<<38 week 39 >>
Washington D.C. September, 2001
9/18/01 9:41 a.m.
Once or twice a month I find myself on the Amtrack headed south, towards Washington D.C. where we have a second office. These trips are usually only tedious exercises in early morning alarm clock banging, disgruntled trudging, and catching up fitfully on sleep as the train rocks back and forth. But this time things are different. I'm convinced that there's been a line drawn drawn in the air and history is indelibly divided between before and after this has happened. Every sunny day in the future we will look into the sky and it will be different, and those born after this day will look into a sky and never know the other one which was there before.
And in Manhattan, that view that we took to be so completely permanent, an eighth wonder of economics and determination, the ability to build a city from a swamp, or maybe it was just something we assumed would outlast us all, an eyesore to be torn down in the 22nd century by others more aesthetic than ourselves -- not only is that gone, but and I think more importantly -- what's gone is the sense of security and ease with which we sit, reading novels, in airplanes, or in tall buildings or we cross bridges or go through tunnels. Our sense of normalcy, of stasis, has been taken and replaced by the idea that outrageous things may occur at any instant and that any pyramid we build may tumble without warning -- and what the cost of knowing that our world of picket fences and rose gardens is so temperate?
We're glad that everyone in our office is safe, but the building is nearly empty, nobody's coming in to work. A lone block stands between it and the White House, we're all aware that if the hijackers had spent more time studying DC street maps we might not have an office here anymore.
At lunch, we walk past the White House, I'm heartened to see it open and Americans clinging to the gates, peering in at the press pool gathered on the North lawn -- It makes me feel somehow confident that life goes on here and the President isn't kept from the people.
The big stories in D.C., statehood, the whereabouts of Chandra Leve, are no longer stories, everything is bleak and angry. A lot of people are coping as they will, pins, shirts, neckties often announce that the bearer is certified 100% American -- these people feel particularly targeted. It was their city, their friends, their children. It's not just the nation's capitol, it's a hometown with a mayor and high school football teams and a homecoming parade. It's everytown USA, where every plane in the sky is viewed with deep suspicion and a little fear.
After work Rich and I meet up with an old college buddy of mine, Dan, whom I haven't seen in years, he works for Johns Hopkins now where they make weapons and cures; like Dr. Moreau:
The irony is not lost on Dan, who is currently making devices for locating submarines. "I told them I wouldn't work on anything that killed people," he says.
9/18/01 8:33 p.m.
We drive to the Pentagon and it all comes home, before it remained somehow vaguely unreal. Taking route 394 from downtown, over the bridge, and after Arlington, there's no missing the crash site. It's lit up like the sun. The whole thing comes home as we drive past, bathed in bright klieg lights the destruction is obvious. It looks like a wounded dragon. A wedge is torn from the buildings center, blackened by fire, cranes still moving rubble. Taking a small access road we stumble across the media in a city of satellite dishes and trucks, and the assembled weeping citizens of America gathered in a plot of American flags, flowers and signs -- people collapsed in one another's arms, reporters and gawkers staring far away at that terrible ruin. How could a thing so awful happen here? How could we be touched by a hand and a fate so foul and a reach so long?
I felt my world crumbling by bits -- what I thought, fell to ash, we are not unassailable -- to the desperate, we are all toys.
We are the knights of Hrothgar Hall, menaced by an outsider who does not follow those rules which all living things follow -- refuses to pay Wereguild, strong and visceral -- I am besieged by two halves of my mine -- one calling for dismemberment and public display; arms and blood and burning cities on CNN and another to ask why? what can we do to make this stop? The horror is too great, it's too great.
I meet Janice there, 50ish, and like everyone else, a government employee and Brownie Troop leader. She's wearing her uniform beneath a dark blue windbreaker. One of her Brownies was on the plane, 8 years old, smashed to atoms. Her name was Zoe Falkenberg. Janice came to lay a wreath with the scouts. She's been back three times to look and cry. What did I do, why me? Why this blow from so far away to rip apart the lives of little girls?
This is the age where things will begin to make no sense.
The scene of the memorial is amazing itself, that so many people found this place on their own, and that they brought with them flowers, signs, wreaths -- photographs of the missing are left with talismans, tokens, letters -- this is the only place to deliver them. A photograph of a young woman sits atop a partially empty 12 pack of diet Coke, leaning against a pack of Marlboro Light cigarettes wrapped with a bow. A bag of peanut M&M's sits nearby with a pony tail holder.
The Brownies have all drawn pictures of themselves and Zoe on a large poster board, they're all happy faces. They're all happy memories. Zoe was killed with her 3 year old sister and her father, a research director for ECOlogic.
After an hour or so, Rich and Dan and I move along. This is too much to take. We drive to Georgetown and have dinner at an Indian restaurant. The waiter asks what we want to drink and Dan responds "Give me the worst, most awful, bitter, vitriolic soft drink you have?" He returns with something that tastes like sugared maple syrup. Five sips and Dan has had enough. For our levity, we later feel terrible.
Sitting outside in the perfect weather, eating saag paneer it's almost like things are back to normal. Life is trying to go on around all of this -- I wonder what it must be like to live in a place where this sort of thing happens every day. In March, I was in Bucharest and met two Orthodox Jews who were there buying fabric, they both lived in Jerusalem. I asked them how they could do it and one said, "I can't do it any longer, I'm going to move away. Last week, a bomb exploded on the route my daughter's schoolbus takes. She wasn't hurt, but it's crazy to try and bring a child up in a place like that. I love Jerusalem, but it's too dangerous anymore. Those who can get out, will get out, and the rest will be left with the place."
We check in to our hotel and fall into fitful sleep.
9/19/01 4:44 a.m.
I awake in the still watches of the night, paranoid, suddenly in that half sleep of dreams and reality, paranoid, shaken to my ankles with the realization that I am only a block from the White House. In the old days, during the Cold War we felt some reassurance in living next to a target -- "I'll be dead before I even know what hit me," we'd say -- being atomized in the blink of an eye seemed a splendid way to spend the end of the world, but in New York we saw the reality of less devastating weapons and people leaping from flaming windows, bodies buried in rubble, people disassembled into pieces no larger than a phone book.
9/19/01 3:32 p.m.
I'm drawn to return to the Pentagon in daylight to see it again before I go.
The DC Metro was imported from a scifi future where people routinely travel to Mars and alien contact is as ho hum as a bagle with poppy seeds. It is blessed with mood lighting worthy of an Academy Award and a series of blinking lights which predict the arrival of incoming trains to assuage the need for over-the-track-neck-craining so popular in Philadelphia. Digital signs, toned sepia nnounce the next train will be six cars long and that it is six minutes away, five, four, three ...
The cars themselves arrive with a hovercraft whisper, a keen recorded voice announces the stops, it's all glass and flashing lights in this future world.
The ceiling is a catacomb, a honeycomb of concrete detail. This place is a marvel and yet it is filled with somber people. Every conversation, mood, gesture, everything is pervaded, consumed, tainted, underlined by the event every look on every face, the sour thought at the back of every head, the brooding reality that turns each mouth down and arrests spontaneous smiles, the realization that disbelief is no longer possible.
My ears pop passing beneath the Potomic, punishment for leaving D.C. or perhaps a warning for those entering -- I swallow hard to clear them. Once, twice, three, four times. My ears clear but the weight remains.
Every tragedy is different and each uniquely clear in hindsight years later. We all formulate our own secret plans of how we would have escaped. "At the first sound I would have run to the stairs, rounded up my office mates, charged for the ground floor," Every survivor we see on television we repeat quietly, "yes, that's me, that's the one that would have been me, that's just what I would have done and I would have lived."
The driver announces that no one but Pentagon employees will be allowed to detrain at the Pentagon stop, which, ironically, appears on the metro maps as a gigantic bullseye.
I get off at Pentagon City, a mall about a half mile away. I make my way to the roof, which is covered with police. I ask one of them if I can see the Pentagon from there. "Yeah," he says, "follow me, I'll take you." he leads me to a corner of the roof. "If that tree wasn't there, you'd get a better view." I notice melted wax on the ground from some candle light vigil. I snap a couple of unremarkable photos. "Is there a way I can walk over there?" The cop points to a tunnel under 394, "Try that pedestrian tunnel." I thank him and make my way.
The tunnel connects the Pentagon's South parking lot with the Pentagon City Mall parking lot. Many employees park here and walk through the tunnel to work. The entrance to the tunnel is festooned with flowers and signs, someone has pasted a weeping eagle to the wall. As the employees walk into the sunlight, the first thing they see are American flags. Here again there are many personal mementos.
At the Pentagon end of the tunnel a sign warns or rejoices that this is a NO HAT NO SALUTE AREA. From the number of military personnel standing there with clipboards and guns it's evident that this entrance is closed to non Pentagon traffic. A corporal with the deepest voice I've ever heard tells me how to get to the memorial from another tunnel. He is extremely polite.
I'm again on my way.
In the daylight, the destruction is much easier to see though it seems much less -- after the complete and utter devastation in New York, it seems that more should be damaged here.
The media is out in force -- news outlets I've never heard of have trucks here. Each truck has a tent pitched on top of it and beneath each tent is a reporter with a wire stuck in his or her ear, a microphone in his or her hand, and a grim look on his or her face. At the base of the trucks technicians sit looking bored, talking on cell phones or carrying takeout coffee from godknowswhere.
There are more people at the memorial, more flowers, more stories, people coming to read the names of a friend or colleague from the giant list the DOD has erected.
You might think that at a time and place like this people would want to be left alone, but I find that the very opposite is true. Everyone I approach seems desperate to tell their story, to spread the name of a missing father, brother, sister, friend. They grab my ear and won't let me go until I can take away some little bit of this person with me back to Philadelphia.
Nicole got married early and after her son was born, her husband was drafted and sent to Korea where he was shot in the head. He survived, but army doctors had to remove an entire hemisphere of his brain. She spent the rest of her life taking care of him and her son who joined the Navy at 18 and is retired now.
Living a mile away she heard the explosion and saw the smoke. Two nurses from the retirement home where she lives brought her down today. "I don't handle these things so well," she says, "I don't, I really don't."
[technical info: leica m6 jupiter 12, 135 4.5 hektor]