September 11 changed my life in more ways than I thought possible–I have a hard time believing it’s been so long ago.
You have to have lived in New York to understand the World Trade Center’s part in it. It was one of my favorite places–even though I thought it graceless and ugly, architecturally–because it was in the heart of things. Journalists like me were always getting invitations to eat in the restaurant on top, or go to a press conference there.
WTC meeting rooms–where they held the press conferences–were high up, and they had these floor-to-ceiling windows kinda shaped like shoebox lids. If you squeezed against the window you’d find you were actually standing on a glass floor. I loved to do that, and look down–I was standing on air, as high up as any airplane.
Sometimes I’d stay pressed against the glass for five or ten minutes, just looking. The PR people hosting the event would roll their eyes–“there she goes again” before politely suggesting we all get back to whatever they were pitching.
After the meeting we’d come down the series of elevator banks–WTC was the first time I’d been in a structure so high that no single elevator ride could traverse its full length. We’d head out into the plaza, a long, flat concrete balcony filled with people.
Outside of Times Square it was probably the best place in Manhattan for people watching and I could sit there for hours, making up stories about the odd characters that stalk city streets.
The World Trade Center was imposing, it was massive, it would be found largely intact in a million years by people who would eagerly decipher our odd hieroglyphics. Kinda like the pyramids.
So when my boss called on the morning of September 11, 2001, I thought he was joking.
I’d moved to Minneapolis, and that morning stayed home from work to catch up on my administrative chores. When the phone rang, Peter sounded unusually serious.
“Cynthia, in view of what’s happened, I’m going to send your teams home. Is that OK with you?”
We’d already had a bunch of layoffs at the dotcom where I worked, so my first thought was “Damn, not again.”
“Why? Don’t tell me I’ve gotta lay off someone else.”
“No, no. Terrorists attacked New York this morning and the World Trade Center collapsed. We’re all in shock, and no one’s getting any work done, so I thought you’d want your guys to go home.”
Peter had played one too many deadpan pranks to get away with this one, so I laughed. “Peter, don’t forget I’ve WORKED in the World Trade Center. Stop fooling around.”
“No, I’m telling you, the World Trade Center is gone.”
“Yeah, right. Hah. Hah. Peter, what do you want?”
“Look, Cynthia, just turn on the damn TV. OK?”
“ANY @#$*)@#$ channel! Just do it, OK?”
That’s how I learned of the attacks on 9-11. I sat at home, in my bathrobe, numbly watching TV.
I had friends who worked in the WTC. Where were they?
The Pentagon was hit–I had friends in the Pentagon, family who lived within a couple of miles. Were they OK?
And I suddenly realized: There wasn’t a sound around me.
I lived in the main flightpath of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. The air was NEVER silent at my house. I’d grown used to the roar of jets overhead but now there was total silence–not a plane in the sky. That night a military jet flew by and sent the neighborhood into a panic.
Three local girls decided to ditch high school on 9-11 and shop at the Mall of America. They hung out for awhile, then drove there around noon. The place was closed, so they traversed the entire parking lot–not an easy task–pounding on doors until the lone security guard opened one and told them to go away. The world had come to an end.
In the days to come I helped set up volunteer teams of tech professionals to help with emergency network setup and anything else they could, tracked down loved ones (and, horribly, discovered who among our friends was gone), snarled at the customer who didn’t understand why the death of thousands should interfere with his email blast going out on September 12, and tried to make sense of things.
The company founder gave a lunchtime service remembering those we’d lost–first time I’d ever cried in a business setting–and we got on with life.
Life didn’t always get on with us–advertising revenue tanked, the company’s already-tricky finances got positively tottery, and we knew our jobs were going to go away. The tech and business publishing industries took a nosedive and I turned to a second love–marketing and PR–which I turned out to be pretty good at.
I also decided that it was time to stop taking chances, get a stable, long-term job I could retire with, build retirement equity, and start really thinking about my future. I started taking my glasswork seriously, began doing photography in earnest…and took my first-ever job with a multinational corporation (OK, so that one was a mistake). Moved out west, bought a house, settled in and built a studio. Surrounded myself with family, made friends, got involved in the community.
As one friend said, “9-11 taught me that my career comes second. Or third.” She worked in DC, lived near the Pentagon, husband worked at Johns Hopkins in Maryland. When the planes struck she was trapped in the city, and spent the next six hours wondering if her family was alive or dead.
She’d had one of the best jobs a journalist could hope for, running a well-respected newsroom, but she walked away without a second glance. Took a job with less pay (and a lot less prestige) so she could work from home and stay near her kids.
Before 9-11 I would have thought she was crazy. Now I get it, in spades.