Like everybody else, I’m grieving. Even though 9/11/2001 wasn’t at all about me, and didn’t do any harm to me personally, here I am thinking about where I was that day, what was on my mind, how my experience felt. I really hope that’s just a human response, because otherwise it would feel profoundly selfish.
The part that I have trouble shaking is the fact that I was on a plane that morning, but my plane was headed to Atlanta from Greensboro. It landed minutes before the first plane in NY hit.
By the time I’d walked from the gate down to the center of the concourse (Hartsfield’s Concourse B) where I went into the cafe/bookstore to get a bottle of water for the long MARTA ride to our Atlanta office, the tragedy had begun. But it hadn’t filtered into the crowd yet. In fact, only one of the TV’s in the cafe was even showing it: Katie Couric was explaining in a voiceover on NBC that something had happened at the WTC, and there was a live picture of the building with smoke and flame pouring from its side. They didn’t know what it was yet, a small plane? (Even though the hole was way too big to be for a Cessna or even a Lear jet, nobody dared imagine the truth.) The other networks running on the other TV’s (Fox? ABC?) hadn’t picked up the story yet.
Only a few other people were watching it, and we were all almost nonchalant. It was so unreal, it didn’t even register in the chatter and buzz among the morning coffee-sippers at the tiny cafe tables. I just sat and watched for a few minutes, waiting to hear if anyone on TV had an explanation. Then I got up, stood in line at the register to pay for my water. I got on the phone and called coworkers in Greensboro and Atlanta, telling them something amazing had happened, that a plane or something had crashed into one of the WTC towers. From the place where I was standing in line, I couldn’t see the TV’s so well, but I could tell that the other channels had picked up the story, and strangely tiny, distant TV screens seemed to be showing a conflagration that was at least twice as bad as it was the last time I’d looked up. I had no idea the second plane had just hit. I still have my water receipt, stamped September 11, 2001, 09:06am.
I walked briskly to the rail station (Atlanta’s public MARTA transport). Once I was aboard, I waited for a good while before its departure. While there, I checked the news on my webphone to see what else was up (the only time I have truly found Sprint’s web access useful), and saw that I could barely get through with any kind of signal. As people came onto the train, the looks of concern, fear, grief were getting worse. Many were on phones. One woman who had just left the WTC the day before had a boyfriend at CNN. She was getting the inside scoop, much of which turned out to be false, but most of which was accurate and horrifying. It was somehow worse than seeing it all on television, hearing it filtered through another human being’s terrified voice, translating the details from the panicked narration on the other end of her phone. When we went under the first tunnel and she lost her connection, she and I and the people around her sat quietly before discussing it. By that time I believe we’d heard it was indeed a second plane, that others were being crashed elsewhere, that one was headed for the White House. We were all glad to be getting out of the city.
There’s more of course. The getting off the train with the quietest Atlanta commuter crowd ever seen before or since. The waiting for my ride from a coworker, hearing from others in passing about further details (a tower collapsed, a field in Pennsylvania, they used boxcutters). The stunned, stoic way we tried going about our business at our client’s offices, before finally realizing we were all just trying to stave off the fear and grief with work. How it was somehow even more sad to not be able to find a place to eat out that evening, when all of us felt desperate for the warm comfort of others.
I was born and raised around Atlanta. And when I couldn’t get on a return flight and finally located a rental car that I could drive home, I picked up the car and took a few hours to drive around town to all the homes I’d lived in. I don’t know why, but for some reason on September 13, it seemed the thing to do. To see that other people were living in my childhood homes, keeping them up, painting them, raising their own children there. It confirmed a certain continuity to our lives. Things go on. In some places, the center does hold.
But at the same time, it made me remember how things go on without us. I wasn’t in those houses anymore. I was no longer the center of their stories. Even where one part of a house had been torn down or removed, it had been replaced with something else, something I didn’t recognize. I knew that if I walked into one of those yards and treated it like the home I remembered, I’d be unwelcome, an intruder. There they were, the homes I’d grown up in, but as those places they only existed in my mind.
On Snapfinger road, the woods surrounding my second childhood home were still thick with pines. The house and yard, the chain link fence, the holly bush by the garage door, all were still there, looking older but the same. But they didn’t reach out to me, didn’t invite me in. The place didn’t smile or breathe easier in my presence; it had no sign of recognition on its face. Not because of anything I or anyone else had done. It was just a natural result of the slow turn of years, and how the world we live in catches us and holds us for a moment while we’re there, then lets us go, reaching out for the next, and the next, its memory only as long as that moment.