September 11, 2001 has been one of two signal public events of my adulthood. The other was the inauguration day of President Obama. The minutes and hours of each were suffused with a sense of historical moment: on one, I was a thirtyish new bride; on the other, I was a massively pregnant forty-year old, hoisting a celebratory thimble of champagne.
Sixteen years later, September 11 seems so distant that it is merely a touchstone for rhetoric. But for those of us who lived in New York and D.C., the memory courses on.
The New York narrative has passed into the realm of literature now: September 11 related novels include Falling Man by Don DeLillo; Jay McInerney’s Brightness trilogy; and The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (the best one, in my view).
Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin and Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire examine other events (the Philippe Petit tightrope walk between the Twin Towers and the 1977 Blackout, respectively), but September 11 is the locus of the free-floating anxiety behind plot events in both.
I’m sure I’m wrong, but I don’t recall seeing any novels that cover the Washington story. So here is mine:
I was newly married and working at National Public Radio, which was where I met my husband, an audio engineer there. That morning was blue and clear, and I can even remember a bare moment—probably around 8:46 a.m.—when I drove past National Airport and turned onto the 14th Street bridge.
At work I shared an elevator with two colleagues who noted that something bad was happening in New York. Then I popped by the Master Control facility to kiss my husband, and onscreen saw the fire raging from the towers as the brilliant sunshine reflected off the Trade Center’s glass, and heard word that the Pentagon had been struck.
I drove home our administrative assistant who lived on the then-dicey side of Capitol Hill. Of course I didn’t have any gas or cash. It took us an hour to get from K Street NE to Florida Avenue, and I paid for gas in quarters that Carol (now of blessed memory) gave me. After I dropped her off, it took another two hours to get home. I can still recall that brilliant sun illuminating RFK stadium.
As my car crawled alongside the Anacostia River, I had the radio on. You can find audio files of NPR’s coverage that day, the sober and measured tone of Morning Edition host Bob Edwards realizing along with his audience the magnitude of the disaster. I was about to cross the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge when it was announced that the entire airspace over the United States was being closed down.
The Potomac was touched with light as my car crept across the bridge, and I turned onto Route 1 to the little townhouse where we lived. I bought a bottle of wine at the 7-11, put on my nightgown, switched on our tiny television, and wondered if the world was going to end.
My husband did not get home until 3:30 a.m. We later learned that Pentagon correspondent Tom Gjelten had been escorted out by marshals. National Airport would remain closed for three weeks, though for much of that time, we thought it would stay closed forever.
In the back of my closet, inside a folder there is a piece of printer paper with the inscrutable coding “TC2001091307CD22AM.” Just to look at it makes me shiver in recollection. Here’s why:
On the morning of September 12, I dressed for work and drove over the bridge into the city. The Pentagon was still smoking. Bill Craven, who was then Logistics Manager for NPR News, told me I was needed to help log the massive backlog of un-catalogued recordings piling up from the production of so much unexpected news coverage. He appealed to my role as the spouse of an NPR technical employee—“you understand how Engineering and Operations work”—and said he was glad he could count on me.
I received a pack of CDs to listen to at my desk—this is the explanation for the artifact in my closet: It is one of the catalogue records of news coverage produced during this effort by a non-librarian. The time code above notes the day: September 13, 2001; and the hour: 2:00-3:00 a.m.
This is not one of the hours I logged. It’s an hour where I lay in bed in the dark, a caesura amid hours of sleep, my ear glued to the radio. I’d probably gone to bed around eleven. My husband was still at work, and I’m still not sure why I woke up, but once I was awake I was alert and still. Listening.
The log notes that Scott Simon was hosting.
“Track 1 (0.00),” the paper reads, “Billboard: Status of Investigation; latest briefings; American Muslims face acts of bigotry.” Then followed the newscast with Shay Stevens, who is still the network’s overnight newscaster.
Then in succession follow a series of quick blurbs describing all the stories that hour. Some of the stories:
“NPR’s Peter Overby reports Members of Congress gather outside Capitol for prayer vigil, prayer offered by Congressman J.C. Watts (R-OK) and together sing ‘Amazing Grace.’”
“WNYC’s Kaari Pitkin reports New Yorkers share stories, hug and walk through the streets as many bridges and tunnels are closed. Lawmakers begin work on request from President Bush to help victims and begin reconstruction.”
“Atty General John Ashcroft news conference audio.”
And toward the end: “Scott describes prayers etched in chalk on the walls of Georgetown University in Washington, DC; prayer vigils; blood donation flyers; Georgetown students and colleagues (Judy Feder, Colin Campbell, Mark Rom, Ted Gayer, Donna Morrison, and Bill Gormley) remember Leslie Whittington, Professor of Public Policy, Georgetown University.”
Whatever you think about NPR and its supposed politics, the first days after September 11 were bewildering, and my colleagues rose to this honorable moment. It is a great thing to work somewhere with a serious and national mission, and to feel united in that task. How I miss those early weeks when our whole country felt united, before everything that came after.
A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.
Above image by |vv@ldzen|, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.