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On this day twenty years ago

Published 2021-09-11

I have never bothered to record my memories of that day until today. Time has worn the memories smooth like river pebbles. They no longer cohere. I should have written this down, then.

I was living with my future ex-wife. It was approaching our third anniversary. We had spent most of the preceding year separated. We reconciled (temporarily, as it turned out), and had moved into a tiny rented house in near-in Southeast Portland. She was working at OMSI and I was working at a temp job at Portland General Electric, headquartered in Portland’s World Trade Center. I had just turned 30.

The weather was supernaturally clear. I have since learned pilots call this weather “extreme clear.” Early autumn, coolish, but not in a Pacific Northwest mode (which is usually edging cloudy and dampish). It felt like a Nebraska fall day. The trees were changing already.

During our morning ritual, at some point we turned on CNN. I imagine one of us had heard something on NPR, which was our habit to keep running in the background.

She was looking at the TV. That impossible blue sky through the window behind the TV. A building is on fire.

Me: What is this?

Her: I think someone is attacking America

At that moment there was only one building burning, I think. I don’t remember seeing the second plane hit but I remember remembering this.

She called in “sick,” couldn’t work. I felt: not bad? Fine? I didn’t know anyone in New York. I remember knowing, just absolutely knowing that Islamic terrorists had done this.

I called my supervisor at PGE. He must have been at work?

Me: is it safe to come into work? Should I come into work? My wife doesn’t want to work today.

Supervisor: I think we are closing the office today. Maybe for security reasons. [because: Portland World Trade Center].

The strange thing now, palming these pebbles twenty years later, is that no one had a script. After two decades of [all this] and on top of it the inchoate, homegrown version(s) that target kindergartens and the halls of Congress, that’s the remarkable part: no one had a script. The signs were there, we should have been paying attention, like keeping track of a funny mole that keeps changing shape. WTC ’93. Oklahoma City ’95. USS Cole 2000. Don’t worry, that mole is probably nothing.

Just the weekend prior we had gone to breakfast with friends & talked about Swiss Army Knives, and which ones were the largest that you could carry onto a plane. In your carry-on. You used to be able to meet arriving friends at the gate. Just walk right up to the gate and stand there by the jetway. I once packed a pint of white fuel into my checked luggage when I went to Alaska in 1996. You could wear whatever shoes you wanted. You could run from one end of the airport to the other, and the only time you had to pass through a metal detector was 10 feet from the jetway. (Just that summer previous I had, in fact, run across the entire airport, to catch a flight for my brother’s wedding.)

Anyway.

When I called my parents my mother wasn’t able to talk, at all. They had just that morning — before the planes, probably — put down their beloved parakeet. That was a lot. My brother said when he tried to talk to my mother she dropped the phone.

No pebbles remain of the next eight hours or so. I can guess we walked the dog. There were no planes in that blue blue blue sky, no contrails.

We must have discussed whether it was appropriate to follow through on our evening plans. We had tickets to a concert downtown. We went. Most of the restaurants were closed, signs on the door. Alexis was open so we ate there.

That night Jonathan Richman opened for Belle and Sebastian. Jonathan and his backup band took the stage with the entire B&S ensemble (it was like 20 musicians). Someone from Belle and Sebastian said something briefly, I don’t remember who it was or what they said. Jonathan gave a speech, the outlines of which I remember, and I cried:

“I used to live in New York. It’s a really rough city sometimes and the people can be gruff and mean but I also know that New Yorkers are soft for each other. I know right now there are horrible things happening in New York but I also know that New Yorkers are all pulling for each other.”

All the musicians, together, played “Everyday People.” And I cried some more.

The sky the next day was the same supernatural clear blue. No contrails. It was weeks maybe before there were contrails.