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.
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?”