I’ve told this tale many a time, but now that I have a brand new site, I will post it once more. This is the story of a newlywed living on Beacon Hill in Boston. At the time, I worked for Houghton Mifflin (pre-Harcourt). I used to walk to and from work—across Boston Common and the Public Garden to the HM building on Boylston and Berkeley. FAO Schwartz was there, too.
On this particular morning, I woke from a bad dream. In the dream, I was a passenger in a white pickup truck. I couldn’t see the driver’s face, but I remember the skin of his arm was deeply tanned. I did not want to be in this truck, but I had no choice. We were going down a highway with green hills on either side, and in the distance I could see the skyline of a city. The city had dark clouds over it. I looked up at once of those green highway signs and it read: Death and Destruction Ahead. I was desperate to get out of this truck, even thinking of jumping out despite being on a highway… And then I woke up.
The walk to work helped soothe my ruffled feathers. It was a beautiful day. But when I got to work, I could tell something was up. My cubicle was on the opposite side of a wall from the department admin, and I could hear that she had at least two other people in her cube with her. They were saying, “It won’t load.” I assumed they meant some kind of Web site.
I turned on my own computer and prepared to start my day, but then my phone rang. It was my husband, calling from his office in the Financial District. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center,” he said.
“That’s stupid,” I replied. I was picturing some little Cessna, a really bad flying student or something.
My husband seemed to understand. “No, a plane.” Meaning a big one, a passenger jet, the kind you take on vacation.
And then he said, “Oh, God, another one.”
Working in finance, my husband’s office had televisions everywhere. In fact, he would have been at 7 World Trade Center for a meeting that morning if not for a change in schedule.
I tried to wrap my brain around what was happening. All our department managers were in a meeting, but people around me were clearly getting anxious. Rumors were flying: that the Sears Tower had been hit, the Space Needle, that the John Hancock Building a few doors down was a target.
Now, I was just a lowly little Production Supervisor. But with the managers unaware of what was going on, I made an executive decision. I told one of my work colleagues to call her boyfriend and have him come pick her up. I decided I, too, was going home. And told others to go if they wanted. Then I went to the corner conference room, opened the door without knocking, and said to the stunned table of managers: “I’m sending people home.”
I said, “There’s been a terrorist attack or something.”
The managers got up and began alternately calming people and telling them to go.
My husband called again and told me they were evacuating his building, that they were having to walk down some 30+ flights of stairs because they didn’t want people in the elevators. He would be walking home. I told him I’d meet him there shortly.
I grabbed my things and walked my coworker downstairs. I waited with her for her boyfriend, even though I was itching to just be gone. Once he pulled up and I saw her off, I hurried back through the Public Garden and Common to get home. On the Common were dozens of college students, stretched out and reading, doing homework. Many had headphones on. They don’t know, I thought. It felt surreal that there might be people who didn’t know what was going on.
Before going up to our apartment, I stopped at the convenience store around the corner from our building and bought a few things. I had a feeling we might be holed up awhile.
I got home. My husband had the television on. We hugged, but we weren’t crying yet. We were too much in shock, too confused about what was going on.
A few minutes after I got home, the South Tower collapsed.
Somewhere in all this, I was thinking: I need to call Dad. It’s his birthday. What a crap birthday.
Funny what our brains do in a crisis. Unable to grasp something so huge, we focus on a small, easy thing.
Of course, it was nearly impossible to get through to my dad. My call didn’t make it through until mid-afternoon, and the conversation was short; words were failing us.
Words still fail for things like this. As a writer, that’s difficult to understand and acknowledge, but it’s true. Words are wonderful and powerful, but there are times when their magic is impotent. Still, like cavemen with rocks, words are also sometimes the only tool we have. We do our best, however clumsily.