Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Ten Years Later

I used to be a store manager at a Blockbuster store. We sold DirecTV satellite dish systems which meant I could turn on the TV and have it running while I prepared for the day to begin. Even though the store didn’t open until 10am, I always made sure I was in the store early to prepare the previous night’s bank deposits, check in the videos that came in from the night before and put the videos back up on the shelves.

It was a small store so we didn’t have a lot of sales, so to keep my store profitable; I cut costs, which meant that during the day, I would be the only employee in the store.  

It started out like any other day; I was there at 7am, turned on the TV monitor and futz around the store. I always turned to the Today show and that day wasn’t any different. I was checking in videos when I heard Matt Lauer break into the show talking about reports of a plane hitting the World Trade Building.

My immediate first thought was “What kind of dumbass hits a building? What, he couldn’t turn? What a moron!” When Matt Lauer was talking about it, the footage of the 2nd plane hitting the 2nd tower hadn’t come up yet.

I just happened to glance up when the Today Show switched to a live feed and we watched the 2nd plane and I remember completely blanking out, uncertain of just what I saw. I don’t think I could even process what I just saw. Then I heard Matt’s voice and my head heard the historical and famous voice of the reporter talking about the Hindenburg crash.

I didn’t know what to do, I was alone. So I reached for my phone and called a friend who I knew was also at his store preparing to open. He was not watching TV and I yelled at him to hurry up and turn it on, aping the commentary I was hearing on the TV.

It was still early, we weren’t open, I was alone and I didn’t know what to do. It took me a few minutes before I could gather myself, then the news started coming in fast and furious, the towers falling, then the plane hitting the Pentagon, the final plane going down in Pennsylvania and the confusion that ensued.

I finally realized I needed to call my mom. She had been watching the news as well and she had already spoken to my dad because his office was only blocks away from the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago. I wanted him to get out of the loop. Dad was on his way back home at around 9am.

I opened the store at the normal time 10am. I had spoken with my district manager and she said to go ahead and open but we both agreed there was no way we were going to be busy. Then she told me that one of the other store managers was very worried because his brother lived within blocks of the WTC and he was unable to get a hold of his brother. I spent that whole day, tethered to the TV that wasn’t selling DirecTV, it was airing the news and the few customers I had came to watch it with me and we talked of our grief, our shock and our anger.

At the end of the strip mall where my store was positioned was a blood bank. By 11am that morning the line to give blood stretched from that store and weaved around the strip mall because so many people wanted to give blood to help out. I will always remember that for me it was the sight of that line getting longer and longer, bringing different people together to help in this extraordinary tragedy that made me so proud to be an American.

The American psyche was hurt, but as is normal in moments of great history, a people gather strength from the shared experiences of grief and tragedy, even more than moments of pride and joy, a major failing of our species. We were united in our grief and anger; we showed the world a united front.

I never knew anyone lost that day, I never knew anyone who knew anyone lost that day. But what that moment means to me is best summed up by the immortal words of John Donne:

"... all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

We were diminished by those deaths, and we need to remember that their deaths need to mean something greater than memorials and platitudes. We need to be the nation that those people died for; we need to insure the families they left behind are left with a country strong and secure, proudly facing a future with hope, determination and perseverance.

Ten years later, what 9/11 will always mean to me is the reminder of how precious life should be. I watch the specials and heard those phone recordings and the one thing that resonates is the messages of love some of them were able to send out on their last few moments. Because in the end, it is the love that we remember, the love we cling too and it is love that will keep hope alive in all of us.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Beautiful Chicago

I’m not born nor bred Chicago, but I’ve spent more time here than any other place I’ve ever lived so I consider myself a Chicagoan. Chicago is a beautiful city. So much like a beautiful woman who gets under your skin and deep in your blood, you love her one minute, then you hate her. You're not sure of a lot of things, but you know you just can’t live without her.

In Spring, she is hope incipient, all the wistfulness that you hoard in winter’s dread seem to come true with the first shy buds of magnolia trees start popping out. The lazy drip of melting snow from in the gangway between the houses and the apartments, remind you, summer is coming.

Then one day, Summer is here, brandishing bravura like a shiny, slick, flirt’s smile you can’t deny. She is emboldened and sweet, seductive and irresistible. Summer in Chicago has to be experienced to be believed. The street fairs, the city festivals, the jazz/food/lalapalooza heady times in the lake front, all remind you that this city teems with 3 million people.

Then suddenly, always too soon, Summer flees. Like the girl who, after the shock of being kissed for the first time in her life, abruptly turns around and runs away, leaving behind a confused suitor who wanted her to linger and yearned for just one more perfect kiss.

Fall arrives without warning, her smile bright and gorgeous over a deepening blue sky and proud, vast clouds. But she brings with her a peckish breeze to remind you that she will easily turn a weary cold eye upon anything she finds displeasing.

Then one day Fall starts to darken and brood, expectant and forbidding and one morning you know, Winter has arrived.  You wake up as she throws on a mantle of snow; she is quiet, demure and has that dangerous beauty that hides black ice, wind chills and snow drifts. But she’s beautiful to look at and you love her first snow, then you hate as she turns into blackened mounds accumulating detritus on the streets.

Labor Day is supposed to be a commemoration of the everyday working man, yet in Chicago it is always the turning point when Fall stares down Summer and Summer begins to fade. We pack away our shorts and our t-shirts and wait for next year.