It's a sad anniversary today. Rather than comment on it directly, I thought I would post an essay I wrote for an open mic night held on September 11th, 2002.
I like to think that each generation of Americans has what I call its "where were you?" moment. Anyone in my parents' generation can describe the moment in exhaustive detail when they heard the news of Kennedy's assassination. For my grandparents it's Pearl Harbor; for their parents, perhaps the 1929 stock market crash.
I've always assumed my generation's "where were you?" moment would be the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1984. And I still believe it's a defining moment for Generation X. But it pales in the enormous shadow of September 11, 2001.
People often remember a trauma in seemingly unrelated fragments -- a certain facial expression, the weather, or even background music. For me, a lasting impression of September 11th is the taste of coffee.
I've been a coffee snob since I was twelve years old; but in the last few years my relationship with coffee has fizzled. It's the caffeine. Either I get so high from its effects that I virtually hallucinate, or I sink so low afterwards that the inevitable crash can be devastating. In my gourmet snootiness I went without coffee for several years rather than sully my delicate taste buds with the unmentionable decaf. Then last year, my nostalgia for the taste of coffee won out, and I decided to try an experiment. I found a small bag of the most promising -- and most expensive -- decaf I could find. If I liked it, I'd consider switching to gourmet decaf. And if not...my roses needed the compost anyway.
I woke up a little early on the morning of September 11th. After walking the puppy, I had some toast and brewed the decaf. It smelled wonderful, and I appreciated it for a moment -- in my favorite cup, with the perfect proportions of cream and honey. I took a cautious sip. Not bad at all!
That was when I got the news. The phone rang, and the news director called me into my journalism job an hour early. As he put it, "some idiot flew a plane into the World Trade Center." My minds' eye conjured some drug-crazed loner in a rusty Cessna, and I told him I'd be on my way. I fought the temptation to linger over that coffee, because I knew I'd have to wait too long for it to cool off enough to drink. Crap. First coffee I'd had in years and I won't even be able to drink it.
We all know what the rest of that day held. Most of us watched the devastation in Washington and Manhattan as it unfolded. I also spent a few hours sprinting between the federal building and City Hall in my city, nearly getting trampled by the frantic officials and security personnel I hoped to interview.
As a reporter in the Midwest, as opposed to New York or Washington, I was lucky. I only worked about 12 hours that day. I'm grateful; I don't know how much longer I could have fought back my own shock and outrage to get through the next newscast, the next interview, the next hour of programming. Like many reporters, I have never emotionally processed the impact of that day -- I was too busy at the time, and since then it's been buried under the weight of subsequent events, both political and personal.
I'm not sure what time I got home that night, although it was well after dark. Left unsupervised for too long, my puppy had scattered the garbage and nibbled some of my paperbacks. Strangely, the coffee was untouched. I like to think that on some level, my pets understood there was a grave crisis, and respected that coffee cup as a tiny offering to the nation's recovery through one reporter's peace of mind -- as sincere as the millions who lined up to give blood in the coming weeks. That morning, a universe ago, I brewed a perfect cup of coffee as a special gift to myself. I had eggs and toast. Now, the cup sat in my dark dining room as a mute reminder that things would be different in unforeseeable ways. It was cold; a tiny layer of cream had congealed on top. I stared down at the wasted cup, trying not to think of the true losses of that day -- the uncounted victims, the unfathomable rage of perpetrators willing to die, even the fantastic architecture decimated. And the obligatory retaliation to come.
Finally, I poured the coffee down the sink and went to bed. It'll be a busy day tomorrow.
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