K and I moved to Washington, DC in 2001. Keith arrived in May to begin his new hotel job, while I stayed behind to pack up our Atlanta home. I arrived at the beginning of July, just in time to revel in my first major event in our Nation’s Capitol: a rainy but rousing Fourth of July celebration. The following weeks were a constant, exciting tour of the wonders of Washington. The grandeur of the National Cathedral; the breathtaking displays at the Smithsonian Museums; the charms of Old Town Alexandria. I had begun a new management job with a bookstore chain; having been hired for a store not yet built near the Pentagon in Clarendon, Va. I worked on a revolving schedule at the wicked-busy Georgetown store on M street and the downtown store on the corner of 12th and E streets. This was quite the maddening intro to DC, but beneficial as it forced me to familiarize myself with the subway system, traffic and whatever else was enmeshed in traversing the city. I also came to know the charms of both locations as well as some awesome eats from Marisa and her hot dog cart on 12th St. to the wonderful lunches at Dean and DeLuca in Georgetown. Soon, I would be meeting with my fellow managers about our soon-to-open bookstore to make preparations for hiring staff and setting up the joint.
The last weekend of August 2001, Keith would surprise me with a weekend in New York City to celebrate my birthday. Descending on the Big Apple, I went touristy with abandon; photographing every street corner and attraction. The photo of the Twin Towers (at the top left) was one of many I snapped away on that bright, blue day. That night we would see Aida on Broadway after a fabulous dinner at Union Square Café. Oh, I loved me some New York.
Two weeks later on the morning of September 11, I drove to the parking lot of a shopping center in Alexandria to wait for my supervisor James to pick me up. I had the subway routes down but was still a bit skittish about driving in unfamiliar territory so James graciously volunteered to give me a lift to our first day of interviewing potential staff members for the new store. I leaned against my car, watching the planes take off and land at Reagan Airport across the river. James soon picked me up and we chatted on our way to the Marriott Hotel in Rosslyn where our day of interviews would take place. I commented on how cool I thought it was to drive past the Pentagon to go to work. I’d felt the same way working in Georgetown and downtown. We met our other compatriots in a conference room at the hotel and proceeded to schedule the course of our day when James’s cell rang. After a moment, he hurriedly told us to turn on the TV in the armoire and we sat horrified; watching the live report of the aftermath of the first tower being hit. Then we saw the second. Little more than gasps had been uttered before the report on the Pentagon aired.
It didn’t hit me at first. Like so much of the rest of the country, I was gaping in horror under the realization that our country was under attack. Then I remembered that yes, brother, you are living in DC and you just rode past the Pentagon barely an hour ago and it had just been attacked. God help us, this was all a series of terrorist attacks using passenger planes; all of them connected. The terrorist that flew into the Pentagon took off from Reagan Airport.
The memory feels very fluid, almost-gel-like in its slow motion at this point. People rose from their seats and at least one of my fellow managers was in an outright panic. We poured into the lobby; joining others huddled in various states of shock and disbelief. We wound out to the front of the hotel where we saw several federal buildings being evacuated. We circled to the back of the hotel where the view was all-encompassing and all too real: the Pentagon scene from an uphill vantage point; its powerful five points ruptured by a vast, roiling plume of black smoke. Unreal to see on TV; too real to see in person. Above us, where typically would be an unending stream of flights from Reagan Airport was instead a blanket of military planes and helicopters.
The sight of the military planes and the Pentagon itself was enough to undo the steadiest of souls. The fact that all cell and phone service was jammed added to the fearfulness. The reports and rumors that began filtering through the media continued to unsettle: the State Department was hit; the Washington Monument was struck; something was headed toward the Capitol. Most of these rumors would prove to be false and the valiant passengers of Flight 93 thwarted the final terrorist attempt over Shanksville, Pa. Predictions of the Apocalypse are a dime a dozen these days but during those moments, I certainly felt that we were on the brink. I can imagine many New Yorkers felt that it had already begun.
Slowly, painfully, things began to right themselves. Keith got a call through to me and connections were made with other loved ones. We were finally allowed to leave Rosslyn and sat in a trying and emotional traffic-crawl home past the crumbling Pentagon. I returned eventually to the hotel where we lived and K worked. Strangely, that day was supposed to be our moving day into our new apartment. As all routes into DC were closed, our movers were postponed.
Everything was different and some things would never be the same again.
A few days after 9/11, we numbingly joined many others at a man-made memorial set up by the Pentagon. We lit candles; we signed banners; we watched the shell-shocked embraces. A little girl manned a lemonade stand with a man-made poster of 9/11. We asked for some and then asked how much it would cost and she said, “Free. I just wanted to do something.”
The following days certainly had an apocalyptic sheen to them. Heavily armed soldiers and law enforcement walked the streets in downtown DC. I took eerily quiet subway trips to work. Our train would roll past Reagan Airport; now closed until further notice and deserted. We would sail past the Pentagon station for a long time and then eventually stop only to have the disembarking passengers met by heavily armed policemen at the door. The highway exits to the Pentagon had missile launchers parked at the entrance. As more roads near the Pentagon opened in the coming weeks, we, like many others, drove past trying to get a photograph of the aftermath. In our particular zeal to get that photo (above left), K wiped out a few orange cones. I was convinced we would be in the Dept. of Homeland Security’s offices within minutes, but thankfully, all was well.
A few weeks later, we returned to New York City for Keith to do some business in Chinatown and went to what was now called Ground Zero to pay our respects. It was a sobering sight to see. I took the photos with shaking hands as we were overwhelmed by the sight…it’s a wonder the photos turned out.
A month later to the day, I would be asked to help with a high-profile event at the Georgetown store. The First Lady was appearing at a Stop The Hate event sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. Being a month after 9/11, the store was crawling with Secret Service and every crumb of every scone and pastry we set out was inspected thoroughly. The White House Press Corps snapped away at the smiling and posing subjects but the tension was palpable. It was also disheartening to revisit the National Mall and various other tourist spots those weeks after as they were all hauntingly empty. You couldn’t help but wonder if the country would ever recover.
Resilience would win out of course, and healing would begin. Now, a decade later, 9/11 is our generation’s Where Were You moment. I would later find out that some of our friends and family members would actually be in the Pentagon or in New York City on that fateful day. In fact, we had a conversation with Brett during this past camping trip about his experience as a member of law enforcement on duty in NYC on 9/11. He spoke of the eeriness of that night in the "City That Never Sleeps" and how the only movement was emergency vehicles and military jets.
So much would indeed change and still today, we feel the effects. My best friend Kristy is one of those souls whose birthday falls on 9/11 and who will always experience the quandary of celebrating their birthday on the same day that commemorates a national tragedy. The heck with that, sister....celebrate your life and have a deservedly happy birthday!
I have flown many times since that day and a decade later, flying remains a greatly altered and sometimes very challenging beast. Going through security is a necessary evil but sometimes an exasperating and even humiliating ordeal. I’ve written before on the suspicion that continues to exist where our fellow passengers are concerned. Paranoia has been the flavor of the past decade.
Our country remains at war and we watch, agonizingly, as we continue to lose soldiers to these conflicts. We go on though, as we must. We cannot let fear hold us back, or those responsible for 9/11 have won. We should, hell, we MUST never forget those whose lives were lost and those who have sacrificed so much on that day and since.
We will always remember.