Thursday, September 8, 2011

Where were you?

I’ve been thinking about time and place—and how powerfully our surroundings can influence our experiences and memories. Collectively, the country is getting ready to reflect on memories of September 11, 2001, a day that will forever be etched in our shared history. But each of us will have our own experience to look back on, based on where we were (both physically and in our lives) when the tragedy struck.

On September 11, 2001, I was a freshly-minted college graduate and newlywed living in a tiny apartment in West Los Angeles, working as a sales manager at a hotel in Beverly Hills. That morning, I had a full schedule: a meeting in downtown LA followed by a client lunch. I drove to work at 7:45 a.m. (about two hours after the first plane struck the North Tower) under strangely quiet skies, listening to a CD. I was completely unaware that the entire world was riveted on the World Trade Center until I arrived at work and stepped into chaos. My meetings, of course, were canceled.

Nestled among plastic surgery clinics, a stone’s throw from Rodeo Drive and across the street from a strictly kosher Ralph’s Thriftway, our hotel sat on a cultural and economic dividing line between the superficial glitz of Beverly Hills and the quiet Jewish neighborhoods south of Pico Boulevard. An extended-stay hotel catering to corporate travelers, it was regularly filled with businesspeople from around the world. It would not be uncommon to see an orthodox Jewish rabbi, an Asian business executive, and a preppy fleece-clad VP from The North Face munching on chips and salsa at the complimentary hospitality hour.

A hotel is a strange place to experience a national crisis. Though every person at the hotel came from different countries for different reasons, they all had one thing in common: they were far from home at a time when the world was filled with fear. Air travel was suspended, and the hotel’s operations were effectively frozen. Scheduled arrivals weren’t coming in, and those who were supposed to fly out were stuck. Telephone lines and cell signals were jammed as people frantically tried to reach relatives and co-workers in New York.

As the morning wore on, hundreds of hotel guests from around the world piled into the hotel’s lobby to watch the television. Hotel staff produced cookies and coffee from the kitchen. Cups and water bottles were passed around as we sat, riveted to the spot, starting at the television. Everyone had a television in their room, of course, but the lobby felt safer somehow. Being surrounded by strangers was better than being alone.

That day, my happy young-adult bubble of invincibility burst wide open. There are moments in life when we’re thrust (sometimes unwillingly) toward adulthood. These moments don’t happen at happy, predictable intervals—graduations, weddings—but at times of crisis and tragedy. I remember feeling, for the first time, the hatred that some people feel toward Americans. Suddenly, I felt a tiny piece of what it’s like to be loathed for something you can’t control. I felt powerless and small.

Sadly, that day of supreme ugliness and hate would be followed by more of the same—racial profiling, finger pointing, and fear-mongering. But on that day, travelers from around the world huddled together in a hotel lobby in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, comforting one another in hushed tones, offering cell phones, and sharing their shock, fear, and disbelief. There was no “us versus them.” We were just people, sharing a day that none of us would ever forget. The world was ripped apart by fear, but during that long day, we were united. If there was a good place to experience a national tragedy, that was it.

Where were you on that day?


Michelle said...

It was my parents 30th anniversary. They were planning to go out to celebrate when dad got home with who ever was in town. Meaning us kids. They were planning a trip. Our family will never forget what happened that day. My parents will never forget what happened on their anniversary.

Malia said...

Wow, Michelle. I've always felt for people who share a birthday or anniversary with an infamous date. I hope your parents have had some good anniversaries since then.

Kat said...

I have to say I was in a good place - I heard the news on the car radio on my way to babysit for my church's MOPS group. Nothing like listening to the radio, snuggling tiny babies. I have friends that were on their honeymoon. Ugh.

Abby said...

What a remarkable experience, Malia. It's a good reminder that Sept. 11 isn't just something we Americans own. Plenty of other people were affected and forever changed, too.

Malia said...

That sounds like a wonderful place to be, Kat! Thanks, Abby. I think my feelings about the events that followed 9/11 were shaped by having experienced the day itself in the midst of people from so many different nationalities. I never felt like the tragedy belonged solely to Americans. Much of the world was mourning with us. And so many people from other countries have relatives here, so they were impacted too. We really are a global community.