Thursday, September 11, 2014

Throwback Thursday

I was one of many just like me.  Mid-to-late 20s, with a recent law degree and a job at a large law firm downtown - offices at 10th and Pennsylvania, halfway between the White House and the Capitol, with plenty of marble and dark wood.

I was just starting my second year at the firm, which meant that I:
  1. still didn't know what I was doing but
  2. now had to fake it for the incoming first years while
  3. feeling very insecure about the fact I didn't know what I was doing.

(I later learned that no one ever really knows what they're doing - the antidote to imposter syndrome is realizing that it's universal.  At least among the sane.)

I had shown up fairly early for work, around 8:30 am.   For the DC outpost of an NYC law firm, this WAS early.  Generally those firms didn't get rolling until 10 or so.  But I was there early, driven by a naive brew of type A personality, billable hours, student debt, and a first AND second mortgage.

I was both driven and easily distracted, and so the email telling me that the New York office's email was down right now pulled me away for a second.  And then I turned back, only to have my friend Melissa call me on the interoffice line to ask if I'd heard about the plane that had flown into the Trade Center.  Wow, no I hadn't.  Crazy thing.  Are planes really that hard to steer?

But I had lots of work to do, so I turned back to my monitor.  I wasn't concentrating well, though.  I was tired and my eyes hurt, and I kept looking out my office window into the beautiful day, staring at the FBI building right on the other side of 10th street.


You know how it goes from there.  Most of us have some variation of a common theme  - watching TVs at work or school, video replays of Katie Couric and Matt Lauer and burning towers.  Just like everyone else, my concentration was shot, so I switched to a mindless non-billable task (I think I was organizing my desk), while listening to the local 24 hour news station - WTOP.

The normally cheery chat was somber and discombobulated.  Chaotic.  (They did, however, doggedly persist with "traffic and weather on the eights").  More reports - smoke rising from the Pentagon; car bombings around DC targeting various government buildings. The State Department had been damaged by a car bomb; there were a few scattered reports that the Capitol and IRS had been bombed also. 

The IRS building was just across Pennsylvania Avenue from my building - certainly close enough that I would have felt it (and that's an understatement) if if had been bombed.  So I was sure that was untrue.  But I also realized that my downtown DC office sandwiched between several high profile federal buildings was not a safe place to be.

So I was leaving.  No announcement had been made about whether the office was closing or not, but I didn't care.  My friends Jacqueline and Melissa were leaving also - each of us packed a box of work to take home and met in the hall.  We weren't the only ones doing so.


I had debated briefly whether to walk home or drive my car (I lived two miles away).  I took my car - as the reports on WTOP grew more scary and chaotic, I realized that I might need to evacuate DC - if so, I'd want to have my car as an option.

So down to the garage we went.  (I remember that we debated whether to take the stairs or the elevator; I don't remember which one we chose.)  I was giving Melissa a ride home to her place in Cleveland Park; Jacqueline lived in Alexandria, and thus had no way to get home - all bridges from DC into Virginia were apparently closed, and Metro was shut down as well.  So she'd come home with me, and then figure out next steps.

My car was on the lowest level of the garage, which meant no radio reception.  No problem - it usually took about 2 minutes or less to get out onto the street and then we'd hear the news again.

But not this time.  Unsurprisingly, everyone in the building had made the same decision about the same time I did, and was leaving.  Even given the volume of cars, it seemed ridiculous how slowly we moved.  Far worse than any post-concert traffic I'd experienced.

We sat down there, in my car, underground, tense.  The last we had heard was that buildings were being bombed - what if they bombed a building next to us while we were trapped down here?  Why was traffic moving so slowly?  What was going on in the streets above?  We just didn't know. 

I was surprised at how little panic I felt.  There's a certain resigned peace that's the next step beyond fear - it was a strange emotion to feel.

Finally, after 45 painful minutes, we reached the surface, and saw that the delay was capitalistically mundane.  The parking company had NOT simply thrown the gates open as I had assumed they would.  Instead, each person had to swipe their parking card or a credit card before leaving.  And since the card machines were failing repeatedly, many people were having to give a credit card number to an attendant (who clearly didn't want to be there) to write down.

It was a triumph of process over common sense.  And one of the stupidest things I've ever seen.


But, we were out, into the sunshine, finally.  I didn't know what we'd see when we emerged into the light, except I was sure there would be traffic - this was DC, after all.  And there was.  The volume of cars equaled a normal rush hour, but there the similarities ended.  Nobody cared about red lights or turn signs or medians any more; we drove on the sidewalks and ran or walked in the streets.  Everyone just wanted out.

One way signs were apparently decorations now, though traffic did seem slightly thicker on the "correct direction" streets.  So I picked one of the wrong way streets - again, expediency.  Even then, it was still a slow crawl.  And the sights were crazy.

We could see smoke in a big diffuse cloud to the south east, and WTOP was reporting that the Pentagon had been bombed.  Or maybe a plane had flown into it.  No one knew.  I didn't know whether the smoke was coming from the Pentagon or the National Mall, and in the end it really didn't matter.  We were leaving.

Pedestrians were tapping on car windows, asking to be let in.  Armed men in combat gear with rifles were running, military trucks as their back drop - where the HELL did all this stuff come from?  Where did they keep it?  It was surreal to see the military presence, though in retrospect it would have been more concerning if they weren't there.

What really struck me was that in the midst of all this chaos, the figures of authority weren't focused on us at all.  In a US city, when you encounter chaos, you expect those in uniforms to be instilling order.  Directing traffic, setting up police tape, etc.   Not here.  This wasn't police, this was military, and they didn't care about me other than that I was in the way.  For the first time in my very sheltered life, I was in an active military zone.


After a bit of creative driving, we were home.  Cell phones were mostly useless with the networks overloaded, but Jacqueline had managed to get a call through to her boyfriend, Andrew.  Melissa and I gave him contact numbers for our families, and he called each of them to let them know we were OK.

Then Jacqueline and I sat and watched TV (I didn't have internet at my home).   The chaotic stories coalesced into the one you know today - there was no State Department bombing.  Or any car bombs at all.  Just planes and targets.  But we still didn't know what would happen next.  Was this just the first wave?  Who was doing this?

Metro opened up again an hour or so after we got home, and Jacqueline decided to try to see if she could get back to Alexandria.  It wasn't the smartest choice - we didn't know what was happening next, and she was arguably safer in Dupont than trying to go back through downtown.  But she wanted to go home.  And I understood - had our roles been swapped, I would have done the same.

Working with horses, you learn the true horror of barn fires.  Horses see their stalls as places of safety, and refuse to leave as the barn burns, even though safety is a few yards away.  That characteristic is true of people too - in the end, we're all mammals, and crave the safety of our dens.  I packed go bags for myself and Mina, my cat - if DC was being targeted, then my Dupont Circle condo, less than 2 miles from the White House, wasn't the best place to stay.  But, I didn't want to leave unless I really had to - though not the safest place, home was where I felt most secure.


So I watched TV, Mina in my lap.  I'm an introvert, and loneliness is rare for me.   I like being alone; sometimes I need it.  But, for one of the few times in my life, I was truly lonely.  All I wanted was someone to hug me and tell me everything was going to be alright.

I hate lies.  But this one time, it would have been OK.

But I had no one to lie to me, so instead I petted Mina, mindlessly, and she purred.


Finally, I decided I needed to get out.  It was late afternoon, with no more reports of attacks.   So I grabbed my discman and walked over to Georgetown.  Every storefront and restaurant that I walked past was closed.  Despite that fact, the pedestrian traffic was heavy.  I think everyone craved the same as myself - fresh air and others.

On M Street, military stood guard at many of the intersections, with faces that were indescribably severe.  Traffic laws were being mostly followed now - lights were working, cars were keeping to the streets and pedestrians to the sidewalk (well, as much as they ever do in Georgetown).

I walked through Georgetown, to the Key Bridge, and stood there, one in a crowd.  For a long time,  we watched the smoke rise from the Pentagon.  Then I walked home.


I slept that night fully dressed, with WTOP at a low volume, and the cat carrier/go bag/car keys prepped.  In retrospect, that seems like an overreaction, but it didn't seem so at the time.  Throughout the afternoon and evening I had spoken to a lot of my friends - we were all fine.  No one was on one of the planes, or at the Pentagon.  Several of my friends were planning on leaving town for a cabin they had in the Shenandoah, called the "Mountainhaus."  They invited me to come, but I opted to stay in DC and wait things out.  And thought about horses in burning barns.

Of course, nothing did happen.  But the next days were far from normal.  Stores remained closed, troops remained on the streets, no planes flew.  The movement towards "normalcy" was tentative and slow.  It took a day or two for most stores and offices to reopen, longer for planes to fly again.   After some debate (including plans to turn it into a shopping mall) a few weeks later National Airport was reopened.

But things were still different.  And it wasn't just the more militarized feel, or the evacuation plans everyone drafted up, or the US flags that were everywhere, bridges, restaurants, night clubs.  It was the sense that risk was the new normal.

A bit later somebody started stuffing envelopes with anthrax.  I didn't bat an eye, just checked the "from" address before opening my mail.   More than a year later, some people started driving a reported "white van" around DC, assassinating normal everyday people as they pumped gas or left restaurants or mowed lawns.  I shrugged my shoulders as I learned to duck and run when going to the grocery store, and to stay in my car as much as possible when pumping gas.  

Whatever, this was the new normal.


There was one aspect of the new normal that made my skin crawl, though.  The inescapable social phenomena of the 9/11 confessional.  Someone would bring up 9/11, and everyone would go silent for a moment.  Then another person would describe how they heard, where they were.  That was the cue for everyone, one by one, to describe their experience.

Like some twisted therapy group, we went round in turn.  Eventually, when everyone had told their story, we'd be silent another moment, and then the conversation would turn.  I hated the predictability and the self-absorption and the indirect attempts to one-up each other with patriotism or loss or proximity, even as I participated.

I'm not crazy about the fact that I'm writing this now.


So why did I write this very long post?

In the years since, I've become a bit of a local history buff - I love seeing pictures of local places from 100 years ago, or even 30.  I don't really care about the monuments or the iconic stuff - there's always tons of photos of those.  But it's really cool to see a picture of a local storefront or bridge or trail from 10 or 20 or 100 years ago.  And I wouldn't get to see those if someone hadn't taken the picture.   In a way, this is my attempt to do the same.

My experience was nothing special.  I was one of many ciphers (and very aware of such that day).   But the documentation and discussion of that day has always seemed to me to focus on the major parts - the videos of planes crashing, stuff burning, buildings falling, dust billowing, families crying.  It's parallel to photographers focusing on the major landmarks.  My experience is the equivalent of the local storefront.  Not particularly notable.  No one really cares right now, nor should they.  If you've made it this far, congrats :). 

But maybe, some day, someone will be glad I documented what I saw and heard and felt.

Also, it's been over 10 years now, and my memories are rusting.  Did I really see armored trucks on Pennsylvania Avenue?  Or is it an image stuck in my mind because I saw it on the news or someone described it?  Is my mind exaggerating (or downplaying) the military presence downtown?  Were we silent on the Key Bridge as we watched the Pentagon burn?  Or were we speaking quietly?  Chatting? Was someone maybe telling jokes?  Were they at least funny jokes?

I can't remember now.  And I'll remember less next year.  And the year after that.  Better to write it now.

All I know is that my memory now is what it is.  Hopefully not too different from how it was.  And now it's here.

1 comment:

  1. Very good post, and interesting to read your perspective. This paragraph hits home: "There was one aspect of the new normal that made my skin crawl, though. The inescapable social phenomena of the 9/11 confessional. Someone would bring up 9/11, and everyone would go silent for a moment. Then another person would describe how they heard, where they were. That was the cue for everyone, one by one, to describe their experience."
    As a New Orleanian, this happens with Katrina stories. Always, every gathering, the Katrina stories come out. And now I know why that bugs me - it's like a contest for "who lost the most".
    Today remains a somber day and I hope it doesn't become a national holiday, to evolve into picnics and four-day weekends. I'd rather remember on a regular workday, just like when the planes hit.