My first instinct, unsurprisingly, was to be pissed off at the end-users.
That should have been a sign that the Internet had become the default means of getting news at work. As word came in that an airliner had hit the World Trade Center, the phones to the help desk were jammed with people demanding to know why they couldn’t load CNN, or the webpage for the Post or the New York Times. At one point, I actually said something about “only our users are stupid enough to believe they’re the first person to say ‘I know, I can find out about this on a website!'”
For my own part, the first thought was the B-29 collision with the Empire State Building in the 1940s, after which fixed-wing aircraft were barred from flying over Manhattan (save for the vehicles of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, another nugget picked up from junior-high comic book readings). Another collision, fifty-plus years later – how do you get that far off track? Hell of a coincidence…then, the plane hit the other tower, live on TV.
Once is happenstance, twice coincidence, and the third time, enemy action. Hat tip, Ian Fleming.
At that point, we knew some seriously bad shit was going down. The towers hadn’t even fallen when they closed work for the day. My boss went around the loop making sure everybody who needed a ride was accounted for, and about that time was when we started hearing about the Pentagon, and rumors of a car bomb near the State Department. And since my work partner’s girlfriend worked in Foggy Bottom, our little gang of four immediately set off, on foot, to see what was happening.
I had an Ericsson LX280 phone at the time, which was significant because it was a TDMA-era WAP-capable phone. I didn’t have two-way text messaging – almost nobody did, unless you had a rare GSM phone – but I was able to get to my email when nobody could make a phone call, and I was able to push out a couple of quick emails to the effect of “we’re OK.” Once we had my partner’s girlfriend collected, the five of us bought burgers and fries and sat out in the grass, waiting for more work of what was happening, before finally retreating to the boss’s apartment.
From there, we flipped between channels trying to get any sense of what was happening. Planes all grounded, obviously. News from Afghanistan that there were rocket attacks in Kabul, possibly the Northern Alliance taking revenge for the death of its leader. At one point, we walked down to the Mall to see what was happening and to shoot some video, and I remember pointing at the camera with my tumbler of whiskey and warning our future offspring that “it’s not cool to walk around with a glass of booze in public at 2 in the afternoon. These are special circumstances.”
And at the end of the day, a one-stop ride under the river to Rosslyn, where I could walk the rest of the way home. And the news in email that we had two people on the plane that hit the Pentagon. And the sick realization that things were going to be different.
And then the next morning. Up and off to work, same as ever, only this time there were Humvees and National Guard on every corner in the city. And I felt the oddest compulsion that I should have brought them donuts, or something. And into the office, to help my boss unlock the voicemail and access the desktops of the two deceased so their next of kin could get at the information. And making ourselves available to help one of our favorite users, who had just found herself in charge of the travel office with her boss’s sudden death.
And when we walked out at 6 PM, my boss turned to me, and we shook hands, and said “Good day’s work.”
We were there the next day too, and the day after that. I stood outside in the drizzle, in my all-black and my duster, and stared at the flat-panels on the sides of the building showing Fox News’s broadcast of the memorial service at National Cathedral. My wardrobe being what it was, I had black to spare.
Eventually, the Humvees disappeared from the street corners and the combat air patrol subsided. And still we walked around on a knife-edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. When the anthrax showed up, we couldn’t really say we were surprised – and one friend almost got evicted as his rent check sat in the shuttered Brentwood post office.
But I don’t remember panic. Except for those first fleeting moments when we thought our buddy’s girlfriend might be in danger, I don’t think anyone ever actually panicked. For the most part, those first weeks were mostly tied up with deep breaths and “keep calm and carry on,” even if we’d never heard of that poster. I distinctly remember, around Thanksgiving, seeing a commercial for the USPS playing off the old “neither snow, nor rain” with the addition of “nor a nation challenged” and wrapping up “…from the completion of their appointed rounds.” And then, all by itself on screen, the addition: “Ever.”
And for a moment there, the postal service went from government bureaucracy to Stupendous American Badass with just one little word. And that was really what I was feeling, and I think most of our gang as well – yeah, it happened, and it’s a show, but we – ain’t – going – nowhere. DC was home. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
December is when I started to get a little pissed off, too…
…here, too, I want to acknowledge my friends…[i]t’s nothing against anyone else or the rest of the world, but all the patriotic posing and whatnot back in Alabama grated a little. Yes, I know that everyone’s vulnerable and the danger is everywhere, but this is DC. It’s our backyard that the plane crashed in, our co-workers on board. It’s us who took antibiotics against possible anthrax infection and us whose mail was held up for days and us who saluted armed National Guardsmen in jeeps on every street corner for days. And we’ve only got the command and control nerve center for the whole thing. DC’s got more skin in this fight than anyone but New York, and it grates a LOT that the rest of the world seems to have forgotten we’ve got any at all. Of the DC 7, we all came here for love or adventure or personal improvement or something, but it sure wasn’t to be here for this. So a big shout out for us…
That was from my blog in 2001. Very little has changed. Every single TV channel in the country has to have their retrospective. The local NBC affiliate is, of course, having their own September 11 weep-o-rama with coverage from both New York and…Shanksville, PA. Meanwhile, people in flyover states are howling at the “Ground Zero Mosque” (or, more likely, “Mosk”) which was neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero. To this day, one of the things that brings on the purple spots in front of my eyes and makes the steeltoe bootlaces tighten all by themselves is hearing some loudmouth from somewhere else telling us how we should feel about the fact that we were attacked – within my own city limits, literally. I know how to feel, fuckface, I was there. My cousin, who evacuated from Katrina with his fiancee’s wedding dress tied up in a Hefty bag, knows full well what I’m talking about.
Because that’s what it’s become. “9/11” is America’s patriotic mascot, its ritual obeisance to its military and its first responders, but most of all, it’s the evergreen excuse behind which a certain sector of our population – and its amen corner in the mass media – breathes over and over again, “Live in fear.” Fear of the sucker punch, fear of the unknown, fear of the different, fear that something, somewhere, might change.
They can say what they damn well please, but I was there. And I can tell you with my hand on the Bible if you like, and you can put it on our tombstones – we feared no evil.