I wasn't there. I was across the country. I remember getting up and hearing the news on my alarm clock radio saying something about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, and I thought it was an accident with a private prop plane, surely, and then I had to hurry to get to work, and on the bus people were confused and groggy and thinking about what they had to do at work that day, and everything was still garbled. Two planes? At once? No way. This was before iPhones, before Twitter, before YouTube. (I was apparently one of the very few people in a workplace without access to a TV set or radio, and even when it became clear what had happened, what was happening, our boss's boss, El Jefe I called him, came out and said What's happened is awful but we shouldn't let it distract us from what we need to do today. No, really. People got even less work done after that, out of resentful spite.) All the news sites were down; I was getting some news from Metafilter, but even that was patchy. At least two coworkers just left because they had relatives in the Columbia Center, which was the tallest building on the West Coast at the time and had been evacuated (I think later the 9/11 Commission confirmed it was a possible target, which, fucking duh, but what was freaking people out was the so-called Millennium Plot). I didn't see the footage everyone else had been watching on loop all day until I got home, by which time I was really dreading it. But I watched it along with everyone else anyway.
But even then, I didn't really see it, because as usual I had gotten off the bus about eight blocks past my stop so I could go right into the grocery store, get two bottles of wine (two liter bottles of wine, let's be clear here) and then walk back to my house, because it was faster than getting off at my stop, saying hi to T, relaxing, and then going out and getting the wine. That's the addict mentality for you: the sacrifice of whatever else in service of the fastest hit. And if you think I opened the wine as soon as I got home before even taking my coat off, you are correct. So I watched the same stuff everyone else had been watching all day, except I didn't really take it in, and I don't really remember what I did. Not quite a blackout, more like memory cutting in and out, but close. I know I cried, but I didn't feel it. That night is erased, a vague patchy blank, which was the point. I might have even gotten more drunk than usual (if that was possible at that point) because of the terrible thing which had happened, because that's a perfect excuse for an addict, and is embarrassing to admit even now. T probably had three or four glasses, if that. I had all the rest. And passed out on the sofa in front of the TV, and then later on, I guess, woke up, undressed, and passed out again in bed. Most people weren't there, they were all virtual witnesses, unable to escape the endless video. But I hadn't been there even for the virtual part.
I don't like saying that I sobered up "because of" 9/11 because I didn't; I didn't quit until April 1, 2002, about six months later. I do know a few people who sobered up on September 12th, 2001. Not many. I also don't like saying it because it feels fucking tacky: I used this national tragedy, which resulted in the immediate deaths of thousands of people and eventual death of millions more, and changed history and global politics permanently, to improve my tiny individual life! Go me! But what stuck with me was the image of the people who worked at the same university where I did at the time, riding our express bus to get to work, not knowing what was happening, while it was going on. Utterly clueless. In that sense we'd been the same as the people running to catch subways, to cross against lights, to pass that one slow bastard, in New York, or, just six years earlier, in Oklahoma City, or other places. The truth is we all die, and we don't know when or how. It could be at any moment. The other truth is, we don't know this; we can't know it. The idea of life as placid, routine, boring, even, is an expensive fiction, a beautiful lie, one propped up by a lot of other lies. But occasionally the truth punches through, usually catastrophically: You don't have the time to waste that you think you do. Those thousands of people who died, in the Towers, they were rushing to work, not thinking about anything big, probably, worrying about spilling coffee, about the mid-morning meeting, about the quarterly figures, all those little things. And then they went through unimaginable suffering, and then they died. And the rest of us didn't; all we could do was witness, from further and further away.
I thought about that quite a bit, through the rest of September 2001, and on and off through the months after that. It wasn't even the feeling that I had dodged a bullet, because there was no bullet to dodge, and nobody can dodge what's coming for us, anyway. We're all going to die. I could die, right now, for whatever reason, that I can't foresee. If I die, right now, this is what I'll be doing, we're all in the middle of our own lives, like those people in the towers. Do I want to die, right now, doing this? Precisely this? (Which was, let's be clear again, getting passing-out drunk nearly every night. It was a full-time non-occupation.) I thought something like that, or more accurately, felt it, in a very cloudy, incomplete, almost wordless way (because I was still drinking, because I'd been drinking since I was seventeen). It seemed flat wrong, unethical almost, to keep wasting my life, when all those people had lost theirs, and they hadn't known that it was their last day; the last time they'd see their families, the last time they'd draw breath without pain, not knowing, unable to know, how wonderful it actually is, to just breathe.
Nobody can live with the knowledge of their certain death in full view, all the time, accepting. ("Saints and poets maybe....they do some.") But every 9/11, that's something else I remember. This could be my last moment. It is my last moment.
What will we be doing, if it is? Will we be present? Will we be here?