Saturday, September 11, 2021

Looking back on September 11, 2001

On this 20th anniversary of the attacks, many people have been remembering where they were and what they were doing when they heard. Like everyone who was old enough to be aware, I recall that morning very well, even though I was thousands of miles away from the tragedies.

My morning routine at the time is worth noting for how I learned of the news.

I lived alone in a studio apartment. To allow myself to sleep in as late as possible and still get to work on time, I had it down to only the essential actions. When the alarm sounded I'd immediately get up and get in the shower, then brush my teeth, get dressed, run a comb through my hair, grab my bag, and head out to walk to the train station a few blocks away. I'd get something for breakfast after I got to the office, so I had that whole process from waking to out-the-door down to around 35 minutes. 

The key: In that 35 minutes, I did not turn on the TV or even a radio. It was all about getting done as fast as possible, and that would only have been a distraction. (Obviously this was before smartphones and news alerts.)

I walked to the train station unaware of anything happening in the world. While waiting on the platform, someone did say, "Crazy morning, huh?" I recall nodding just to acknowledge but not knowing what the person was referring to. Even then, that was a comment that could be taken a number of ways.

I did have a Walkman-type AM/FM/Cassette player in my bag, and after getting on the train and taking a seat I put on my headphones and tuned in to the Kevin & Bean show on KROQ (something I still did back then). Rather than their usual silliness, their tone was of shock and disbelief. That's how I learned about what had happened: from a rock station's morning show that ordinarily devoted maybe five minutes per hour to actual news.

I listened for a while, trying to take it all in. Then I did what I usually did on the ride, and pulled out a pad of paper and pen, and jotted down thoughts in my journal. I went back and looked at what I wrote that morning, which I offer below not because it is particularly profound or insightful, but as a record of the moment.

Well, the end may now begin.

The only thing anyone will be discussing today is the terrorist attacks of the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Pentagon, just a few hours ago.

I've heard on the radio that they've evacuated the office among a number of other skyscrapers in downtown L.A., even though there has been no threats or acts on the West Coast, as a precaution. I'm continuing in on the train since I'm most of the way there now.

Two hijacked airliners crashed into the towers of the W.T.C. and the entire country has essentially shut down: air traffic grounded, the stock market has halted trading, and just in general, surveying my immediate surroundings, there's a somber pall hanging over everyone; not surprisingly, I have seen no smiles on any faces.

I'm sort of glad to hear some music on the radio now. Listening to the news was getting difficult.

This next section I wrote on the train ride back home. 

I'm now riding back home after walking most of the way to the office, meeting up with a woman who works in the convenience store in the building and with one of the secretaries, both walking from there. The guards are not allowing anyone inside, and apparently they evacuated the building quickly, before H.R. could issue a message.

I stopped by the Burger King on the way to the station. It was crowded, although perhaps that's normal. Still, I think a good number of the patrons were office refugees like myself. The woman behind the register kept telling everyone to have a good day after taking the order, in a dull monotone that bespoke the absurdity of the statement. I sat and ate for a few minutes, glancing out the window. I had nothing but time by then.

The train is full, but again, that may be normal for this time of day. The mood is a bit lighter, but that's probably a matter of the calm after the storm. We've had a little time to digest the news, to realize that terrorists have granted many of us the day off (as it were), to snap back to reality of a sort. The shock of being reminded how fragile our existence is has been replaced by the usual sense of taking it for granted, because it had to.

(On the radio a few minutes ago, playing music as a respite from it all, [the oldies station] pushed it just a bit in a way that I don't think everyone noticed: they ran James Taylor's "Fire and Rain." So? Given the tragedy involved plane crashes, the line "...flying machines in pieces on the ground" could have been less than sensitive.)

Tomorrow we'll go back to pretending life is normal, that we're safe, that everything is okay.

That jaded conclusion was not exactly accurate; we did not go back to pretending life was normal the next day. It was not entirely inaccurate in its sentiment, however; eventually we did return to a normal that was only somewhat like what had been normal. But looking at what I wrote the very next day in my journal, I am reminded I was back to blathering on about my normal inane concerns because I had that luxury. (I did acknowledge it was out of necessity because I needed some mental escape, so it wasn't just pretending nothing had happened; it was a way of dealing with that new normal.)

In a way it's quaint to look back and see how naïve that initial jadedness was, because even as awful as that day was and the days immediately afterward were, in the months and years since then so much got so much worse. But the notion that everything pre-9/11 was hunky dory is a delusion that the intervening decades have helped some of us to better get over. There is perhaps at least that.

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