My 9/11: A discussion.
From September 9, 2011
AUTHOR’S NOTE: My column writing career launched with 9/11, and as the ten years passed, the subject arose repeatedly in my work. Now, at the ten year anniversary of The Next Pearl Harbor, I wished to revisit that day. I felt however that my recollections would work better in interview form than in straight essay form, so I asked my friend and roommate Rob to interview me. Below is the first part of this interview; scroll to the end for a note on errors in memory.
“One thing that always struck me was that it was a year earlier, September 10th, September 11th, September 12th of 2000, right in there was when Bobby Knight was fired. It was a Sunday. The Bears had just lost a game to the fucking Lions. It was a noon game. It ended, it was 3 o’clock, and there were reports that Bob Knight was fired or was possibly going to be fired. Luke and I went out, and there was a big crowd forming.
“Eventually the crowd marched over to Myles Brand’s. Now it’s nighttime, and there’s this huge crew all around the president’s house. They’ve surrounded it, and I’m right up at the front. I see the police getting the riot gear out. I’m small, so I back out of the crowd. No sooner do I get to the back of this crowd that, you know, I don’t know if there’s tear gas, maybe a little bit, there’s smoke, people are yelling, the riot police are in-action. They’re not like Iranian in-action but they’re all there. They’re all wearing their gear. They’re thumping their sticks and everything. While we were running around, I saw two of the guys I met during orientation. I was like, ‘ This is fucking crazy!’
“And I just remember a year later, feeling like, ‘ Wow, what a different reason for everybody to be out on campus. What a different shared experience…’ ”
I had a philosophy class, I think it was. I had needed a science or something, and I’d signed up for a philosophy class because I was living with Ric, and he was a philosophy major and was actually in this class. If I had trouble, Ric could help me out. That was my first class of the day, it was a Tuesday, I think the class was probably somewhere in the 10 to 10:30 range, which sounds right because I liked to schedule classes a little late in the day. Afternoon if possible.
Ric and I lived in like a dorm-suite. It was two dorms connected with a bathroom in the middle. I woke up and I didn’t turn the TV on because I was probably already late. I showered – maybe I didn’t shower – but I got ready for school and bounced. Didn’t turn the TV on. I got to class and Ric was there. He’d been up. He must have had a class at like 8 or something. He asked me if I’d heard about the news in New York. About the World Trade Center. And I said – I sort of made a joke, and I said, “You know I only get my news on SportsCenter.” Like, unless it’s on ESPN, I don’t hear about it, you know? Typical wise-ass.
Somebody in the class asked the professor if we were going to discuss what had happened in New York. This must have been – what was the time difference, the time between the first plane and the second plane?
I don’t remember. Couldn’t have been that long, right? Half hour?
Well then this might have been right in that half hour. Because people knew something was happening, but nobody was terribly alarmed yet. They didn’t seem to be anyhow. But somebody asked if we were going to talk about it. And he said, “No, you know, not really, not unless people really want to.” So it had started, we knew, but it wasn’t enough yet where – I mean, we went about and had class.
Ric was concerned because his dad was commuting from Chicago to New York during the week because he worked at HSBC. He was in lower Manhattan. But I didn’t really have any sense of what the World Trade Centers were, what the towers were, where they were, how many people worked in them, where they were located. And I guess if the Sears got hit and came down, it wouldn’t really matter where it was located. But I just didn’t have a sense of how many – I mean, I guess they’re towers, right? I should have known, but I didn’t.
But also, the World Trade Center had been bombed in ’94. And it had been all good. Not ‘all good,’ but it wasn’t a huge problem. It wasn’t 9/11. Oklahoma City in ’95. And what else… I don’t know. Columbine was two years earlier, which was a pretty big deal if you were in high school in the suburbs. So there were events, there were dangerous, violent, newsworthy events that weren’t ‘The Next Pearl Harbor.’ So I didn’t – I just didn’t know.
So all of class you talked about philosophy.
Talked about philosophy.
Got out of class. Now…
Now I’m walking through the halls in this building. There was a group of people, they had one of the big projector screens and they were watching the news, and that’s when you saw the smoking buildings. My timeline of this might be off a little, but what I remember was that after that class and after seeing that footage, you could just feel the collective mood of everyone on campus. Everybody was listening to the same news and reacting to the same story. Everybody was on the same page. “Yeah, this is pretty big. Something pretty big happened.” (Laughs.)
I lived in a dorm far away from the center of campus, so I had a long walk, relatively long, and I’m sure I went and got lunch. I probably went through the student union and got Burger King, because that’s what I did. I remember wandering in a daze on campus. When I got home I turned my TV on. It had been on ESPN from the night before – this was the moment where I knew, “Oh shit.” Because I turned the TV on and ESPN had the towers up, in flames, with the emergency whatever scrolling across the bottom. “Oh my god, it’s on ESPN.” (Laughs.) It reached me. You know: “I don’t get my news unless it comes on ESPN.” Well there you fucking go. Your shit’s on ESPN. That was the It’s Real moment. For the rest of the day… (trails off)
I don’t remember feeling “America is at war” – it was just weird. 9/11 was just weird. It was just a weird fucking day. Everything about 9/11 until we killed bin Laden was strange. Bin Laden getting killed was strange. But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit.
I had just started work at Domino’s as a delivery driver. And I ordered pizza that night. I gave the delivery driver this enormous tip, because when you’re delivering pizzas, you get compensated for your gas, but it’s based on normal gas prices and assuming that you just drive to wherever you’re delivering and then you come back to the store.
So now I’m wondering, “Oh my god, gas prices are going to be crazy!” Because for like an hour, they were crazy. Gas prices in the afternoon of September 11th were like fifteen bucks a gallon. They were nuts. And so I remember thinking, “Oh boy, is this going to fuck up my – ” You know, because I had just gotten this job as a pizza delivery guy. I must have tipped this guy 20 bucks on a ten-dollar pie or something.
Was this your way of understanding the event? Gas prices and pizza delivery?
Yeah, maybe. I didn’t have anybody who was there. I’d had some friends freshman year who were from New York. They weren’t great friends – not that that mattered – but I didn’t have anybody who I was supposed to call and say, “How are your people?” Other than Ric, and then we’d found out that Ric’s dad was fine.
I also didn’t know a lot about the world. Did I show you Hunter Thompson’s column the day after 9/11? He wrote it that night. Well, if I was 64, and I’d been through JFK and through all of the 60s, and I’d been gassed and beaten and spied on by a government who thinks my writing makes me a threat to the state, if all these things had happened and I had the benefit of life experience – shit, if it happened today, I have a much better understanding of what the world is about. I knew it was significant, but I didn’t know anything about bin Laden. I didn’t know anything about our relationship with Afghanistan. I knew very little. I knew, like, “confused masses” information of what Iraq was really like. I didn’t know Bush’s background. I didn’t know H.W.’s background and the fuller picture of the role that he’s played in our relationship with other nations. It was very abstract. So yeah, I personalized it in the way that was open to me, which was “I just got this new job. How is this going to be affected?” Because of gas prices.
And then it sort of came back to sports. Like pretty immediately, obviously with the whole ESPN thing, but pretty immediately I was understanding the events with how they were going to affect sports. Not because I thought sports were the most important thing, but because I knew them. I knew the world of sports. I knew the schedules. The games. When they were. That was on a Tuesday, so the Bears were going to play Jacksonville the following Sunday, and that was the game that was cancelled.
I remember the 2000 election very well. We were up that whole night, my whole floor on the dorm. But I didn’t know enough about the differences between Bush and Gore to look at 9/11 the day it happened and say, “Oh wow, now the 2000 election is really significant because now the decision maker is a different person with different interests with a different background with different values reporting to different people.”
When was the national broadcast where all of the TV stations were turned over to the fundraiser? It was all the celebrities, you’d see them in the background answering phones, the big phone-a-thon. When was that?
I don’t remember.
Well, Paul Simon played “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a song I never really liked. I was getting ready for work, getting ready to go to Domino’s, and it was on. I started to watch it, and I started to cry. I was not a glued-to-the-TV 9/11er. In fact, I remember watching 9/11, just walking into the dorm building, and the TV would be on in some lounge or something, and the death count would be going up – or maybe it was going down. Because at first it was really high. So that was another weird thing. The death count was moving in two directions. The assumed death count was going down, but the confirmed death count was going up.
But yeah, I was just listening to Paul Simon, and, I don’t know (pause) It hit me. The whole thing. That was the first time that the full power, the full force of the event hit me. (Gets quiet.) And I wasn’t thinking about sports or delivering pizzas or gas prices or politics or war. It was just, however many people at the time I thought it was – they were gone. I just started sobbing.
The whole magnitude and thrust hit you.
Yeah. Not the political thrust or the big picture. Just, “A lot of people died.” And their friends, parents, children, family – that must have sucked.
A NOTE ON MEMORY: Once I transcribed this interview, I double-checked some of the facts about which I was uncertain. I noticed a few items. First, by the time we had our class — which was definitely in that 10-10:30 range — both of the towers were already down. In 2001, the state of Indiana was not yet observing daylight savings time, and would have been on CST on September 11, leaving us an hour behind New York. The second tower fell at 10:28 a.m., EST, back when I was surely still in bed.
Second, as it turns out, my Bears memory is off. We did not lose to Detroit on the day Bob Knight was fired, but rather got spanked 41-0 by Tampa Bay. The Detroit loss came two weeks later by only a touchdown, so it seems in my head these ten years later that losing 41-0 to the Buccaneers is as embarrassing as losing 21-14 to the Lions…
FROM 2001 TO 2011: MY 9/11 ARCHIVES
09.25.01 – ‘One Team, One Field’
10.03.01 – ‘Making the right decisions’
10.11.01 – ‘Searching for the right target’
10.23.01 – ‘Fighting the real enemy’
11.13.01 – ‘Flag means a lot to me’
11.20.01 – ‘Thanksgiving’s healing power’
11.27.01 – ‘Business back to usual’
09.12.03 – ‘Christianity: America’s number one enemy’
09.14.05 – ‘A hard rain’s a-gonna fall’
01.11.06 – ‘The four-years-four-months-and-one-day anniversary of 9/11’
09.11.06 – ‘9/11… five years later…’
05.02.11 – ‘Tweeting is believing.’
05.02.11 – ‘How the game is played.’
05.03.11 – ‘Spelling it out.’
05.05.11 – ‘9/11 and other stories.’