The tragic events of September 11, 2001 were perpetrated by cowards, by feckless thugs on our nation in a single terrible day. In the ten years since that day, whatever has happened to our country has largely been our own doing. On the day itself, all of us were quite helpless. Our response, though, was always entirely up to us.
This is a blog about politics, so I'm supposed to write a political post. Even those who follow politics at a distance would agree that the terrorists attacks of that day changed our politics forever. Was it for better or worse? This is indeed a blog about politics, but that's a post for another time.
For me, 2001 was a whole year of transformational changes. I'd lost my job at the U.S. Department of Justice that June. I was a political appointee, and the Bush Administration transition operatives had finally caught up to me. I dearly loved that job, and would have stayed maybe forever if I could. I almost assuredly would have stayed had Gore won.
My first wife, whose name was Eugenie, worked in President Clinton's office, and earlier that spring she'd already made the trek to New York City to serve on his staff. Since I was jobless, it only made sense for us to move to New York. There was nothing keeping in Washington, DC, though I expected I would miss it terribly. We had begun moving things to various transitional locations -- a Columbia student's empty apartment at one point -- in January. Throughout the first part of that year, I'd load up our car, make the four hour drive to New York, and then turn around and come home to our ever-emptying apartment. To this day, I loathe the New Jersey Turnpike, yet could still drive it in my sleep. Sometimes it felt like I did.
Our plan was to make a final move to New York City -- Manhattan, Harlem -- in September. We reserved an enormous U-Haul truck for Saturday, September 15 (all of my trips to New York, and we still had a ton of stuff to move).
The truth that I know now -- can finally say now -- is that I didn't want to move. I was unhappy in my marriage, and the stress between us was becoming more pronounced. And I was getting better at hiding it, from my friends and family, certainly from myself.
September 11 was a Tuesday. I was jobless, which meant I usually slept in. That day was no different. All the week and weekend before, I'd packed boxes. My year to that point had been defined by almost non-stop packing.
My cell phone rang, early. I answered it to the strangest thing: nothing but static. Not the kind you get from a TV station off the air, not that steady, hissing stream of the ether -- this was wiry and electric, noisy and atonal. I hung up, pissed at my wireless carrier.
The phone rang again. And again. And again. The same bizarre, overloaded static blared through each time.
And that's when the sirens started.
Our apartment was in the Courthouse area of Arlington, Virginia, right outside DC. We were literally down the road from the police station and the jail, on Courthouse Road. The sirens were relentless, almost unending. I know that sirens can't express emotion, but looking back, I still ascribe a sort of panic to their sound as they raced to the Pentagon, struck by American Airlines flight 77.
The phone rang again, and I was prepared to throw it across the room. My slumber had been disturbed for the last time.
It was my sister-in-law, Stephanie. Is Eugenie okay? There was real panic in her voice, palpable fear. What the fuck are you talking about, Steph? I figured she was over-reacting about something, anything.
Turn on the TV, dummy.
And after that, things became clearer. And awful. And never the same.
I did nothing that day but watch coverage of the worst terrorist attack the nation had ever seen. At some point in the day, I tore myself away from the coverage and stepped outside. I could smell the Pentagon burning.
Eugenie was okay. She had been in President Clinton's office on West 125th Street in New York. They had been evacuated.
It is unfathomable to me that we still managed to move to Manhattan that weekend. We drove a fully-loaded twenty-something foot U-Haul truck across the George Washington Bridge. Not once were we stopped by any authority at all.
We drove the truck over the bridge and watched as lower Manhattan, less than a week after the attacks, burned.
I still think about the people who died, the families who lost loved ones, the firefighters and police who scarified everything. No time can heal that kind of loss. With that said, I hope this is not disrespectful to those whose lives were destroyed on 9/11, but my life began to get better, almost immediately.
Manhattan is an interesting -- and almost unbearably frightening -- place to be when you're jobless. There were, of course, no jobs to be had. I went out and looked every day. President Clinton wrote -- by hand -- a note of recommendation to one particular organization, and I think it's a testament to the state of the nation and economy that even they didn't hire to me (it is also, to be fair, a testament to the fact that I wasn't really qualified).
Those job searches turned in to New York adventures. I walked everywhere. And if I didn't walk, I rode the subway. I went to Ground Zero, or at least really close to it. The smell of burning and smoke permeated the air for as long as I can remember. I sometimes still just think of New York, and I conjure that awful, heavy smell.
I remember seeing sights I know I'll never see again. I don't even know where I was, but I recall seeing a woman stop in the middle of the sidewalk and simply burst into tears. Though no one stopped to console her (not even me), in no way did she seem out of place.
I remember offering a slight, weak wave to a firefighter on the back of a passing fire engine. He offered a small, quick nod. It was a simple gesture, but the image of those men of the back of that truck is one I'll never forget it.
I remember the deli and little store across the street from our apartment. I got sandwiches there all the time. The proprietor -- a Pakistani man -- and I talked all the time. Never about 9/11.
I won't recount the disastrous story of our move from one apartment to another. It was awful. I try to recount it to make people laugh, usually at my expense. I think that move, up one New York City block, was largely the final tipping point in a marriage that had been going the wrong way for some time.
I moved to Sarasota to run Jan Schneider's campaign the next February. Eugenie and I would be separated by March.
Every year around the anniversary of 9/11, you hear a lot of stories of tragedy as well as hope. I always wonder how those closest to that awful day have rebuilt their lives. I hope that they have, or if they haven't, that maybe now they've at least begun to.
It has been ten years. When I think about my time then, I look back on it in some measure how retired adrenaline junkies must look at some of their dumber, riskier tricks. What was I doing in New York? What was I doing in New York at a time when nobody in the country knew what might happen next.
There is still a lot of fear in the country today. Too much fear. More than I'd have hoped for ten years ago. Of course, it's not fear sowed by the cowardly actions of terrorists. It's a fear based largely in economic uncertainty -- it's a fear we've wrought upon ourselves.
Still, I would hope that perhaps America could draw some of the same lessons out of 9/11 and fear that I did from that whole year. That change is good but takes a lot of work. It can be painful, too. But when you're honest with yourself, and when you place value on the real things that matter, a lot of that smoke begins to clear away.