On September 11th, 2001, I got to work around 9:40. I'd spent a miserable Sunday after an unexpected break up with my boyfriend on Saturday. He was the 2nd DC boyfriend, a fellow who worked in a different office at my federal agency. I brought my suitcase to work because I was taking a business trip to Trenton, NJ that afternoon (it was canceled, eventually).
In the morning, I listened to the news, as usual. There was something about a plane and the World Trade Center, but it didn't register. I thought it was a little plane that had flown off course. I knew the story about the WWII plane that hit the Empire State Building. I thought it must be something like that. An accident.
When I got to work, my then officemate, TR, was upset. He said, "Did you hear? Did you hear about the plane in New York?" I said I'd heard something, but I was sure it was nothing. I thought, "He's overreacting. Why is he making such a big deal about this?"
Then the news started rolling in. Jen in Chapel Hill sent me email making sure I was ok. As soon as I realized the magnitude of what had happened, I wrote back and asked her to call my mother and tell her I was fine. I'd tried and the lines were jammed. Half of our building has a great view of the Potomac and people saw the plane crash into the Pentagon.
We decided to leave. There was no announcement, no official word. The next day, we were told that there hadn't been an evacuation, but an orderly dismissal. It was orderly, but there was nothing official about it. Just a strong feeling that the last place you wanted to be was in a government building in Washington DC. I later said that our building might have been the safest place in the city, given the relative obscurity of our agency. Then again, some films use our building as a stand-in for the FBI, so maybe not.
Before we left the office I took my dissertation files, some disks and the laptop I was borrowing for my trip and stuffed all of it into my not-very-full suitcase. I had this idea I would do some work at home or at TR's (where we were going).
I've been asked why I took all my papers with me. It's what I would have done if I were leaving a burning house. The dissertation was the most important thing in my life. I had no idea when they would let us back in the building. I was not going to risk losing access to that work for an extended period of time. It was quite rational and completely irrational. We were back to work the next day, though I don't think anyone got anything done for weeks. The next day, TR and I spent the entire time talking about what had happened. It wasn't the only day like that.
I was ready to go. We took an intern with us who was worried about getting back to her place in Arlington. On the street, we ran into Calvin Dane. That was the first long conversation I had with him. He was walking home to Columbia Heights and we were walking to Capitol Hill, so we were only together for about 10 minutes.
There was no way I was going home alone. I couldn't imagine it. Sitting alone, all day, worrying and watching tv. Spending the day at TR's, watching tv, worrying and playing with TR's twin babies seemed like a much better idea.
The sidewalks were full. It was almost a party atmosphere. There was friendly chatting like on a snow day. Rumors swirled all around--there was plane heading towards the White House, the Old Executive Office Building was on fire. Couldn't you see the smoke? Everyone was on edge, scared, suspicious. But we were all in the same boat.
I told TR that DC boyfriend #2 and I had broken up over the weekend. "Oh, I'm so sorry! How are you doing?"
"I have to say, I'm not all that upset about it right now. I just thought you should know." Somehow, the thought of possibly tens of thousands of people dying in a terrorist attack softened the blow of losing a boyfriend who I'd been fighting with for six months of a nine month relationship.
When we got to TR's, Anne, his wife, was happy to see us. She had some macaroni and cheese ready and the tv was on. I spent the rest of the day playing with the one-year-old twins, watching the tv and trying to get a hold of B1 (my oldest brother, who lived in Manhattan) and DC boyfriend #2, who I wanted to talk to, despite our change in status. September 11th did have the effect of delaying a complete break with him.
I heard from my dad that B1 was fine and all other NY relatives were fine. I talked to Mom, who had gotten Jen's call and was spared some worry. When I finally reached B1 he didn't seem to understand why I was calling. His office is half a mile from Ground Zero, but he'd never left the house that morning. He stayed home with my niece and my sister-in-law turned around and came home as soon as she got to work. They were fine.
I didn't get any work done on my dissertation that day.
I walked the mile home around 7pm and found myself unable to turn off the tv.
For weeks, it was all anyone could talk about. Within the first five or ten minutes of a conversation, we had to share our September 11th stories. Living in DC left me feeling like we were the center of a bull's-eye, even though DC wasn't actually attacked. I went to the movies that week with Pele and C-money. C-money had just moved to DC a month earlier and he wondered what he was doing here. "Of all the places to be--DC! Chapel Hill is looking pretty good right now." I knew what he meant. But he stayed and so have I.
Things slowly got back to normal, though there were more guards around the Capitol. I saw barriers built and roads closed on my walk to work, which took me past the Capitol building. Security at work was tightened and employees (not just visitors) were required to walk through a metal detector and place our bags in the x-ray machine upon entry.
But now? What makes me think about 9/11? Hurricane Katrina does, because all new disasters, plane crashes, and unexpected events will be filtered by that one shattering moment. I never realized how safe and complacent I was living in the US. I'm grateful that sometimes I forget and think I'm still living in the old world. On that day, I thought things had changed forever--that I would never feel the same. But sometimes I do. Usually I do. It's not possible to stay in that miserable place 100% of the time. We're just not built that way. Isn't that for the best?
Grateful for: a sense of security (even if it's false).