I spent 9/11 not knowing or believing 9/11 had happened.
Well, that’s only half true. But I hope you’ll pardon my phrasing, because this is the first time I’ve ever shared this half-truth.
Maybe I never shared it because there are millions of 9/11 stories more important than mine. But hey, if you’d like to know how anyone living in America could have even half-missed it, read on.
On September 11, 2001, I was living by myself in an apartment in Hollywood. That Tuesday, I was awoken by a phone call at about 6:15am from a friend, living in Washington, DC, telling me to turn on CNN. I cursed him, then did it.
At first, I saw both World Trade Center buildings burning. WTF? Then CNN played the footage of the North Tower burning as a plane hits the South Tower. I believe I felt a very visceral sense of fear, like if your friend was shot dead while standing right next to you. My friend and I shared our feelings for a few minutes, and rung off. I called my mom and we talked about it for a few minutes.
By 6:30am, I was off the phone and in the shower. At that time in my life, my morning wake-up routine consisted of an alarm that went off at 6:30am to give me 30 minutes to shower, dress, eat, and be ready to leave by 7:00. My commute from Hollywood to West Los Angeles usually took about 50 minutes, and I was expected at work promptly by 8:00 because I was working for a business with many East Coast clients.
That particular morning, I believe I turned off the TV and left my apartment at about 6:55am. The extra five minutes was my way of acknowledging the attack on the World Trade Center…which would somehow probably lead to extra traffic in the middle of L.A. Everything leads to extra traffic in the middle of L.A., amirite?
What if I had stayed in my apartment until 6:59, and watched the South Tower collapse? Maybe I wouldn’t have even bothered to go in. As it happened, I didn’t learn or believe it had happened for most of the day.
In my car, I only listened to my music. I had been wrong; traffic wasn’t worse than usual. That day my old, inconsistent car stopped working about ten blocks from the office, near the McDonald’s at Santa Monica and Holmby. That day, I used the last bit of its momentum to pull it off of Santa Monica Boulevard and into the McDonald’s parking lot; I had this feeling that because of the attacks on the World Trade Center, no one would call to have it towed or ticketed. That may have been the last time I’ve driven any car into any McDonald’s lot. That day was nice, so I walked the extra ten minutes to my office, near the corner of Santa Monica and Overland.
But Daniel, why did you spend the day not knowing that the towers collapsed? Surely someone in your office would have mentioned it? Surely you would have somehow received news reports? Phone calls?
Uh, no. On 9/11/01, I was working as Accounts Receivable/Payable for an architectural firm called Barry Design Associates. Don’t ask me why I had such a jobby job; I now wince to think of it. I told myself I was paying bills between failing to sell scripts and applying to grad schools. And in classic jobby-job fashion, over the previous months, Barry Design had been cracking down on cell phones and internet use, so that by September we were at zero-tolerance outside of Outlook/work emails.
My boss Helen, the controller, was a lovely woman who nonetheless told me that if she caught me on a news website one more time, I might be fired. Helen occasionally spot-checked me there in my own office with four walls and a wood (not glass) door. That privacy suited me, but that particular day, I probably would have sooner learned the larger truth. After all, especially that day, some of these architects were happy to flout the rules and leave major websites visible on their monitors.
I had a lot of work to do that day, so much that I figured I would basically work through a lunch I would need to buy somewhere. No, not McDonald’s. As I left my office to get ready to go to lunch, I saw furrowed brows and hushed conversations. I think I may have even heard the words “buildings collapse.” But this was an architectural firm! Another factor: I really wanted to be able to tell Helen I had completed this one project. I just wanted to push through the day and get it done. How strange, now.
As I went down to the local deli, which didn’t have a TV, I heard someone say “World Trade Center destroyed.” I still assumed someone was exaggerating the truth of seeing no more than two airplanes crash into two towers. I knew we, the United States, had been attacked by a hostile power and were likely going to war. I loosely figured people were dramatizing the truth to justify jingoism. Maybe it was the Los Angeleno in me: I had learned to think of every statement as hyperbole.
There may have been a part of me that just wanted to preserve my “innocence” for a few more hours, just to block out the badness before really dealing with planes hitting buildings. I did have the flicker of a thought that L.A. could be attacked next; on 9/11 and 9/12, every American seemed to come up with all sorts of reasons why their city would be attacked next. But surely a plane wouldn’t strike anywhere near where I was, where the 405 met the 10, right? They’d attack downtown, or maybe the Hollywood sign.
I saw a couple of voice mails on my cell phone. Remember 20 years ago, when we weren’t texting yet? And no social media? I could have listened to and/or answered the calls, but I figured they would wait until the end of the day.
At around 3:30 on 9/11/01, I finished my big project. I emailed it to Helen and left my office to talk to her about it. For no real reason, I glanced around the office and noticed that half the staff was gone. This was very, very unusual on a Tuesday; architects or not, Mr. Barry expected everyone there until at least 4:00.
“Where is everyone?” I asked Helen.
“A lot of people left early. You can too, if you want.”
“Uh, well, thanks, but I can’t. My car isn’t working.”
“What? How did you get here?”
“Well, it’s at the McDonald’s up the street. I may need to call Triple-A.”
“You can call them now if you want. Do you want me to drive you to McDonald’s?”
“Uh, no, it’s a short walk.”
“Okay. Are you coming in tomorrow?”
What. She had never asked me that! “Is there…I haven’t been on the news all day.”
“Oh my God, here.” She moved her monitor out of Outlook and onto NBC News’s website, which she obviously had had on, clearly ignoring and violating the protocols that we’d been talking about for months.
There wasn’t video, but the words and pictures made it clear that the World Trade Center towers now lay in ruins. Also, the Pentagon had been attacked and a fourth plane had crash-landed in some field. WHOA. The World Trade Center had been destroyed by terrorists. It didn’t seem possible, but it had happened. The whispers were real. My gut tightened. My face flushed. My knuckles went white. Helen looked at me and sent me home.
I went back to my office to gather my things to leave. On my way out the door, Helen hugged me. That was weird.
Walking to McDonald’s, I listened to messages from relatives and my friend Chris, who was local. I called him back. After we chatted for a few minutes, he asked if he could come meet me at this McDonald’s parking lot and try to use his battery to jump-start my car. What a friend! I said yes. Better him than AAA.
Sure enough, as guessed, my car had been left untouched all day. Chris and his wife Beverly arrived at that Santa Monica Boulevard McDonald’s (just west of Century City) at about 5:00pm. We hugged, and then my car refused to be jump-started. We rolled it out of the lot and onto Santa Monica, where it could be parked until late the next morning without penalty. I could have called Triple-A, but they would have had to tow it to a shop and separately drive me to my house, which I thought would cost me. What I really wanted was my bike, which worked a lot better than my car. In the morning, I would probably have the car towed to a west L.A. shop. In the meantime, for as long as it took, I was happy to return to bike commuting, but first I had to get back home to Hollywood. Chris and Beverly, angelically enough, were happy to take me home.
Boy, did we ever talk about everything. Chris and Beverly (in separate jobs) had had the news on all day. I distinctly remember staring out of their backseat window at the wide blue sky, to see if any planes were in the air. As you know, there weren’t. I remember Chris saying “It’s going to be all right. It’s going to be all right.”
But was it?