It is the mid-1980's, perhaps 1985. I'm stuck in a kind of employment limbo, working in a department where I'm a member of the Newspaper Guild. This wasn't my choice, but it's a Guild department. I'm basically pro-union, but in this case the union is blocking my advancement. You see, I'm an administrative assistant, and my supervisor wants to promote me into an entry-level marketing management position. He plans to replace me with another Guild position, but the shop steward will have none of it. I have to remain in the union, which means I can't be promoted. This is the first real chance I've had at emerging out of Sociology major secretarial hell and it's being taken away from me because the Newspaper Guild wants the few dollars in dues it gets from me and the headcount.
So on this particular day, I'm sitting in the lobby of a large brokerage firm, waiting for an interview for yet another administrative assistant job. I'm figuring that if I'm going to be stuck doing this, I'm going to do it in a company where I can at least make some decent money. If I'm going to be a chump, I at least want to be a well-paid one.
The interviewer is late. I'm just as glad, because the company is located in the World Trade Center, and I've just come up two sets of elevators to get to its offices...and I'm a little freaked out, because those shaky elevators are the scariest experience I think I've ever had.
So I wait. And I wait. And I wait. And about an hour goes by. Finally I remind the receptionist that I have an interview scheduled. She checks with the manager with whom I'm supposed to meet and then extends his apologies, that he has to cancel for today but that I should make another appointment with the receptionist to come back for the interview later in the week. I'm peeved that I've wasted all this time, and I've also realized that there is absolutely no way I can handle dealing with those elevators every day. I tell the receptionist that I will have to call back to set up the appointment, knowing full well that I have no intention of doing so.
The company's name is Cantor Fitzgerald.
I woke up on the morning of September 11, 2001 with a sense of dread. Today was the day I was traveling with two colleagues to Bethesda for a training course on FDA compliance in clinical trials. And I absolutely did not want to go. My reason was silly -- the other two colleagues I was with were very friendly with each other, and I just knew I'd be the odd man out. I felt as if I were back in high school and for some reason I had to go somewhere with the pretty, popular girls and I just knew that they were going to make my life miserable. It was ridiculous, as they'd never treated me badly and I was moderately friendly with both. But still -- I dreaded this trip in a way that I hadn't dreaded anything in years.
The phone rang at around 8:15 AM. It was Mr. Brilliant calling from LaGuardia. He'd just landed after the flight he'd been booked on the previous night had been cancelled due to a thunderstorm in Durham, North Carolina. He just wanted to let me know he was on the ground safely and would be headed right to work. We do this when we fly and land safely. So I went ahead and got dressed and headed into work.
We were supposed to leave for DC at around noon. Just after 8:45, one of my colleagues came into my office and said, "A small plane just hit the World Trade Center." It was the kind of gruesome news that one hears every morning on the local news, where If It Bleeds, It Leads. I don't recall exactly how I found out about the second plane, but I turned on the AM radio in my office and it became clear very quickly that we were dealing with some Very Big Stuff. It didn't hit me until the towers fell just HOW big it was, because I remember thinking until about noon that we could probably still get to Bethesda by car even though air travel was grounded by then.
When I heard that one tower and then another had fallen, it was unfathomable. Internet news sites were inaccessible, first because of the traffic and later because Verizon's infrastructure was buried under tons of rubble. TVs were set up in the big meeting room for those who wanted to watch what was happening as it unfolded. I don't even remember feeling afraid, though I did think "This must have been what it was like to hear about Pearl Harbor on the radio."
The eight-month-old presidency of George W. Bush hadn't exactly had an auspicious beginning. Installed in office by a questionable Supreme Court decision, he didn't exactly have a lot of political capital in reserve. There were people like me who viscerally loathed everthing about the man, but except for the most rabid knee-jerk right-wingers, there was a sense that this would be a troubled presidency.
A month after his inauguration, a Navy submarine collided with a Japanese fishing vessel. It later came out (though it was little reported) that two civilians were at the controls of the submarine when it surfaced and hit the fishing boat. It was not unusual for civilians to be granted these kinds of "goodwill trips" on Navy subs, but a third of these civilians were Texas oil men, which at least created an appearance of a "Lincoln Bedroom on the seas."
Then ten weeks after Bush's inauguration, a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, made an emergency landing, and its crew was taken into Chinese custody. Relations with China had been under strain for that entire time because of the Bush Administration's stand on Taiwan. The incident ended with a carefully worded apology to the Chinese government by the Bush Administration, one which outraged the right wing of Bush's own party but which in contrast to the recklessness we would see later, served to defuse what could have been a major diplomatic crisis.
The controversy surrounding Bush's election only escalated during the summer of 2001 -- one dominated by reports of shark attacks and prurient interest in the disappearance of a young Washington intern linked to California Congressman Gary Condit. By August 10, 2001, Bush had already spent 54 days -- one-quarter of his time in office -- on vacation, fueling speculation that Vice President Dick Cheney was doing most of the work. It was, of course, during this vacation that the infamous August 6 Presidential Daily Briefing was angrily brushed off.
On September 10, 2001, this issue of Newsweek hit newsstands and mailboxes all over the country:
The cover article was an excerpt from author David Kaplan's book The Accidental President, which took a look inside the Supreme Court decision that gave Bush the White House, and revealed for the first time just how close Al Gore had come to prevailing. Bush's approval rating stood at 51% in a Gallup poll taken September 7-10, 2001. These days a 51% rating is regarded as a good polling number, but in the aftermath of Bill Clinton never going below 56%, even during the Lewinsky scandal, these were not perceived as good numbers for a new president.
And then the day turned over to the eleventh of September.
Like everyone in the country, Mr. Brilliant and I were glued to the television set that night. We flipped from channel to channel to channel, our brains sponges for as much information as we could find. And that is when we saw Larry Kudlow on CNBC, grinning ear to ear and crowing about how the attacks meant an end to any talk of a Social Security lockbox. I turned to Mr. Brilliant and said, "Oh my God, they did it."
I'm not to now embark on an exhaustive examination of what happened and who benefitted that day. It's not appropriate today, I've talked about it before, and Will Bunch has already asked ten non-crazy questions that still warrant answers. But there is no question that the events that occurred ten years ago today saved an already-foundering presidency. Do with that what you will.
AFTERMATH: THE LOST
The day after the attacks, my neighbor ran up to me and told me that the husband of one of our neighbors was still missing. My heart hurt for her, as barely a year earlier she had lost her son in a car accident and now her husband, a Port Authority police officer, was missing. He was later confirmed among the dead.
Excerpt from E-mail from a friend, received on Wednesday, September 12, 2001 (initials changed from real names):
P's brother is still missing. It doesn't look good. He was on the 105th floor of the first building. My brothers are ok. D. works in a building behind the WTC. He was able to get a Ferry from the South Street Seaport. My father decided not to go to NYC yesterday. Say a prayer for P's brother. His name is R.
R. was never found. He was thirty years old.
WAR, PRESIDENTS, AND TRUST
The following Sunday, the Bergen Record included a full-page image of an American flag. I don't own a flag, but for a couple of days I put it in our front window. As the invasion of Afghanistan ramped up, I said to Mr. Brilliant, "I don't like him, I never will like him, and I sure hope he knows what he's doing, because he's all we've got." Even I, who starting in 2004 started blasting his already-tainted presidency regularly, was willing to put my trust in that president, because, well, he may be a schmuck, but in those first few days, he was our schmuck.
TEN YEARS ON
And now ten years have passed. It seems simultaneously like the blink of an eye and an entire lifetime. Aside from airport security and some economic setbacks and revivals, my own sphere has been little affected by the attacks. And for most Americans, if they really want to tell the truth, neither have theirs. This entire week has been an orgy of a weird self-congratulatory combination of picking open the wound again and enjoying the spectacle one more time. I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like to have lost someone ten years ago and once again be unable to open a newspaper without seeing a photograph of the Twin Towers burning with your brother, or son, or spouse, or sister, or father or mother inside.
My neighbor sold her house to her daughter, who now lives there with her husband and their baby -- a symbol of renewal in a household that knew nothing but fear and worry and sadness ten years ago. My friend's brother soldiers on but is still haunted by memories of having taken the train in to the city with R. that day and of calling him and telling him to get the hell out of there, let's go home...and then calling him for the last time and getting no answer. He and his wife, R.'s sister, have three children.
All over the New York metro area, the spouses of the dead remember. Some have remarried, some have not. Some have healed better than others. All over the area, those who were children that day have grown up. Life goes on.
Five years ago a friend of mine lost her daughter who had just turned 24. One of our colleagues said about the aftermath of a lost child, "You never get over it. But you find a place for it, and you go to visit it every now and then when you need to...or when you are able to." Some of the survivors of the dead, and the survivors among the first responders, have been able to find that place and close the door. Others are still wandering, lost, looking for a place to put it. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, those left behind tried to find heroism in the last moments of their loved ones. Some were heroes, trying to get others out and staying behind themselves. Some were just ordinary people who did nothing but go to work just as they always do. They are not heroes but victims. And there is no disgrace in that. The loss of the victims is just as tragic as that of the heroic. Only those left behind know that loss.
For years, the Ground Zero site was like a gaping wound in the heart of lower Manhattan. Today the memorial site will be opened to the families. The footage I've seen and the still photographs look so, well, RIGHT. The reflecting pools with their waterfall sides appear to demonstrate both the calm of healing and the continual tears of memory. We do so many things wrong, and yet Michael Arad, who designed and built this memorial appears, at least to me, to have gotten it right.
Today is not for politicians fighting the culture wars. It is not for religious leaders to try to score converts or demonize those who believe differently. It is not for posturing for the 2012 election. Today is for those who were there, for those who made it home, and for the families of those who didn't. It's for heroes and victims alike, and the people they left behind. Today is THEIR day.