- September 11, 2002-
This space is typically reserved for technology-related discussions, but I thought the enormity of this day warranted a break in form. Before I begin, though, allow me to issue a big, fat disclaimer: I am a very lucky man. I have family and friends that care for and support me. We all have our health, relative financial security, and generally do not want for anything. What passes for stress in our daily lives is nothing more than the atrophy that sets in from years of living the good life in a relatively carefree world.
That being said, please do not misread this essay as a complaint, a cry for sympathy, or one of those “brush with disaster” stories that people tell at cocktail parties, as if almost dying somehow increases their social status (“So I’m stopped at a stop sign, and this maniac comes plowing through the intersection and causes a 5 car pileup. If I’d left the house thirty seconds earlier that morning, I’d have been killed!” Congratulations, buddy – can I get your autograph?).
This is none of those things. It is simply a collection of thoughts that have been building inside my head over the past year. It’s been a rough year, of course, but no rougher for me than for any other American, and certainly much less rough than 2,800 of my neighbors.
A Little Background
I should start by pointing out that I’ve been a consultant to the financial services industry in New York for the past eleven years. Consultants tend to change offices every few months, moving from client to client and project to project. Given my clientele, it’s no surprise that I’ve spent the majority of those eleven years in and around the Wall Street area, including two stints in the World Trade Center. I worked in Building Five for about twelve months in 1998-1999, and before that, on the 29th floor of the South Tower for about six months in 1992-1993.
My last day in the South Tower was February 26, 1993 – the day we now refer to retrononymously as the “first bombing.” My colleagues and I escaped that day with little or no injury, and looking back, I’m now ashamed to admit that it became my own personal “brush with disaster” story for many years.
The effect of having been there, though, crystallized on September 11, 2001. Telling and re-telling the story over the years has kept it fresh in my mind, and I’ve picked up a lot of trivial factoids about the bombing and about the building itself. Returning there after the bombing, whether as a consultant, a commuter, a consumer, or just a guy out for a quick lunch, I was always acutely aware of my surroundings. If I’m riding an escalator and it stops for some reason, I groan and start walking the rest of the way up. If it happens to be one of those enormous escalators leading from the WTC PATH station to the concourse level, though, there’s a moment of panic (“What’s going on?!?”) followed by the calm realization that everything’s just fine, and a brief memory of 2/26/93. Then, of course, comes the groan and the subsequent walk.
2/26/93 also linked me to the World Trade Center in the minds of many of my family and friends. Over the years, I would get the calls and e-mails – “Brian - I read there was a power outage at the World Trade Center today. Are you OK?” “Yes,” would be the reply, “I’m working on Wall Street now, several blocks away. Thanks for the concern.” During the evening of September 11, my phone rang off the hook, both with people who knew me well enough to know that I could be working anywhere on any given day, and with people who I haven’t spoken to in years, who just assumed that I still worked there, since I was there in 1993.
The Day I’ll Never Forget
September 11, 2001 was our generation’s Pearl Harbor and Kennedy Assassination all rolled into one. Pearl Harbor, of course, because it was a surprise attack that killed many Americans and galvanized the nation’s patriotism. Kennedy Assassination because everyone who is a certain age today (21? 18? 12?!?) will be able to tell their grandchildren exactly where they were on that day, and exactly what they were doing when they heard the news.
Of course, today’s date reminds me of that fateful day. Ironically, though, it brings to mind another day I’ll never forget: October 22, 2001. I’m guessing that many New Yorkers have a day like this, although the date is different for everyone, the media never writes about it, and there will be no commemorative service to mark it’s anniversary. October 22, 2001 was the day I went back to the World Trade Center. More specifically, it was the first time I went to that place we now refer to as Ground Zero.
The range of emotions I felt on that day took me completely by surprise. September 11th was frenzied and panicked – an enormous effort by an entire society to deal with the short-term and long-term effects of a horrible tragedy. October 22nd was deliberate and personal – a few hours alone with my own thoughts in a place I’d been thousands of times before, but was visiting for the first time.
What follows is an attempt to catalog what I felt on that day, in roughly the order I felt it.
The First Reaction - Disorientation
I stood on the corner of Broadway and Dey Street, in front of 195 Broadway, where I worked for two years in 1994-1995, and faced south. To my left was Lower Manhattan, just as it had been for more than a decade – delis, fast food joints, touristy chachka shops. To my right was one of those war-torn cities you channel surf past on CNN – fires burning, men in hard hats and bright orange vests, soldiers in camouflage uniforms with rifles keeping the peace.
The effect was startling. To the left, New York. To the right, Beirut. To the left, the Wall Street McDonalds. To the right, Sarajevo. I spent several minutes trying to get used to it and then gave up. The street signs were gone. Heck – the streets themselves were gone, replaced with staging areas, ramps for heavy equipment, medical tents, etc. Every conceivable landmark and context clue I had used to orient myself in that area had either been destroyed or taken down to make room for some critical service. I found myself wandering back and forth along Broadway, trying to remember the names of the streets and what was on them. I don’t suppose I’ll ever experience anything like it again in my lifetime.
The Second Reaction - Community
It’s been said many, many times before, but the people who run New York City are simply astounding. When night fell on September 11th, the entire area was illuminated with floodlights in order to assist in the rescue effort. As if by magic, chain link fences went up around the site within 24 hours and soon after that, long rolls of paper lined the fences for people to write messages, place photos of loved ones, leave flowers and light candles. I don’t know who makes this stuff happen, but I do know that they never get thanked.
Standing among the crowd at these fences, I suddenly found myself among friends. People who had never met before were telling each other the intimate details about who they had lost, how they got there, and why they had come. They hugged, cried, and comforted each other. When they left, they said goodbye the way you say goodbye to a close relative at an airport. They had only met a few minutes earlier, but they were sad to see them go.
One woman had driven from California. Her daughter had been in one of the towers and had escaped unharmed, but the thought of how close she came to losing her made her want to see the site for herself. She drove across the country because she couldn’t bring herself to set foot on an airplane. “One day, but not yet,” she told me. Another woman brought her camera. She told us she had brought it so she’d never forget what she saw, but now realized that she didn’t need the camera for that. She took pictures anyway, so that her unborn children would understand what happened. Someone pointed out that the pictures wouldn’t do it justice. “Thank God,” I told them. Another man flew in from London. He hadn’t known anyone in the building and had no other reason to be in New York. “I can’t explain it - I just needed to be here,” he told me.
The Third Reaction – Anger & Resolve
It occurred to me at one point that I had not gotten angry. Having seen the destruction on television, I had expected to feel rage when I got there, but it didn’t happen. When I realized this, I felt a strange sort of guilt and tried to force the feeling. “%@#*! you, Bin Laden,” I thought to myself, but the feeling wouldn’t stick. Instead, I couldn’t help but think, “This will not stand.”
There was just no way our country or our leaders were going to allow something like this to happen without exacting retribution to our own satisfaction. Think what you will about the war against terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, or a war in Iraq. At that moment, staring at the burning rubble, it all seemed very clear. It didn’t need to be fair. It didn’t need discussion or debate. We were going to find “them” and destroy “them.” We were going to make sure this kind of thing would never, ever happen again. And we alone were going to determine when we were finished. Period. The rest of the world could help us or get the hell out of our way.
I was in college during the Gulf War. At the time, the USENET groups were hopping with discussions about a possible draft, and how one went about signing up for or avoiding military service. At the time, I remember thinking how inconceivable it would be to leave my family and friends to go overseas so someone from another country could shoot at me. That kind of thing took a level of bravery that just didn’t seem to be within me. On October 22nd, I think I finally understood it. That’s not to say I felt capable of it myself, but I finally understood how patriotism could run so deep that people would give their lives for their country. It was, all at once, an inspiring and terrifying feeling.
The Fourth & Lasting Reaction – Hope
At this point, my ten minute visit to Ground Zero had lasted more than two hours. As my mind continued to wander, an entire series of thoughts hit me all at once. It was an epiphany that put my mind at rest and made it possible for me to leave the site and go back to work. And it’s these thoughts that I carry with me to this day:
One day, these brave men and women will finish cleaning up this debris. There will probably be a small ceremony, and then they’ll all go home to their families and a well-deserved rest. This will be a sad day, but an important milestone. What will follow will be a healthy, although sometimes frustrating, debate about what to build on this site, but one day, the debate will also come to an end. On that day, the world will know what the new World Trade Center will look like. That will be a good day. Soon after, there will be a groundbreaking ceremony. A politician or a firefighter or a victim’s relative will shovel a pile of dirt or lay a ceremonial brick, and construction on the new complex will begin. That will also be a good day. Many years later, construction will complete. There will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Past, present and future politicians, firefighters, police officers, emergency workers, victims’ family members and their kin will be there. Someone will say something inspiring about the perseverance of New York and of America and cut the ribbon. That will be a very good day.
Soon after that will come the best day of all. On that day, I will walk through a doorway and stand inside the new World Trade Center. I may do so as a businessman on the way to a meeting, or as a commuter on the way to work, or as a tourist coming to visit the memorial, eat at the restaurants, or shop at the stores. I may do it alone, or I may do it with my wife and children. Maybe it will be a cloudless, beautiful day like September 11, 2001. And maybe a plane will fly overhead. And maybe, just maybe, I won’t notice.
Epilogue – The Music
Music provides a soundtrack for our lives. When we think back on this past year, one memory we will all share is the music that accompanied the healing process. We will remember our congressmen standing on the steps of the capitol singing “God Bless America.” We’ll remember particular performances from the Tribute to Heroes concert, the Concert for New York City, and others.
On October 22, 2002, quite a bit of music went through my head. One song stuck out, though. It’s a song I hadn’t thought about in years, and one you wouldn’t think would lend itself to such an occasion, but it sums up just about everything I thought about that day.
The song is called “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday.” It was written by Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams III, and recorded by Dave Goelz, the voice of Gonzo in Jim Henson’s The Muppet Movie, circa 1979. Here are the lyrics:
This looks familiar, vaguely familiar,
Sun rises, night falls, sometimes the sky calls.
Come and go with me, it's more fun to share,
There's not a word yet for old friends who've just met.
And, if the copyright gods will forgive me one small transgression, here is the audio.
God Bless America.