Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remembering 9/11

 A younger me in Washington, D.C.

Like too many things in my life, I’ve told myself that one day I should write down my memories of 9/11 and never did. And here we are, an impossible ten years later, a day to the anniversary. I tell myself I can still make it, I can still remember.

The impossibility of that day was amplified by my life at that time. I was a little more than a month away from my 22nd birthday. I had arrived in Washington, DC only six days earlier – 9/11 was one of my first days as an intern at a legislative affairs consulting agency. The prestige of the job was in sharp contrast to the mess I had left behind in the other Washington, my home of Washington State. I would not be going back to school for my senior year – I was on indefinite break from college, after my best friend’s death and the dicey year of being depressed that followed. By the time I came home from college for summer break, I had beat the heavy shroud that paralyzed me, but my parents, rightfully concerned, demanded I stay home and heal. But home was laced with memories and the past. I knew that to move on emotionally, I had to escape physically. And so, I ran.

At 21-years-old, I was far to old to be considered a runaway, but my escape to DC had that feel about it. I announced to my parents on Friday that I would be leaving on Monday – they forbade it, I went anyway. One friend drove me to Portland, OR to catch the train (a plane ticket being way to expensive) and another lent me $600 – the only money I would have for the indefinite future.

So I got on the train, with a friend hastily arranged for me to stay with some college alumnae upon my arrival. The train ride took 3 days. I don’t remember a lot of it. I do remember waking up to dawn and crossing the continental divide, seeing buffalo and getting off to buy a coke in a small town in North Dakota, imagining not getting back on and what my new life would be like. I remember seeing Chicago and Philadelphia for the first time, rolling in and rolling out without exploring. To this day, stepping on that train against all common sense was the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

And suddenly I was a resident of Washington, DC. I rented an stuffy attic room in a group house ran by a Chinese woman in Georgetown. The house always smelled like Chinese food and I was the only non-foreign, non-graduate student there. Rather than get lost on public transportation, I would walk several miles across Georgetown to my new job in Dupont Circle. Sometimes in the early morning, I would see deer wandering out of Rock Creek Park into the streets. On one of my first days in town, I looked at the building in front of me, hot and frustrated that I was lost again. “Where am I?” I thought. A minute later I realized I was staring at the White House, and laughed at my own stupidity.

In DC, every lobbyist has a small TV in their office, to keep on top of media reports and what’s happening on the hill. My fellow intern and I sat in a corner area with two desks and the copy machine, outside one lobbyists’ office. We had only been at work for about 20 minutes when she started talking about something that was happening in New York. A plane had flown into one of the twin towers, but we didn’t know anything more. We watched the TV in her small office for a few minutes, then went back to our desks and tried to work. The lobbyist grew quiet and gradually more information was released. She had said goodbye to her husband just that morning – he was on a flight headed for LA.

I didn’t comprehend the extent of what was happening for probably too long. The initial images of the plane hitting the twin towers were disturbing, of course, but the building was so large, dwarfing the size of the plane on the television screen. I imagined a small personal two-seater Cessna, and an office area with some blown out windows and lots of glass. I do think it was the unbelievably beautiful fall day making it impossible to imagine anything serious was happening in those first few hours.

I tried calling my parents to let them know I was ok, but my mother was scheduled for a major hysterectomy operation, so they had been at the hospital all morning getting her ready for surgery. When I finally reached my dad at the hospital, he seemed confused about why I was calling, and talked only about my mom’s condition.

The next 90 minutes increased the confusion. There were reports that the White House, only three blocks from our office, had been hit. We were advised to go to the roof and see if we could see anything, and then they thought we should leave the building, and then stay put. Finally, it was decided that I would go home with my fellow intern, who lived much closer to work than I did. I protested that I could just walk home, still somewhat enamored with what a nice day it was and the opportunity to leave work early, but was shook to reality when someone said, “No, you can’t. The city’s under martial law now – you shouldn’t be out by yourself.”

The other intern’s apartment was at The Cairo in Dupont Circle – the tallest residential building in the District, although still only 12 stories high. It had been infamously covered in the news that summer for being where the intern Chandra Levy lived when she went missing in May.

In one of the most surreal moments of the day, we sat quietly in her apartment on the 9th floor, in front of the TV that was positioned in front of the tall living room windows. The windows looked out across the neighborhood, and at the edge of the skyline, we could see the Pentagon burning. At one point, we watched the national news, with Peter Jennings reporting from his news desk, a small window in the corner of the TV screen with an image of the Pentagon burning, while the real-life scenario hovered immediately behind the television through the window.

The days and months after, as everyone knows, were equally confusing, unbelievable and hard to reconcile...can we ever, when terrible things happen? I learned to love DC and feel safe there – despite Chandra Levy disappearing into Rock Creek Park earlier that summer, despite the unspecific terror threat that settled over the federal buildings and monuments after that day. But when I finally moved back to the west coast, after finishing my internship, college, and my first post-college job in DC, I did it without regret.