In Memoriam

Seven years ago I was in the habit of getting to work at about 7:30, happy enough that I’d gotten an outside office with a window and a fairly reliable Starbucks to keep me charged through the day. We also had a brand new T3 line for all of our servers, and in the days before iTunes, still had ways of sharing music with each other in the workplace. Bethesda, Maryland, was a great spot to work, just two blocks from the Metro and in walking distance of more than 200 restaurants, most of them pretty good or better. We had a whole floor of a building on the main drag in town, with narrow hallways to fit in more offices. The owners had a thing against cubicles, which after 18 months of working in one now, I appreciate better.

The things I remember about that day are seemingly random at first, but they stitch together for me in my brain like a quilt made of scrap fabrics, and they have meaning in relation to each other. The first thing that happened is that our phones started ringing, up and down the halls. And if you tried to pick up a phone for the rest of the day, you couldn’t get a line out, because we’d hit our maximum limit of phones in use, which was something like 70 lines. And we only had 95 people in the office.

Then someone poked their head into my office, asking if I knew what had just happened. A plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City. Didn’t they have better flight plans than that? I went to CNN to see what was going on, and was astounded that there were no pictures and very little black text on the page. Gone was their usual layout. I thought we were having a problem with our T3 and then it dawned on me that it wasn’t the connection, it was all they were posting. Before I knew what happened, another plane hit the other tower, and then all hell broke loose. 

We were being attacked? Here? It was pretty incomprehensible. How many planes were out there? Nobody knew. We learned little bits of accurate information in a sea of junk — the Sears tower was hit in Chicago, there were bombs planted in DC, nobody knew how many rogue planes could hit at any moment. I don’t remember anymore if we learned about the crash in Pennsylvania or the Pentagon first, but the moment it hit the Pentagon, everything changed for me again. I lived two miles from the Pentagon.

At this point people had taken the lone television we had and plugged it in, setting it up in the middle of the conference room. We stood and sat, watching it, seeing the Towers burning, hearing the chaos in NYC, and then the chaos in Virginia. I saw helicopters flying over the area, and recognized my neighborhood on the screen. I began to realize that many of my colleagues had spouses who were unaccounted for, or that they couldn’t reach, or who were under lockdown. One of my favorite coworkers had a parter in the Department of Justice, and she hadn’t heard from him all day — he’d been taking his workout in the gym, and got locked inside, stuck there for hours until a guard found him and let him out. But other people had partners who worked at the Pentagon.

It was clear work wasn’t happening at the office, but we didn’t really know what else to do. Did we try to go home? The Metro wasn’t running normally, certainly. The first Tower fell. I cried, looking at the dust as it howled through New York streets. How many people had been inside the building? 30,000, some were saying. The Pentagon held 50,000 workers.

The second Tower fell and we all decided to go home, thinking if our spouses or friends were looking for us, maybe they’d come home too, and uh, well, there wasn’t anything else to do and we were all operating on shock at that point. Two coworkers who had Metroed in asked if I’d drive them — they were about 5 miles from my home. Sure, I said.

It took three hours to get all of us home. And that was when it really hit me just how in the middle of this we were. This was not some abstraction, not just horrifying pictures on television. I walked outside and it was right there. I smelled the burning of the Pentagon as we sat on Washington Boulevard, creeping slowly towards the buildings we lived in that no longer felt like home — because home feels comfortable and safe, or at least it’s supposed to. We were directionless and in mourning for people we knew, people who could have been hurt, people we didn’t know who had died or were missing.

I didn’t hear a commercial jet again for months because they’d shut down National Airport. I did hear the fighter jets patrolling the sky though, every couple of hours, rattling the windows of my apartment whenever they were overhead. I saw the Guardsmen out with assault rifles pointed at the ground, and the instant proliferation of American flags on most of the cars on the road. Driving past the burning Pentagon added an extra 45 minutes to my commute for the next few weeks.

My Mom was moving to Connecticut to be closer to my sister, so I also drove past Ground Zero in NYC, and smelled that fire, too. And just when I thought I was going to adjust to the checkpoint Charlies in DC, the constant chanting of “USA, USA,” and the horrifying levels of patriotism that thinly veiled a real thirst for Middle Eastern blood, we were taken aback again by the anthrax mailings to hit DC, and the sniper attacks in the DC metro area.

The sniper shit was awful — my football league canceled games, and I started measuring my life in terms of how recently I’d been to a shooting location or how close I could have come to being shot myself. That was my Home Depot, that bus route was near where I worked, and the ineffective DC police force had no idea what it was doing in hunting down the suspects.

So to people who lived in the heartland of the country back then, I’m sure it was harrowing and scary. To people who lived where the bombs hit — some of us still feel the attack in our bones. And that makes me all the sadder that the events of that day and that fall have been used so opportunistically to move us into war, to become a justification for taking away our liberties, for creating the most dysfunctional government agency overnight that doesn’t necessarily make us any safer. I love my country, and I particularly love the people in my country who reached out a hand when everything seemed so very fragile and tentative. I hope we can all continue to count on that strength under duress. And remember that this isn’t a day for patriots — it’s a day for us average, common people, to remember and be grateful for our ordinary lives.

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