The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

And The Walls Came Down

"It is impossible to fully comprehend the evil that would have conjured up such a cowardly and depraved assault upon thousands of innocent people."

-- Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien

Everyone over the age of 15 most likely remembers where they were on this day ten years ago. Many of them were frightened, many confused, and many horrified. But I’m willing to speculate that no matter where you were, what you were doing, or how you ultimately reacted, your very first, knee-jerk reaction was one of absolutely stunned incredulity.

In 1983, I was a sophomore in high school and heavily involved in my school’s competitive forensics team. One of the speeches I used in competition that year dealt with nuclear disarmament (I was in favor of it). The speech was very melodramatic, filled with sobering statistics and horrifying descriptions of radiation sickness and eventual total global death. I’m not entirely sure what made me choose to write about such a cheery topic; perhaps I had seen WarGames too many times.

But despite the speech’s statewide appeal (I won more awards for that one speech than for any other piece I ever competed with), deep-down, I really, really didn’t think that any country (or any planet, really) would ever actually attack the United States. I knew about Pearl Harbor, of course, but after all, that had been in 1941, which to my 15 year-old reasoning was only slightly after the First Crusade.

In 2001, I was working at a computer engineering firm that was subcontracted by the FAA (probably the weirdest government agency to work for on 9/11). That Tuesday had started out oddly for me even before the first plane hit. The previous night, my mother had been admitted to the hospital for an upper respiratory infection, and I was coming down with something nasty and bronchial as well. Still, I deluded myself into thinking I was indispensible and hobbled my way in.

By 9:30, I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I dragged myself up the stairs with the intention of going to my boss’s office and telling him I was calling it a morning. As I passed the receptionist’s desk, she looked at me, blinking in confusion, and said, “A plane just hit the World Trade Center!”

When you work for the FAA and you hear that, the thought of terrorism doesn’t enter your mind right away, which is why I naturally thought it was some bizarre aviation accident and asked; “Was it one of ours?”

No one on my floor seemed as much worried as they were confused as to how such horribly inaccurate reporting could possibly have been allowed to air. We figured that something had happened at the Twin Towers, but it couldn’t possibly have been two jets purposely flying into them with the intention to level the buildings and kill thousands of people.

We then remembered that my boss had a TV in his office, so we joined the dozen or so other stunned engineers watching the news from there. As more information came in, we still didn’t really grasp that we had been attacked. It was just so unthinkable that it never entered our minds. Phones rang, unanswered, then almost simultaneously, everyone’s pager went off. An announcement came over the PA that we were shutting the site down.  This all seemed to happen at once.

I spun the radio dial on the way home trying to piece together as much information as I could, without much success. I was now running a very high fever, and coupled with the weirdness of the day I felt fairly sure I couldn’t trust my own mental faculties. When I got home, I turned on the TV and fell into bed.

You remember the news footage.  It was surreal. For the next week through my antibiotic haze, I watched those towers fall over and over again and it never got any more real. I felt like I was watching an apocalyptic science-fiction movie with really awesome special effects.

And in the weeks that followed, when we all tried to make sense of the whole thing by flying the flag, playing Kate Smith records, and asking “where were you?” I began to think of some very strange and picayune things, such as that every single photograph, picture, and film of the New York skyline was now incorrect, and that it would be very awkward for a radio station to ever play Bruce Springsteen’s “Darlington County” from now on.

And I found myself thinking about a very peculiar group of people. Yes, of course I think of all of the fallen, and they and their loved ones are always in my thoughts and prayers, but I think about certain people a little more frequently.

I think about the receptionist at a marketing agency who was on vacation that week.

I think about the temp that was supposed to cover for that receptionist but whose agency gave him the wrong start-time.

I think about the civil engineer who wasn’t able to get a cab in his usual spot and whose having to walk five extra blocks put him half an hour behind schedule.

I think about the investment broker who, at the eleventh hour, admitted to herself that she was just legitimately sick enough to call out.

I think about the cafeteria worker who had retired the Friday before and was now playing Dominos with his granddaughter.

I think about the maintenance man who fell asleep on the subway and didn’t wake up until the end of the line because his neighbors had kept him up all night screaming at each other.

But this is who I think about the most:

She is 22 or 23 years old, and her name is something like Sarah, or Emily, or Marian. This is her first “real” job since graduating college with a marketing degree, and this is only her third week. She still gets up an hour earlier than she has to in order to try on and reject different outfits, chose understated jewelry, and have something resembling an adult breakfast. Her dark hair smells of lavender and she has a French manicure. She arrives at her train stop in plenty of time.

She’s standing next to her new boss’s desk (one of those shiny chrome tables with a heavy glass top) in a tailored navy blue dress and shoes that are just a little uncomfortable, but she’s trying to “dress for the job she wants, not the job she has.” She’s trying to pay attention to everything the boss is saying, but she’s had a bit too much coffee and is twitchy. In fact, her coffee mug—which might have Dilbert, or Ziggy, or Snoopy on it—is still in her hand, complete with a coral-colored lipstick stain.

And the boss is explaining something she needs to do in Excel, or Adobe, or PowerPoint or something, and her mind is jumping around from her work to what color accent pillows to buy for her new living room set to wondering if the vending machine has a Zagnut bar, to how much she really wishes she had worn different shoes. And then she hears the noise, which is now drowning out the boss.

And she looks out the window, bewildered, and lowers her coffee mug. “Hey, Russell,” she interrupts, curiously, “isn’t that plane getting awfully clo—


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