In 2001, I worked on the 51st floor of the Bank of America tower, the tallest building in the southeast. I’d been at work about 30 minutes when my phone rang. It was one of my lawschool classmates who worked at Turner:
she: “Go to cnn.com.”
she: “Because a plane just hit the World Trade Center.”
me: “What? What kind of dumbass flies into a building?”
me: “The site is taking a long time to load. Just tell me what it says…”
she: “Oh my God…another plane just flew into another Tower! I’d better go…”
I jumped up, left my office, and went into the conference room across the hall to turn on the TV. A few secretaries left their cubes and entered the same room to see what was going on. Since CNN was one of our clients, many of us had received word that something extraordinary was happening.
But I had work to do, so I went back into my office to finish what I’d started. Then…
voice: “Jesus fucking Christ, they hit the fucking Pentagon, too?”
I recognized the voice as belonging to Suzanne, one of the junior associates in litigation from down the hall.
The conference room was now full, as secretaries, paralegals, associates, and even a few partners were watching the 20-something-inch cathode ray tube TV strapped to the wheeled cart by the dry erase board. Then I heard that the attorney next to Suzanne had a brother who worked in the World Trade Center. He was upset. He was trying to find out if his brother was okay.
His brother was dead.
My phone rang again. My friend Chad, a clerk at a law firm a few blocks north of us, was on the line.
chad: “Y’all been evacuated yet?”
me: “No. Why the hell would we be evacuated?”
chad: “‘Cause we’re fucking under attack! Our building just got evacuated…nobody knows how many targets there are.”
me: “Why the hell would anyone care about Atlanta? ‘Cause we have Coke? That’s stupid. Wait…We’re getting some kind of announcement. Yes, we’re supposed to evacuate, too. What a pain in the ass.”
I thought it was a stupid overreaction. I went back to work and ignored the sounds of all my colleagues’ gathering their stuff and walking down the hall outside my office toward the elevators.
When the hallway became silent again, I walked into the head paralegal’s office.
me: “Isn’t this ridiculous? They want us to leave the building because of something that happened in New York and Washington?”
I looked out into the hall. All the secretaries’ cubicles were empty. All the associates’ offices were empty. All the partners’ offices were empty. The head of the litigation section walked into the office where I sat and spoke:
partner: “Laura, for the first time in 30 years, I’m about to be angry at you. Go home.”
She minimized the programs on her screen and stood up. I stood, too. The three of us entered the elevator and traveled the 51 floors to the bottom of the building and exited the empty lobby. Best I could tell, we were the last to leave the building–the head partner, the head paralegal, and me.
I drove to Decatur and walked into one of those old-timey barber shops with a striped pole outside and got my hair cut as I watched the towers crash to the ground on the TV hanging from the ceiling in front of me. I saw men and women coated in soot running from a cloud of destruction amid the smell of Barbicide and the sound of little metal scissors cutting away excess growth. I listened quietly to the 60-something black man pontificating about the meaning of it all as he brought my hair back into military regulations. I went home and emailed my friend from childhood who lived in the Village. I called my parents.
A year and a few months later, on a Wednesday night in January, the President gave his annual “State of the Union” address. I sat in Manuel’s Tavern with the two classmates who’d called me on September 11, 2001, plus about ten others who’d rushed to the nearest bar after the conclusion of our last class of the day. You may remember the speech–the last several minutes contained some rather fiery rhetoric about Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, and possible military action in Iraq.
More vivid than the events of 9/11 or any of the months that followed was the reaction from the ten or so friends and classmates who surrounded me at the wooden table against the glass at the packed bar where no one spoke but the President: tears from the girls; looks of anguish from the guys. All were looking at me: the only person any of them knew who was in the military, even if it was just a weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. Looks of knowing. Looks that said, “You’re fixing to go away to Iraq, and we don’t know if we’ll see you again, and we don’t know how we’re supposed to react to that. So, we’re just going to stare at you and be emotional.”
One month and seventeen days later, I’d get the telephone call that sent me away. And my life would change forever.