Like so many other East Coasters, I was at work that morning, and I’m sure my story is very much the same as all of theirs – First someone popped their head into my office and mentioned the plane, then I checked CNN.com, and then I went back to work, maybe stopping for a moment to enjoy the view of an unseasonably cool and crisp, yet still picture perfect bright and sunny South Florida day before getting back to the task of responding to the ever untold numbers of emails that had come in throughout the night.
Then the second plane hit and everything was different. I found out about the second plane from the screaming gasp of, “Oh, sweet Jesus have mercy!” from one of the girls in the office next door, and I think everybody in that moment immediately knew. We all knew. As we got called into the conference room to watch the devastation live on tv, I looked in everyone’s eyes and could see that we all knew. None of this was an accident, and every single thing in all of our disparate lives and little worlds were forever altered in under an hour by events unfolding a thousand miles away and beamed into our brains through waves of information sent into space and bounced back down to earth through the ether, unknowing and uncaring of the horrible message they brought to us in full living (and dying) colour.
I don’t remember who, and I don’t really need to, but somebody said with a hint of almost tragic pride, “This is our JFK moment.” It rang as tasteless to me in the moment, but it was oh, so right. As a generation, we’d had very little truly world altering events to define ourselves with, and we’d all heard the stories about where our parents were when they found out about Kennedy, and in a way we darkly envied their nostalgia for a nationally shared moment, and now, tragically, finally, we finally had our own, and the fact that I’m sitting here writing this today, thirteen years later, and remembering it like it was still yesterday proves it. And if that doesn’t prove it, I direct you to any news channel on the television or social media website as they are, as usual, inundating us with the story, just in case you’d dare to forget the horror or emotional displacement you felt while watching it that day.
When the third plane went down in Pennsylvania our boss sent us all home. We had offices in New York. We all knew people there. Nobody was going to be getting any work done that day, this was a time for family. I’m sure it was the same in offices all over America – I can’t even imagine what it was like for the West Coast at this point, waking up to find this on the news before they’d even had their first sip of coffee. I can’t imagine it, and at the moment, I didn’t really care. I got into my car, and from there things went from strange to surreal. Stopped at a red light, looking at the driver next to me staring blankly ahead and wondering if he knew and if that was a look of shock or dumb ignorance, wondering if the lady at the next light yapping and laughing on her cell phone was unaware or just an idiot, deciding on unaware because how could anybody be laughing right now? I remember hoping against all reason that she just didn’t know, and I almost didn’t want her to know, didn’t want her to lose an ounce of whatever joy she’d found in whatever amusing thing her friend has said to her.
At the last moment, I decided to stop at my mom’s office to say hello. It was on the way home, and even though I never visited her at work, it just made sense. It was the right thing to do. And it was. I walked up to their building and she was outside having a cigarette with co-workers and crying, and she hugged me like there was no tomorrow, which, as we’d all been witnessing on the television all morning, there wouldn’t be for so many people… So many broken tomorrows, all of them encompassed in my mother’s hug.
I didn’t stay long, but I don’t remember leaving. The next thing I knew, I was in the parking lot at Best Buy. My plan that morning was to stop there after work because the new Bob Dylan album was coming out that day and I wanted to get it, so I guess I just sort of auto-piloted myself over there as it had somehow stuck subconsciously in my mind. I didn’t want to go in and buy it, it didn’t seem clean somehow, like going to buy something, to spend money on an entertainment while so many people were suffering had a hefty price-tag of guilt and damnation attached to it, but something else inside of me was compelled. I had to buy it. I had to know that I could still do normal things. I had to know that the world wasn’t over.
It was probably just after 11AM at this point. Everything was still happening. We were in the middle of it all, and I was walking into a Best Buy in South Florida, my legs feeling light and empty, like I was stepping into a dream. The store was almost empty. The Power Rangers were beating up bad guys on their huge bank of televisions; it was almost as if the most interesting thing that they could think to watch on that fateful morning was a guy in a blue-spangled jumpsuit kicking some alien ass. It made no sense, it had no context, but then again, what really could? I grabbed the album off the rack and went up the cashier to ring out. There was no line, and we looked at each other oddly as I approached. He looked bored, I must have looked manic. Did he know? Should I tell him? If it was all so real, why was I in a store buying a CD? Nothing made sense. I purchased the disc and left without a word. I think I said, “Thanks,” probably, but I really don’t know.
I went home, but the unopened CD down on top of my stereo, and turned on the television, and then I proceeded to sit there and watch, and watch, and then watch some more until I couldn’t take another moment and just had to collapse in a puddle of exhaustion. That was right after the smaller tower, I think it was Tower Four, collapsed under the accumulated rubble from the Twins. Maybe five in the afternoon? I’m not sure, and as this is all supposed to be memory, I don’t want to go to Google and check. Let’s say it was still before dusk and leave it at that.
I woke up later that evening, maybe around 10PM or so, and went back to watching the news. I didn’t go to work the next day, and I don’t think I went to sleep again for somewhere between 36 and 48 hours. I also developed a short-lived crush on Ashley Banfield that day – She killed it as far as reporting went, making me feel informed and as up to speed as possible, while still being cute and attractive; she was a news producer’s wet dream for sure, I remember thinking. I wonder whatever happened to her… She sort of disappeared in the intervening years…
I didn’t go to work for the rest of the week. I’m not sure if anyone in our office did. I don’t know if I asked, and I know I didn’t care. I was obsessed with the news, and getting information was all that mattered to me that first week. We all handle our stress differently. I’m still a news junkie, even more than I was before September 11, 2001, checking the web several times a day just to make sure I don’t miss anything, even though there’s rarely anything worth knowing about.
When I did return to work, and started venturing out in public again in general, there was something different in the way people were behaving, a general change in disposition. People were being purposefully nice to each other. They were being considerate. A few years before, an elderly couple stopped and said, “You must be Canadian,” to me because I’d held a door open for them. Now everyone was holding doors, and saying thank you. Americans were acting practically Canadian! It was crazy! And although it came from tragedy, it was amazing!
But, of course, we all knew it wouldn’t (couldn’t) last. That wave crested through Halloween, but I remember being once again, oddly, in Best Buy in mid-November, doing some early Christmas shopping, and the bubble burst. What with it being the season of retail mayhem, there were line-ups at every cash register, most of us waiting peacefully and patiently for our turn to pay for our goodies, when along came this blonde woman with an arm-full of DVDs, asking people if they’d mind if she’d bud them in line. Most people turned away, but as she got to the guy in front of me, he asked her why, implying he’d be happy to do it if there was some sort of emergency or something, but she simply said, “I really don’t want to have to wait,” and that was it. That short moment of American togetherness was over, just like that. Entitledness was back in full force. And so was anger. He smacked the stack of movies out of her hand, then threw his own stuff down and left the store. I didn’t let her take his place in front of me, if that counts for anything, but I did go home with a real sinking feeling of depression. I felt like hope had just died all over again. I felt empty, and I never wanted to be full again. Thankfully, that feeling eventually faded away, like badness and negativity always does when one has a heart that laughs honestly and without fear.
I sit here now, thirteen years later, watching President Obama with his hand over his heart, making a dedication to the memory of that day. Flags are being unfurled at the Pentagon, rebuilt from the destruction they suffered on that same morning so long ago, but never really distant. That day was a tragedy, but not as tragic as the legacy we took up in its wake. We went into foreign countries, sometimes illegally and under false-pretenses, to fight militants and terrorists, and to what end? Last night President Obama interrupted prime-time television to tell us that we’re going to fight ISIS (or ISIL or whatever the hell we’re calling them this week) and abolish their threat to an already sensitive and unstable region. If you don’t know ISIS are, they’re the terrorists that the terrorists are afraid of. Bad news for everyone, really. Also, we bred them when we indiscriminately went after al Queda and the Taliban, and invaded Iraq for no reason and deposed Hussain, and left an already unstable region in complete and utter chaos. Did we get Osama bin Laden? Yes, and they grew two more in his place.
Thirteen years later. In Jewish tradition, when a boy turns thirteen, he is Bar Mitzvah and considered a man. I guess our war on terrorism can be considered all grown up as well, now moving into its next phase. It’s like a new and improved cold war – The armed militants need to be suppressed, therefore we need to keep ourselves armed and militant. And so it goes. Mazel tov.
The Bob Dylan album, Love and Theft, still sat on top of my stereo unopened and collecting dust for months until I finally moved away from the States and up to Canada, and it remains in the same plastic-wrapped state today in a closet in my apartment in Toronto. I have never listened to it, and I never will. But I will keep it forever.