September 11, 2007

Thoughts about thoughts

This is less about the day itself than about the peculiarity of the mind, and how things occur to us sometimes.

About this time six years ago, I was in my second week at a new job (this one), at my desk by Farragut West, about four or so blocks from the White House. As most would say, it started out like any other morning. Actually, I probably wouldn't have found out much about what happened if not for the fact that the lady sitting across from me was listening, as she did every day, to one of the local morning shows (PGC, or something similar). Like most people I've talked to since, I took the early news of a plane crashing into the WTC as something like a small Cessna or private plane; it wasn't until a short time later that the truth was made clear. But everyone knows what happened, and this isn't really about that.

The first thing I did, as I'm sure many did as well, was try to figure out whether I knew anyone in either of the Towers or at the Pentagon. I couldn't think of anyone, which was a relief, so I went to check the TV that had been set up in the hallway upstairs (our office didn't have cable or TVs, someone found a presentation TV and set it up with rabbit ears on the next floor up; I got to it just in time to watch the first building come down). I couldn't watch much after that, so I went back to my desk. I had talked to my roommate, who was home at the time, and got caught up a little on the news. We'd heard from a co-worker's dad, who was working in the Pentagon, and by and large most of the people we knew of were accounted for. One woman hadn't heard from her husband, and she left the office almost immediately. Again, I found myself glad that I didn't know anyone directly connected to what was happening.

But not long after (in the men's room of all places), a snippet of conversation floated across my memory, a question asked in what sounded a whole lot like my own voice:

So what's it like working in the World Trade Center?


It bubbled up seemingly from nowhere, and it took me a few seconds to put the images together.

I was in St. Augustine, Florida, the previous Christmas. My cousin, her then-boyfriend, and I were at the tail end of driving up A1A after taking my grandparents most of the way home from the holiday festivities (we took one of our cars and theirs, drove them most of the way home, then put them in their car for the last hour or so), on one of the most beautiful winter days I could remember (75 and sunny all day) for a drive back up the coast to Jacksonville, where my parents live. We had stopped in St. Augustine in the late afternoon, walked around town, and had some phenomenal seafood for dinner on the patio, thoroughly enjoying the weather. It was over that meal that the conversation took place. My cousin's boyfriend worked for Black Rock at the time, as I remember, and they had an office in one of the Towers. So I was curious as to what that was like, working in a global landmark.

A global landmark that was, at the moment, in the process of disintegrating.

This all came back to me in a rush, and I could have slapped myself for not thinking of it sooner.

But really, all I thought was, holy shit.

Now, anyone who tried to make a call into NYC that day knows what it was like. Cell coverage was shot, because a) everyone and their brother was calling into town that day, and b) the cell tower that would have carried the incoming calls went down with the buildings. So I had little to no hope of getting directly to my cousin. Not that it stopped me from trying, mind you.

Fortunately for me, her parents lived in the Poconos at the time, so I was able to get through to them and find out that everyone was all right. My cousin's bf (who is now her husband) was actually between the buildings when the first plane came in, being one of the many who were running a little late that morning and probably being alive because of it. So he was fine. At least, as fine as anyone could be that day.

Not long afterwards, I made my way home and spent eight or so hours straight watching CNN. I finally hit my threshold around 9:30 or so, when they ran the same montage of footage for the third or fourth time in a row, and my and my roommates' brains just couldn't take it anymore. There's an extent to which I suppose mine still can't.

But I always sort of shake my head when I think back, and wonder just how the hell I didn't think of that conversation sooner.

Perhaps more bizarre, in terms of how-the-brain-works, is what my aunt told me about M's experience that morning (he hasn't told much of the story himself; doesn't like to talk about it). Apparently, in the midst of all that was happening, having seen a plane crash into a major building, one of the first things that occurred to him was this:

better get to an ATM.

Most New Yorkers carry little or no cash, and he figured he should probably get some in case he needed it and the system shut down. Under the circumstances it made practical sense, but it seems a totally bizarre thought to have. It's the kind of thing that actually gets a laugh when telling the story. But sometimes, the brain just sort of does that.

I don't have much of a point here; I just like to tell that story as an example of how even in the midst of tragedy and suffering, sometimes things happen that just make you chuckle a little bit, and maybe that's the best news of all.


Beach Bum said...

I still don't like seeing images and reading about it. But somehow today it brings a bit of comfort hearing from other people that day and their stories. Probably because it helps me forget my own.

The sad sad thing? When I looked up coming out of the subway and the first building was covered in smoke my first thought was "damn, I can't believe I forgot my camera at home" -- not because I really wanted to take pictures, but it was a historic moment, I was experiencing it, and I wish I had a reminder, even if tucked away in a drawer somewhere.

gn said...

Wow, that's crazy he thought of that. It's funny how we can be very calm and practical in the face of unimaginable trauma.

WiB said...

beach bum - Thanks; that's pretty much exactly what I'm talking about. But then, we've gotten more or less constant reminders since, whether or not we'd rather they were tucked away in a drawer.

gn - Yeah. I figure it's related to the time-slowing-down under stress as well. Some kind of defense mechanism, maybe

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