A turning point
I came to work early that day which was unusual for me.
I’m not a morning person and I am a rebel by nature. Getting up early to go to work is anathema for me. Even, if by some chance, I wake up early, I’d much rather procrastinate, listen to music, play with my cat, stand in the shower for along time or even do chores than get out of the house and go to work early. Something about the mundane routine of waiting for the bus and schlepping in with thousands of other young women in identical uniforms consisting of sensible Anne Taylor skirts, drab colored blouses and grungy white athletic shoes over nude toned pantyhose depressed me. I had postponed this moment of adulthood for years by tending bar and peddling herbs and macrobiotic food in the Carolinas. I went off to graduate school and learned how to write about “development.” I had procrastinated for long enough and now was officially an “adult.” Despite my membership in the health-insurance owning, work-clothes wearing club, I still hated adult-ing and resisted it as much as possible, specifically by coming to work late every day.
However, today was different! I was going to Haiti for the first time ever for work. I had just reached a point in my career where constant travel was a distinct possibility – an exciting and thrilling feeling. I wasn’t thrilled with the work in the “monitoring and evaluation of health information systems” but it was a job and it was going to get me into the field! I was still figuring out what I was meant to do with my career. The only thing I was clear about in my career plan was 1. I needed to see the world and travel and 2. I wanted to help people – and by people I meant women. That was it. I wanted to do something to help women in the world. It wasn’t a clear or compelling manifesto. In fact, in Washington DC – a city filled with thousands of other women exactly like me, it was not nearly good enough. Washington may be the most competitive city in the world. It’s called “Hollywood for Ugly People” and the competition is fierce. You will never be smart enough, connected enough or powerful enough. But at least I had a job. I was an evaluation associate(a term I didn’t understand) and I had health insurance. Basically, I spent the day booking other people’s travel while I gritted my teeth in jealousy and dreamed of the day I would be demanding diva and insist on my preferred flight routes via Geneva or Paris or Morocco as part of my “contract” to another unfortunate young wretch.
But that day was different – I was anxious to get to work! I woke up in my orange bedroom decorated with Colombian blankets, Guatemalan paintings, and hand-me-down furniture in Adams-Morgan Washington, DC that I shared with a Colombian woman who worked on human rights. She was still asleep in her room so I didn’t have to wrestle for space in the bathroom mirror that morning as I performed my morning ablutions. I was particularly worried about getting my nose nice and clean which required privacy. I had spontaneously pierced it two days before and did not want to get some sort of exotic Haitian infection that might cause permanent disfigurement when my nose to dropped off. I put on my adult face and off I went to the grim quasi-suburb of Rosslyn, Virginia.
As I stepped out onto my street, I realized that it was a beautiful morning – the sky was the sort of clear cerulean blue that the east coast of the USA gets on an early September morning. There was a hint of briskness in the air but the golden glow of the sun was promising a gorgeous Indian summer day which meant lunch outside in the park. The usual foot traffic of Salvadoran men walking to their construction jobs and professional African American women hustling off to work in the suburbs was lighter than normal and I even got a seat on the 42 bus which was a miracle in and of itself. I felt the self-righteous glow of being an early riser and found myself promising to turn over a new leaf and become a ‘morning person’.
The good mood didn’t even wear off during the drudgery of the bus transfer to the underground train to Rosslyn. The Virginian military officers and federal government contractors were early risers. I joined the flow of white middle aged men with cropped hair in uniforms – either in the blues, olives, or black of the US military or the khakis and blue button down shirts of the civilian mingled with the interns and young professionals like me who were still clinging to their Grateful Dead hippie bracelets or wore bright colors. We moved slowly and determinedly into nameless office buildings filled with identical lobbies, break rooms, and grim office cubicles.
I strode the well-worn path past the fluorescent lit lunch place (where you were rumored to find bandaids in the salad) and the cheerless Ruby Tuesday’s to our anonymous office foyer and then into the dimly lit office elevator. I breezed through the empty reception area and into my office. Not even my office mate was present! I plopped myself down at my desk, booted up the computer and got to work – not even pausing for my normal morning beverage and chat in my “work husband”, Alec’s office. A few minutes later, Alec passed through the hall on his way in and did a double-take and stopped in my office in shock. “It’s 8:15! What are you doing here?” he stammered. I self-righteously informed him that I had “COME TO WORK EARLY” and he retreated to his office to recover from the never-before-seen sight of me at work BEFORE the required hours.
He swung back into my office around 8:55am – the office halls were still surprisingly quiet and I remember thinking “so I’m not the only person who is usually late.” “Hey,” he said, “do you wanna go to the kitchen and look at the news? They put a tv in there – a plane hit the World Trade Center in New York.”
I paused to think about it… there had been a small passenger plane that had hit the White House some months before and it was not a big deal. Normally I loved an opportunity to get out of work and socialize. But today I was an adult. “No thanks,” I said… as he walked off. I was busy after all, no time for my typical lolly-gagging which characterized my morning work schedule. But I did have to go to the bathroom, so I walked past the kitchen. As I came close to it, I noticed almost every person in my office was there - some sitting in chairs around our lunch tables but most leaning against the wall. No one was talking. No one was fixing coffee or microwaving oatmeal. Everyone was just staring at the television. Just as I turned my attention to it, there was an audible gasp through the room.
In front of my eyes, we sat as a group in stunned silence as a second plane crashed into the burning World Trade Center South Tower. This was not a novelty news story – this was not a small single pilot plane. This was a full-blown passenger plane filled with people. This plane crashed into an office tower probably identical to the one I was standing in with my office colleagues. As the building on-screen erupted in flames, someone next to me began to cry. I knew then that my life was about to change forever.