11 Sept 01
Today: a day for doing what you can.
It’s all you can do.
I did what I could today, doing my job and helping people and touching base with my family, and now I’m regrouping before bed.
I’ll need that. The world shifted today.
You almost need the visual language of movies to grasp the enormity of what happened today. Four planes, all big, hijacked. Two of them flying into the World Trade Center towers, killing who knows how many people [casualties weren’t known yet] and mortally wounding two of the biggest buildings in the world. Another plane spearing the Pentagon, piercing all five buildings [incorrect; it’s what I thought at the time] on one side and killing perhaps hundreds. A fourth plane crashing in rural Pennsylvania.
Innocent people, then brave people, lost. The mind-bending sight of two 110-story towers falling in on themselves. It caused a sound so immense that news cameras’ microphones cut out, unable to handle the noise.
Simple: we’ve never seen anything like this. An attack this big, this well-covered – video angle after video angle – and this quickly spread around the world.
The world reacted. It had to. Millions of people were hit in the gut by the news. Shock, yes; sadness, yes; anger, yes; but also elation, from radicals who delighted in seeing the world’s most powerful nation – in fact and in ego – wounded. Which is a reaction that breeds more anger. Which can get out of control.
You almost have to react with a knee-jerk, when a mental shock like this is almost physical in its impact. But we need to do far, far better than that. Fortitude: we need fortitude. One analyst speaking on today’s endless special reports evoked the Blitz, and there’s something very – right about the comparison: sudden destruction from the air, from an ensconced enemy. Can we do as the British did? They refused to be bulldozed by the terror attacks; they rallied. I hope we can do the same.
Meanwhile, I – and Mom and Dad and T.J. Cindy (OK, thank all) and the rest of my family and friends – absorb the event, its impact. I did not wake up to the news, I can say: I awoke early, and was simply resting – and gearing up for an already-scheduled extra day of work – when KINK FM’s morning people reported the first news. [That’s not 100% accurate. To be clearer, they didn’t start reporting the news until after the second plane had hit the tower, so I never heard the initial “plane accident at the World Trade Center” reports.] I was awake: the better – just a little better – for processing that news.
I did make decisions before leaving for work: 1) don’t watch too much of the coverage – take it in doses; 2) do go to work, and be both as professional and as gentle as possible.
I mostly did that. There were a lot of problems on the phones today, with a huge call-load, some fraud calls and some massively confused customers – but there was a lot of concern and thoughtfulness, and thanks. One woman had a friend in downtown Manhattan, near the pandemonium; another woman was recharging the phone card of someone she knew, because he was near as well. One, perhaps from abroad but living in Potomac, Maryland, said “I’m so sorry for this international incident.” I told him “I appreciate the sentiment. I appreciate the thought.” I added, “We’ll do what we can. Hope you do what you can.”
There was civilness like that. There also were moments where I came close to losing it, came close to needing to leave the phones and go somewhere and cry again, like this morning…but each time I rallied, and focused – task at hand, task at hand – and did my job.
But I did get cross with some difficult people, the ones who to do extra questioning, who were almost suspicious. Today, I thought, but didn’t say, is NOT the day to get short with me. This happened on maybe three calls, but it burned me. I made sure to take breaks and walk and get fresh air. I walked to Pioneer Courthouse Square, lunch in hand – leftover chicken [my then-housemate] Antonio had bought – and saw the scene. Flags at half-mast. A communal circle of people in the middle of the square. The papers, most already out of date – except the special edition Oregonian. There was nothing, NOTHING, above the fold except the headline and sub-head…nothing but words. It felt like World War II-era tabloids. Never, in my entire life in this visual age, had I seen a contemporary paper present the news in such a way. Perhaps this was meant to keep the photos below the fold – the images were already screaming at us, in their intensity and ugliness – plus, after all, sometimes words are powerful enough: “Horrific attacks devastate U.S.” That covered half of the front page.
With shock, again, comes reaction – sometimes odd, sometimes a little off. There can be humor, too: grim humor. I saw a hand-lettered sign at the Pioneer Courthouse Square Starbucks announcing that, for the day, all Starbucks employees nationwide had been sent home. My thought: You know something is big when Starbucks closes.
Later, I drove to [my cousin] Stephanie’s house in North Portland. I had driven to work – after driving Antonio to work as a favor (plus stopping at a diner for breakfast, which he paid for as his favor) – and used my car to get to her neighborhood to see if she was back from work.
I had to remember: She works at a school. She deals with kids all day. She had to help them through it. She had to be concerned and conscientious and ready to hold hands. She might need someone to hold her hand after that.
Looks like someone did that, whether her roommates or her boyfriend [now husband] Paul. I didn’t reach Steph today, though I drove over and also called later (mainly to let her know TJ and Cindy were OK and home). But I did meet others in the house, the woman Inger and the man Scott. Both had been absorbing the news; Scott had watched all day. I said it was, obviously, a lot to take.
“Yes,” said Scott, “definitely a great disturbance in the Force.”
“As if thousands of voices cried out in terror…” Inger added.
This is how I and my peers communicate.
A lot of this afternoon and evening I spent calling on people: on the phone and in person. Mom was first, leaving me a message from where she and Dad were camping at Crater Lake. They knew the news, but weren’t going to let it affect their plans: “There’s nothing we can do about it, except think hard and long about it.” She also said it would be good to try and reach TJ and Cindy – if I could get through. I did. They were home, relaxing – you don’t want to stress a pregnant person – after only working part-day. Cindy’s people on base [at Fort Belvoir, Virginia], were herded into a cafeteria, told to wait, then told to go home. TJ and his fellow office workers worked for a while, but realized work wasn’t working and so stopped. Cindy would have had an appointment today or tomorrow – a checkup on her twins – but, as TJ said, “The hospital decided it had other things to do than check a pregnant lady. I can’t imagine why.” Typical TJ Walsh deadpan, overlaying his real concern over things.
I think: They may know people at the Pentagon. I knew not to press that issue.
I also chatted with Max [my cousin Amy Thompson “Maximy” Walsh in Seattle] and with Grandpa Irv. I left messages for the Dayton [Oregon] Walshes and for Stephanie, then I succeeded in a trip: I saw Grandpa Bob and Grandma Dorothy – looking tired but well – and then picked up Antonio at work. We stopped at Taco Bell for late dinner: he was hungry and stressed. He was less hungry and stressed when we left. He didn’t offer too many specifics – other than nothing one guy drove up with a sign in his pickup that read Bomb the Bastards – but he did say his day was hard. But by the last leg of the trip we were doing our version of rapping together, with him leading. A good sign.
More will come. We’ll keep coping. We’ll deal with an ever-more-slightly-more-uncertain world. We’ll have to.
For now, Chris, do your best to sleep.
13 Sept 01
“The world shifted.” I keep saying that.
“The world will never be the same.” Others keep saying that.
The second line seems impossibly melodramatic. That it’s most likely true makes it no easier for me to say. The first line – I can wrap my mind around that a little more. That comes in part from my journalism experience – never say something’s a tragedy, let the facts say that instead – but that also comes from my personality: I like to think I only say what I absolutely think and believe.
You believe what you can in the wake of an attack like this. That’s work – work that millions, tens of millions, even perhaps hundreds of millions of people are doing now.
I believe this is an attack on the world. Even at a basic economic level, the damage to the hub of the Western financial market – the people and expertise and information lost in explosions and collapse – will hit most everybody. Even, perhaps, the radicals who were celebrating. And the signs of sorrow, and solidarity, from people and governments across the Earth shows that people from so many cultures and traditions felt the events of Tuesday in their guts like most everyone in the United States did. So many other people have been hit by terrorism; now the last superpower has been hit harder by terrorism than at any time in its history. The reaction spans the globe; so, likely, will the consequences.
Please don’t let it be a world war.
The state of emergency continued today – but I felt a little farther from the front lines, as I wasn’t at work today. I wasn’t fielding the constant calls we’ve had for two weeks (even before Tuesday); I was at Dundee, in quiet.
I got there after a long day Wednesday, 6:30 a.m. start to work, as is typical for me at Vesta [the call center where I was working]. I had signed up Sunday [9/9/01] for more hours, and managed to do them. Jason at the Command Center screwed up when he added up my hours in my head and said, after I mentioned I’d get lunch and a break, “No you don’t.” He thought I’d only be in long enough for one break. One 10-minute break. So I worked. For 6 ½ hours. With no lunch. I had words with Jason – sharp words I said with a smile, though an admittedly annoyance-tinged smile – and I told him I should have gotten a lunch. Instead I got an extra half-hour of work. Which annoyed me. But which annoyed me a little less once I got some perspective.
Like from seeing the flags at half-mast.
Oh, I can be petty and unfair. But it’s worse to be petty and unfair when you have to look at flags at half-mast and digest what that means.
I got more perspective farther from work. Daily papers, finally caught up with the fact that something once unthinkable had happened – USA Today stood out, with its huge above-the-fold photo of the second World Trade Center explosion. People using even more cell phones than usual, discussing the aftermath. A U.S. flag, hanging from the Meier & Frank building…a flag I didn’t notice until I looked at a photo of it in Willamette Week. And, across the bricks in Pioneer Courthouse Square, rolls of paper, unrolled and taped to the ground, covered with more and more messages of love, condolences and support from the people of Portland to the people of New York and D.C.
I read these for awhile, added a few lines of my own, and read there for a while more.
Then I ate.
From there, home – greeted first by the welcome sight of a clean basement, courtesy Antonio, then by the unsettling sound of a vague answering machine message from Grandpa Irv. Turns out he wanted me for an errand. I thought something was wrong, and contemplated trying to reach the Dayton Walshes to ask if they knew if anything was up with my grandparents. I’m glad I soon reached Irv and learned the facts. I left Portland after 3:30 p.m. for King City, and visited Irv and Jean before and during dinner (Fettuccine Alfredo in the Pacific Pointe cafeteria). After that we headed straight out. We would’ve gotten out sooner, but Irv’s car wouldn’t start, and it was a production getting both Irv and Jean into my Honda. After stops at the eye-wear store and at Bi-Mart – where Irv bought cigarettes for Jean – I dropped them off and headed farther south.
Dundee. Quiet. Welcome. But I still had a night difficult sleep. I was up when I thought I heard a plane, and I walked outside in my slippers; no sign. A beautiful night, but no visible planes, still. (People had really noticed when a helicopter flew above Pioneer Courthouse Square that day.)