Friday, September 9, 2011


For the first time ever, I have re-watched the footage.  I told myself that this would be the day I’d do it.  I think this was it for me.  I don’t need to see that again.

I was sitting at my desk, working in the same historical-district house I work in today; working on the beginnings of a project that still consumes chunks of my days, in fact.  The difference is that then I the new guy. I hadn’t been there for slightly more than a decade.  I’d been there for three whole weeks. 

The house is one of those old large-frame Victorian numbers that were built to hold a family back when a family was fourteen kids, and grandma, too.  We were scattered throughout it, and I was in what must once have been the living room.  People had lived their lives right where I sat, listening to music and editing a series of dry documents. Occasionally, the flash of an IM window from a co-worker in another part of the house.  The chatter of the day.  Blink. Blink. Blink.

Did you transfer the regs file?
Check this link out. Funny stuff.

People had lived their lives, right where I sat.  Gone now.  I wasn’t thinking of that.  I was thinking of deadlines.  The light blinked, an instant message.

Somebody flew a plane into the World Trade Center.

I typed back:


Of course I knew about the attempt on the towers back in 1993.  The one that failed; of course it had failed.  The idea, to take down the twin towers, was laughable.  I wasn’t even thinking of that. I was thinking a one-engine plane with a drunk or suicidal pilot.  I was thinking minor damage. 

I went back to work.

About a half hour, another blink.

The tower is on fire. It's spreading.
Out of control?
Yeah. They can’t get people out.  People are jumping.

How much damage can a little plane do? I thought.  Unnerved, but with nothing else to do, I went back to work.  Happy for the distraction.  Five minutes later, blink:

Another plane hit the other tower.

My headphones were still on. At that moment, I heard the words that still make me feel cold:

Can’t stop what’s coming. Can’t stop what is already here.

That’s when I quit work for the day.  It was around 10:00 AM.

I watched the towers go down with my new co-workers, still strangers to me. We watched from a small television that my new boss had kept in an empty room we were using for storage.   We watched hundreds of firemen running in. A hundred times we saw the plane hitting the second tower. The towers lit up like candles, like torches. Any hope that this may have been some grotesque accident was lost as we heard that the Pentagon had been hit.  Everybody thought, but nobody said, Just how many commercial aircraft are in the air at any given time, anyway?  There was speculation that perhaps, probably not, but perhaps, the towers might collapse if the fires weren’t put out. It seemed silly. The damage was immense, but once the fire was put out…

Then, blink, blink, one and then the other of the towers came down in a waterfall of smoke, and everything shifted.  In that moment, we left one world and entered into the reality in which we now find ourselves.

In a previous life, my boss had been a Customs broker, hustling for business in those towers.  “There was literally nowhere in the world like it,” he’d tell me, later.  “You could go there for four hours and have twenty meetings. You could leave with your next year’s clients.”  When the first tower went down he made a sound unlike any I’ve heard anybody else make before.  The sort of sound you make, perhaps, when your father is shot in front of you, or when you see a child hit by a mortar shell.  The sound of atrocity beyond words.  The sound you make when something impossibly bad occurs, when the floorboards of reality turn to quicksand. 

In way, I feel as though he groaned for us all in that moment, as something foundational happened to the collective ‘us’. I felt a quiet numbness go over me. Nobody knew anything, and I knew even less than they did.  If this could happen, then anything could happen.  This could be it, I remember thinking.  This could actually be it. If this happened today, what might happen tomorrow?

Before, we couldn’t conceive of such a thing happening, and that was our weakness. Sometimes you can’t stop what is coming. 

Now, we can conceive of little else, and that is our weakness. All we want, quite understandably, is Not That Again, and at times it appears that no price will be too high for even a hint of a promise of a chance at Not That Again. Sometimes, you can’t stop what is already here.

I don’t remember driving home, but since I eventually found myself home, I suppose I must have.  I sat on the couch and waited for my wife to wake up.  A nurse, she worked the night shift.

She woke up and came out of our room into the living room.  Me, sitting on the couch, in a different universe. 

“Hey,” she said. “How was your day?”


Short-Stacked Shamus said...

That morning I drove to the bank rather than straight to work. I had to deposit my tax refund check, bequeathed to us by Bush. Remember those? Six hundy I think it was.

Listened to sports radio as I drove in. They mentioned something about something going on at the WTC -- the first plane had hit -- but were more into the Panthers, who'd begun that year with a sloppy win over the Vikings. As it happened would lose the next 15.

By the time I got to school and into my office which I shared with a colleague, the second plane had hit. Folks were starting to gather there in our office, located in the middle of the hall, to watch television. It clearly wasn't going to be a regular school day.

I met my students at 9:30. I kept them for perhaps five minutes. I remember I had colleagues who went ahead and taught entire classes that morning (until 10:45). I remember saying something to students about us cutting out to hear what President Bush was going to say.

Soon I was sitting in another classroom with students, faculty, and others. I remember seeing the smoke rising from the Pentagon on TV and hearing the commentators tell that a third plane had gone down. That's when the "anything could happen" idea seized upon me. I quickly left the classroom.

I lingered on campus a little while -- until after the towers fell. I went home and watched TV with my three-month old cat for 10 hours. By the late evening, desperate to think of something else, I watched an old Pam Grier movie. Foxy Brown, I think.

That Friday I was teaching a seminar. Small group of students, perhaps 12. At some point during the class we heard a plane fly overhead, and we all stopped talking and listened.

Kajagugu said...

I saw it happen IRL from about ten blocks away. First one tower on fire, then the other, then one was gone and then the second. I was walking between 6th and 7th Ave to get a better view when the second one came down and all I could hear was the entire city shriek in horror and grief. Then the skyline was empty. People covered in ash and soot were walking past my apartment in a dazed zombie-like state.

Since I lived south of Houston I could roam around downtown freely. I went down to Tribeca to volunteer for who knows what. They took down my name and phone number and told me to wait with the others. About 3 hours later they said we should go home, there was nothing we could do to help.

Dump trucks were lined down 6th Ave twenty at a time. They'd drive down against the direction of the one-way street and 20 more would fill up their spots. They were loaded with debris and sent straight out through the Holland Tunnel. This went on for a couple of weeks. And all that time, the fires were burning and you could smell it everywhere in the city.

I don't understand why 9/11 isn't a much bigger deal in this country than it is. It's like nobody cares.