A reprint of where I was on 09-11-2001
I was in my car when it happened, on my way to Milledgeville, Georgia from Charleston, South Carolina. I sat in misery as I drove down a backwoods highway. I was 34-years-old, and I hated my job. Worse than that, I couldn’t remember a job I liked since I quit my gig as a dishwasher in a hospital at the age of seventeen. I had lived an entire lifetime since dreading the concept of waking up on a weekday and dressing for a job that would slowly suck the life out of me. Professional fulfillment was something that eluded me so thoroughly I was convinced that I was hardwired to hate working. Not the physical effort just the emotional investment.
Howard Stern was on the radio. He is the one who told me what happened that morning, and because of that I am indelibly linked to the shock jock. I like Howard. It’s not his fart jokes and sophomoric ramblings about the female form that draws me to his show. It’s his pure unadulterated love for his job. It was a feeling I couldn’t relate to at the time. As foreign as the concept was to me, I still longed for it and Howard exuded it. You could hear it in the timber of his voice. And it wasn’t just him. It was everyone in the studio with him. They all loved their jobs. Listening to them, I was sucked into their world and for the time I listened, I enjoyed a workday morning.
That morning they were talking about Pamela Anderson. Howard had gone to a club with her, and she kissed him. The crew was stunned and envious. They wanted every detail, and Howard was more than happy to oblige. He let the facts drip out in masterful story-like fashion. My mouth agape, I gripped the steering wheel tighter and bent in closer to the radio. He was teasing everyone with insignificant side-bars mixed in with outrageous claims, and then there was a misplaced pause. I can still hear the void left by that pause.
“What is that?” Howard asked. “One of the towers is on fire.” The confusion crackled through the dying signal on my radio. I slowed down to hold onto the signal for as long as I could. I wanted him to get back to the story. But scattered details came in about the fire. “It was a small plane.” Someone said. “I don’t know how that doesn’t happen more often,” someone else said. They talked about the air traffic around Manhattan. The planes fly much too low. Another misplaced pause.
“The other building’s on fire,” Howard said calmly but puzzled. A panicked voice followed from someone else in the room. “It was another plane! Another plane flew into the other building!” My heart pounded against my chest. The static on the radio began to drown out their voices. I fiddled with the tuner. I couldn’t lose the signal. Not now. Just before I went completely beyond the signals range, I thought I heard the question, “Are we under attack?”
I looked at the car to my left on Highway 95. The driver was stooped over and fiddling with his radio, too. The driver of the car in front of me was doing the same. I sat back, breathed deeply and spotted a sign for a state of Georgia visitor’s center. From my frequent trips along this road, doing a job I hated, I knew the visitor’s center had a lounge with a TV.
The parking area for the visitor’s center was crowded. Cars, RVs, trucks, motorcycles, nearly took up every square inch of pavement. I squeezed my car into a spot near the back of the lot and parked. I gave the radio one last try before I exited. Nothing. Not even a local station. Outside of the car, I noticed that the air was unusually still. Something was missing. When I turned to the highway, I realized what it was. There were no cars passing the visitor’s center. The hum of rubber passing over the road was notably absent, as notable as Howard’s first misplaced pause. The void had returned. Looking back, the day was filled with eerily quiet moments. Pauses that didn’t belong caused by an avalanche of confusion and anger and fear.
I walked into the visitor’s center, looked to the right and was amazed to see no one standing inside. Given the number of cars in the parking lot, the place should have been packed with people. I turned to my left and quickly unraveled the mystery. Everyone had jammed themselves into the lounge. A sea of people stood staring up at the TV. Not a word was exchanged between anyone in the crowd. They watched in silence as smoke billowed from the World Trade Center buildings. Occasionally, I heard sniffles and stifled wails. A scan of the room revealed a lot of tears and strained gazes.
Finally, someone next to me answered the question asked by the unidentified person on the radio. “We’re under attack.”
Me hating my job suddenly seemed like such a small and insignificant thing.