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Ten Years Ago

September 10, 2011

Since I’ve never really done this, and since this seems like a day for doing such things, here is some writing about what I remember.  I resist sentimental story-telling, and most all self-narration, but I am also an historian, and I appreciate people who leave stories for me so that I can make my own stories out of them, and since I have a story about today that I don’t tell very often and have never written down, this seems like a worthwhile exercise.

Steph and I were living in Arlington,Virginia, about a mile from the Pentagon — we were closer than most, not nearly as close as others to what happened.  We worked in DC a few blocks from one another, so we commuted together (it was pretty much perfect, this arrangement, our first experience living together).  Our building complex had a shuttle to the Pentagon Metro station, driven by a cranky African man named Abraham.  As far as I remember, we caught the shuttle that day; if we missed it (Abraham waited for no one), we would have caught a bus down Columbia Pike (I forget the bus number).

After getting off the shuttle and entering the station, I remember that we ran to catch an Orange line train that morning, because I basically dove onto the train after Steph (she is always, always faster in crowds — once we actually got separated on the way to work in the time it took for the doors to slam shut), and my bag got caught in the door.  The doors had to open a bit to let me get it out, and a Metro officer said something harsh — I don’t remember what — and I said “give me a damn minute”; someone else on the train muttered “you had a minute.”  I did not respond.  These details have nothing at all to do with what happened later, except to say that I’ve always been glad I didn’t cuss more, at the guard or at the other rider, because the rest of the day put such things in perspective.  I saw the guard later, when we resumed commuting through the Pentagon; I don’t know if he counts the asshole rider whose bag got caught among his 9-11 memories.

We went to work, planning to meet for lunch like we always did (like I said, it was a pretty much perfect arrangement).

I worked at the Chronicle of Higher Education, a magazine.  The first words I heard about what was happening were from an eccentric, kind of prickish guy with whom I shared a cubicle wall.  He was on the phone, and he said “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center?” in that surprised, sort of bemused tone I imagine many people used early on that day.  Like him, I first pictured a Cessna or something — a tiny plane crashing into a large building.  I thought of propellers, an accident barely noticed by the building but fatal to an unfortunate, confused pilot.

And immediately after that information started pouring in pretty fast — I worked in an office full of journalists.  For the time span of the actual events, I remember three things:

— My friend Tom (who’s an honest-to-god writer, he wrote this and this and this, you should read them), who sat across from me and who lived even closer to the Pentagon than we did, was on the phone with his wife, who was at home, and she was saying something had happened at the Pentagon, too, and Tom yelled that to me across the aisle that separated us, cupping the phone.  This was the first I ever heard of that part.

— I went to the back of the Chronicle’s offices, where there was a lounge of some sort (this day was the first and last time I was ever in there) and a television, and I watched the towers fall on television, as narrated by Dan Rather.

— In that room, I turned my back to the television and I looked out the window at the pillar of smoke coming from the Pentagon.  This is my second-clearest memory from that day.

I went back to my desk and kept reloading the Post’s web site.  I managed to get Steph on the phone, I think at her work number.  Someone in her office had a sister who worked in one of the towers, and everyone was worried.  The person they were worrying about was already dead.

My sister Jenny called my desk phone.  I’m not sure how she of my family had my work number, but Jenny always calls when things happen, and so this made sense.  She asked if I was okay, which was confusing to me, and then she demanded that I call Mom and Dad.

There is a thing about having never lived in a city which I forgot as soon as I moved to a city, which is that if you’ve never lived in a city it is difficult to conceptualize urban geography, the vast distances between one part of, say, D.C. and another (even a part which is actually in northern Virginia).  Cities, in my parents’ minds, are as compact as dots on a map, and so whatever happens in any one part happens in all parts.  If there is a high crime rate in Chicago, you will get mugged there; if there is flooding in New Orleans, you will drown.  For this reason, they assumed that I was in danger when the Pentagon was struck, while, at my desk across the river on 23rd Street NW, I never felt any personal danger whatsoever.  I had not called them, because I had not realized it mattered, and they were beside themselves.

I called and I remember nothing but my father going quiet and then sobbing.  This was the fourth time in my entire life I had heard this.  It was at this moment that I realized that something very important had happened, that whatever this was, it meant that tomorrow would not be like yesterday.

Steph’s office closed.  Because we were getting no work done and because I wanted to be where she was, I asked permission to leave, and it was granted, with a journalist’s firm reminder that, as far as anyone yet knew, work would resume tomorrow.

We got on the Metro at Foggy Bottom.  Optimistically, I got a bus transfer as we entered the station.  On a normal day, this would be used to get a heavily-discounted bus ride once we left the subway.  Our usual stop was obviously closed, so we got off at Pentagon City, which is basically a shopping mall one stop beyond the Pentagon.  We did not know if Abraham would be coming, and we did not know if the buses were running, so we resolved to walk home from there.  I still have it: a bus transfer from Foggy Bottom good for September 11, 2001.

There was no clear path from Pentagon City to our building — this is a suburb-like area, dominated by overlapping highways and fast-moving traffic.  Steph has a sense of direction, though, and we set off.

I don’t remember exactly how we went, but it must have been something like the line I’ve drawn on the map above.  I know we crossed 395, which was closed to traffic.  We were alone.  The empty highway, the helicopters criss-crossing overhead – it was something out of a disaster movie, or a disaster.  We climbed a fence — not a functional fence, but one of those that extends the concrete barriers between parts of highways.  I helped Steph over and tossed her her bag, and then mine.  I was in the worst shape of my life (by far, still, to this day).  I tried not to tear the clothes I had put on for work that morning.  I struggled to gain purchase on a chain-link fence in the round-toed shoes I was wearing, and I thought of the pig pens I used to scale when I was a child at our fairgrounds, too small to swing my leg over them as I would later, and I remembered how the pointy cowboy boots I used to wear gave better purchase.  We joked that we might get shot at.  This is my most vivid memory of that day.

We got home, and I dead-bolted the door, and even then I felt silly — as if our apartment’s deadbolt had any relevance at all to what had happened.

We watched the news, eventually we slept.

And on September 12, we got the fuck up and we went to work.

I wish I could say that with complete pride, but if Steph’s office had closed, I would have stayed home, too.  I was young enough to just crassly want a day off work, but I was also scared; I didn’t want to go anywhere.  But I did.  Abraham drove the shuttle to Pentagon City instead of the Pentagon, as he would for quite some time, and I swallowed hard and I got on a subway train, a crowded, enclosed space where now everyone was a potential terrorist, where at any moment, I imagined, someone could blow to pieces everything I was and everything I had ever wanted to be.  And we rode that train to work, that day, and the next, and the day after that.   And I am proud of that.

Of the next period, I remember little that is likely to be different from everyone’s memories — patriotism, jingoism, confusion.  The Onion.

On September 12, there was a military humvee visible from the intersection where Steph and I usually parted to go to our separate offices.  By the time we got used to it, it was gone.

The highway the shuttle and the buses took from Pentagon City curved upward over other streets, cresting a hill that gave riders a clear view of the Pentagon.  One day when I took the bus and we were stopped at a traffic light on that rise, a woman sitting across from me and to my right quietly started sobbing.  That pretty much sums up the period for me.

A year later, I moved to Chicago, just as the repair work on the Pentagon was about finished, and Steph came the next year.

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