayside High School, photographed wearing a skinny black suit and sitting at a Midtown Manhattan fountain, hands clasped around knees and looking sideways into the camera.
Howard speaks of his father in his Humans of New York moment.
Many of the subjects, in fact, focus on their loved ones when photographer Brandon Stanton stops them on the street for a snapshot and a quote. But more than 20 million people have viewed Howard’s item, one of the highest counts since Stanton launched the project in 2010.
The Humans of New York piece links Howard with his father as a symbol of loss from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
George Howard, with the Port Authority Police Department, was one of 70 law enforcement officers who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. Witnesses say he was helping someone at the time.
“To say that it resonated with people would be an understatement,” Stanton said.
On the Humans of New York Facebook page, some commenters offer condolences, others share stories of their own 9/11 losses, still others encourage Howard to remain strong.
“I’m just one of tens of thousands who lost someone they loved that day,” Howard said. “But because of Brandon and his worldwide audience, my story has had the opportunity to touch so many people. I’ve definitely been amazed and moved and taken aback by so many people telling me how much my story affected them.”
He’s happy for the chance to remind the world of the man who was his hero.
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Every Father’s Day, Howard changes his Facebook profile photo — which has featured Derek Jeter, Howard as a gangster on Halloween, and Howard as an extra on the set of a Spider-Man movie — to one of his dad and him at his fifth-grade graduation.
“It’s my favorite photo of just us, of which there aren’t many to choose from.”
George Howard was famous before that.
When President George W. Bush attended a meeting with relatives of missing firefighters and police officers a few days after 9/11, Rob Howard’s grandmother presented Bush with the badge worn by her son when he died.
Bush later held it up during a televised speech and said, “This is my reminder of lives that ended and a task that does not end.”
The badge is displayed at the George W. Bush Presidential Library.
His father’s heroism earned Rob Howard an advanced look inside the 9/11 Memorial Museum during the week before its official opening May 21 at the site of the World Trade Center.
Afterward, Howard walked uptown to Rockefeller Center and sat near a fountain for a few moments of reflection. It was there that photographer Stanton approached him.
Here are the words about his father that have so moved the audience of Humans of New York:
“He was a cop. He actually had the day off. But as soon as he heard, he drove into the city and got there just in time for the second tower to fall. A witness said that my dad had started to run when the tower fell, but turned back because a trapped woman was calling to him.
“I was in science class. And my teacher told us that there had been a plane crash. That’s all she said. Soon we got let out of school. On the ride home, I remember thinking that my dad was going to be working overtime on this. I imagined he’d be down there every day, saving people. ‘I bet I won’t see him for weeks,’ I said.”
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Howard was 13 and living on Long Island at the time. He picked up the story in an interview with The Tampa Tribune.
When he got home from school, his mother told him no one had heard from his father that day. But there was little concern; it was his father’s day off.
Then the phone rang. It was Howard’s grandmother. She wanted the family to come to her house immediately. “A police car was parked out front of her home,” Howard said. “I walked through the door and my mom was already crying. My grandmother was in a chair. I asked, ‘Where is daddy?’ And she said, ‘In heaven.’ At that point, I just lost it.”
Today, Howard thinks mainly of the good times with his father — the weekday afternoons they spent together, for example.
His father would pick him up from school, take him to a deli for a snack, and they would shoot pool or play ping-pong at the local firehouse where George Howard volunteered in his spare time.
“He would talk smack to me the whole time,” Howard said. “I never beat him at ping-pong, but I was definitely getting closer.”
Then there were the annual summer road trips. Howard and his brother, Christopher, would join their father for travels around the country in his 1999 Chevrolet Suburban. They visited Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Acadia National Park.
They spoke of one day writing a book about their adventures.
One time, Howard recalled, they were served cold pancakes at a Holiday Inn, so his father heated them up with a blow dryer.
Another time, they came across a car flipped over on the side of the road. Howard’s father worked at resuscitating the victim until help arrived. “He was always on duty. I have that Suburban now. I don’t drive much, but I’ll never sell it.”
Their plan for the summer of 2002 was a cruise to Alaska.
“I definitely want to go to Alaska someday,” Howard said. “It would be a cool way to honor my father.”
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Stanton hears heart-rending stories from his subjects all the time. Howard’s pain was among the most difficult to chronicle, he said.
“His story had a very powerful arc due to the fact that it was a long time before he even knew his father was at the towers,” said Stanton. “I was very emotionally affected by it when he told me.”
Howard told Stanton his father was famous, but that didn’t make it into the Humans of New York item.
“He is all about the human side of New York,” Howard explained. “He turns ordinary people into extraordinary people, if only for one day, based on their emotions, not who they are or who they know.”
The fame, in fact, was hard to handle in the beginning for young Howard.
“It seemed like every week there was a memorial to attend or an interview to give. I don’t think I was given the opportunity to deal with the fact that my father died because of the public nature of the event and his celebrity status.”
Howard’s mother decided it was best for him to get out of New York, so in 2005, she sent him to live with his father’s sister in Riverview.
He stayed with her for a year and attended Newsome High School.
When he turned 18, he ventured out on his own and moved to Clearwater. He graduated from Bayside High in 2007.
He called his two years in the Tampa Bay area a “mental vacation.”
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Howard made good friends and went to the beach. Ground zero was more than 1,000 miles away.
He came to grips with the loss of his father and finally was able to talk publicly about it during a discussion about 9/11 in a Newsome High history class.
“It was empowering. It felt good to get it off my chest.”
After graduation, he returned to New York. For the next five years, he lived with his grandmother in Long Island. Two years ago, he moved into the city when he got a job as a doorman at a prestigious Manhattan restaurant.
Howard was supposed to be at work when the Humans of New York photo was taken.
But after leaving the 9/11 museum and seeing all the happy patrons at the restaurant, he decided to take the night off.
He had only been at Rockefeller Center a few minutes when approached by Stanton.
Stanton said he takes the photo first then conducts a short interview. His questions are meant to elicit a heartwarming, insightful or comedic response. Subjects are not identified on the site by name.
“Brandon asked me what my greatest struggle was,” Howard said.
“If he had caught me the day before, I would have probably said, ‘I don’t know what to eat for lunch.’ But he got me at that vulnerable moment and I just told him what was on my mind.”
Immediately, he had a change of heart.
“I don’t like sympathy,” Howard said. “Whenever people asked about my dad, I always just told them he passed away without providing details.”
Stanton persuaded him to share.
“He said it was one of the top stories he’d heard and thought it could touch a lot of people. He was right.”