observations and opinion
Each of our September 11th recollections is both enthralling and a little dull. Dull because we all know the story – all our stories follow the same arc of first hearing, fright, and the sickening horror as it unfolded. Enthralling because we all felt it and to some degree, feel it still.
I missed the whole thing, trapped in a hearing room in downtown Toronto arguing about whether a particular security guard was, or was not, a “supervisor” under the law. If he was management, he wouldn’t be part of the union. If he was just another security guard, he would pay dues. The union wanted him in, the company wanted him out. The stakes were more symbolism than substance, the proceedings calm and civilized.
Around 10:30 am we took a break. The union’s lawyer, a guy I had known a very long time (also named David) was a tea drinker. “I’m going down to the coffee shop, do you want a tea?” I asked him. He said yes and stayed behind, while I went alone to the lobby. In line, I pulled out my stubby black cell phone and called Sylvie, a junior. The case was not going well and there were cases I wanted to look at. Sylvie would dig them up, read and then reiterate their gist to me. That was the plan anyway. The plan evaporated when she came on the line.
“Have you seen the news?” She said. She sounded nervous. I had not, of course, I was in a hearing. And then she told me. Just like you, I can remember the spot I was standing on – could mark it out with chalk on the linoleum if we could be there now. She told me, and I had the vague sensation of being on the back of a train, as it pulled away from the station. Everything I knew grew smaller, as we picked up speed.
“The Palestinians are taking credit” she said. I shuddered. An ugly vision of annihilation seared my mind. This was the first of much misinformation shrapnel I would be pierced with during the hours (and years) to follow.
A very peculiar idea entered my head, as I carried the cardboard cup of tea up the elevator. I was the only one who knew. Everyone else in our case was still upstairs (and people weren’t constantly checking their phones for news back then). Perhaps we should just carry on with the case – the witness was almost done, after all. Coming off the elevator another thought creased my brain: even if we proceed and I’m the only one who knows, will I be able to concentrate? And how will people feel when they learn that I kept this news a secret?
That did it. I told them. But just as the story was just words to me, so too it was only words to them. It sounded crazy, but none of us had seen it. We weren’t witness to anything. The lawyers and Board chair debated for a moment and then decided, oh well, nothing to be done – let’s keep going with the hearing. And so, in a weird magic bubble of law and formality, we resumed the case – I with my coffee, David with his tea, the security guard, sipping his glass of water while answering questions. For a time – was it 30 minutes, an hour – we sat suspended from the world, as if playing cards in the kitchen during a tornado.
The bubble burst soon enough, when Patricia (who ran the place) knocked on our door, popped her head in and said “Excuse me, but we are evacuating the building. They’re evacuating the whole downtown.” With that, we were done. We jammed files into rolling black litigation bags and those of us from out of town huddled in Patricia’s office, trying to use her computer and phone to find a train ticket or a rental car. It was hopeless. By mid-day September 11th, the planes were all grounded and anything with wheels was sold out. The only thing that was easy to find was a hotel room – after all, nobody was arriving. So I was stranded there, away from home, my wife, the baby.
My client found a ride home with his brother in law. His security guard company was already get calls from new customers. They’re still calling, fifteen years later.
I walked down the hushed downtown streets back to my hotel. They were glad to have another customer. In the room, no phones worked. All the lines were jammed. I kept the TV off – somehow I was not prepared to witness alone, what the whole world had already seen. Only later at the Madison pub, with a friend, did I see the replay – the buildings, the second jet, the fireball – and when I gasped “Oh my God!” The whole bar turned to look at me, as if I had just landed from some other planet.
I had. I had, in that moment, travelled from the world we knew before to the world we know now. That’s what happened to us all, when the second plane hit.
That night I went to friends. We ate. I do not recall the discussion. We watched Bush’s speech. It was curiously flat, dull and had a lazy feel to it – I remember a sense of disappointment with him, a sense that never abated in the years to follow. He was a small man whose house had just fallen over – he spent the next seven years in shock, brushing dust off his pant knees.
Around ten o’clock, a cab came – there were plenty of cabs, nobody was out – and we rolled back downtown in a silence that felt more like 4 am. The driver was Kurdish (I recognized the language on the radio). He was visibly tense, and I wondered – probably accurately – if being a brown Middle Eastern man had suddenly become more of a burden to him that day. Finally, we spoke to each other, and he uttered what were ultimately, the defining words of 9/11:
“If they want to die” he said, his throat choked with rage, “let’s go kill them where THEY live!”
It made sense to me that night, it made sense to millions in the days and months and years to come. It made sense. It still makes sense. But it just doesn’t seem to be working.