Day 20. OR/WA: the 9/11 attack

by Kevin May

I woke with a start at 6.45 am. The phone was ringing. It was a call from England, with terrible garbled news. Two planes had flown into the World Trade Center?

Hold on, that can’t be right, you’ve made a mistake there. You’ve just been watching it on the TV back at the house during your lunch-break?

One perhaps. No, definitely two?

Light aircraft presumably. What, passenger jetliners full of people?

Christ, that sounds like a very bad day for New York Air Traffic Control. And the Pentagon?

Fuck, some idiot hacker must have sent out a virus that’s screwed up the whole system.

The only thing that was clear was that everything was very unclear. We agreed to talk again in an hour or so, after I had had a chance to look at one of the numerous 24-hour American news channels. I turned on the TV just in time to see a live feed of the first tower collapsing at 6.59 PST. I was paralyzed. I sat on the bed for what seemed like two minutes before the phone rang again. It was 8.30. I could find nothing to say beyond the woefully inadequate “You were right”.

What else could be said? For the first time in my life, I felt properly in shock. Physically sick. It seemed like there was nothing that I could possibly want to do ever again. The futility of trying to drive around 48 states in 48 days loomed large. Yesterday it seemed like the most important thing in the world, but now I found it hard to believe that I had ever seen it as anything other than a pointless pastime.

I could have ended up watching TV all day but I knew that I had to get out of that room. At the very least, I had to go and check that the rest of the world was OK. It was 9.30 in the morning, a time when most hotel guests are usually asleep or gone. Through the doors of every room down the corridor, I could hear the sound of television news.

Out on the street it was a beautiful morning. You could tell who had heard the news and who hadn’t. It was almost a fifty-fifty split. Half looked dazed or angry, half were merrily going about their business. I wondered when I would have heard if I’d not got the call from England. I didn’t usually look at the TV before checking out in the morning. It probably wouldn’t have been until after I’d left, when I turned on the radio in the car. The pictures had been harrowing but were indispensable to the grasping of it. I wouldn’t have wanted to hear in words what I felt I had needed to see.

The last thing that I wanted to do was eat, but I did want to sit down. A couple of blocks down the hill was Bette’s, where the welcome was muted but strangely gentle. I sat at a table and ordered a coffee. There was none of the standard hubbub, just the sound of dampened tones as people whispered to each other through hands held over mouths.

The disaster felt like something that had been going on for weeks, not something that had happened less than four hours previously. For once, I had no inclination to show off my English accent. I felt like I had crashed in on a bereaved family in the middle of the wake. The people who had committed these terrible deeds were visitors to this country like me, and I was ashamed to have even that much in common with them. I was ashamed to belong to the same species as them.

Back at the guesthouse I tried calling my friend Nick in Seattle but only got his voicemail. I’d known him at university, but not seen him since we both left. I’d bumped into him a few months before setting out and he’d offered to put me up for the night. I had been a little apprehensive about foisting myself on him and had only half-heartedly tried to get in touch over the last couple of days.

Now I really hoped I could reach him. He was the closest thing to family that I had in that part of the world and I didn’t want to be with strangers. I had no idea what his or his wife’s connections with Manhattan might be. I left a message telling him that if there were any problems we’d just leave it, but that I would try him once more around lunchtime.

I wasn’t bothered about my schedule any more, but there were still practicalities to consider. It was 10.45. I had to get the car window fixed. If it were possible, I wanted to see Nick. And ultimately, I still had to get the car back to New York in the next thirty days and I was 3000 miles away on the west coast. All of these considerations militated against hanging around in Hood River.

The old man was tending to the flowerbeds at the front of the hotel and so I went to say goodbye to him. He appeared surprisingly sanguine and I wasn’t sure whether he had heard. His countenance changed when I mentioned “the stuff in New York” and he scowled a grisly scowl and spat on his flowers. All that I could think of saying was that I assumed it was the work of Osama bin Laden and he nodded his head.

It was like being on autopilot in the car. I turned the radio on and let the car drive itself. There were no commercials. A number of local stations had abandoned their own broadcasts and turned their transmitter over to a feed of the ABC news. I was expecting hysteria, but there was the same somber calmness that I had found so disconcerting on the television. This wasn’t being treated as a news event but as a tragedy in which everyone was participating.

The car took a scenic route that the old man had recommended and I tried to muster some enthusiasm for the waterfalls along the way. When I reached Portland I pulled into a Speedy Autoglass on North East Broadway. It was just after midday when I got there and they said that it would take a few hours to fix. The glass would need to come from the warehouse and wouldn’t arrive until 2.30 and it could be anything up to two hours after that to get it installed. I left them the car and took a bus into town. I got off by the main Post Office, where Old Glory was flying at half-mast.

Whatever my inclination, I needed to kill time. I had originally planned to visit the 24-hour Church of Elvis and it was nearby, so I went to have a look. I knew in advance that it was a bit of a misnomer, because the homage paid in this establishment was not so much to Elvis as to Styrofoam. When I got there it didn’t look much like a church either, more like a kiosk round the back of a sweatshop factory.

The misleading was complete when I found it closed. Perhaps it was just today that it wasn’t 24 hours, but it was locked up and nobody was at home when I knocked on the door. I can’t say that I was particularly disappointed.

As I walked into the town center, I passed three youths who were ambling along. Their appearance suggested they were of Middle Eastern extraction. They were talking in worried terms. They were remembering the reaction to people like them during the Gulf War and were predicting that it was going to be much worse this time around.

I found a large square, which I guessed was pretty much the center. It was eerie. There were hundreds of people around, but not a sound could be heard apart from the padding of feet along the sidewalk. Even the road traffic seemed to be whispering.

I decided to try the Nordstrom Department Store but was halted by a security woman who looked as if she were in a trance. The shop was closing now. It was 12.30. It might have been for security reasons, but I reckoned it was because nobody felt like it any more and just wanted to go home.

By the time I had looked around what little of Portland was open and caught the bus back across the bridge to the repair shop it was still only 2.30. I went down the road and gave Nick one last try. This time I got through and Nick said that it was still fine to come and stay but that it was going to be a night inside in front of the TV. I said that sounded perfect and he gave me directions to his house.

I sought refuge in a coffee house across the road and took my drink outside. I couldn’t find a seat but noticed a bench with a woman at one end and a book on the arm at the other. I asked her if anyone was sitting there and she said no. After a moment’s further hesitation, she thanked me for asking. We sat there in silence. At one table, shaded by trees, a man was reading his paper but mostly people were just staring into space. I could feel my pallid skin starting to burn under what was turning out to be a day of belting sunshine.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the man put down his paper and make to leave. I would need to time this right. This wasn’t the day to elbow somebody rapaciously out of the way in a rush to grab a seat. Just as my moment was about to come, a voice to my right softly spoke: “This is a very strange day.”

On any other occasion, I would have smiled, agreed but still have moved to the shade. But this time, something held me back. Her name was Katherine, and she was recently married and had just given up work. I guessed that they were planning a family. She’d not learned about the events on the east coast until mid-morning when her mother had called her. She felt terribly guilty that she had been going about her normal business oblivious to the attacks for those few hours.

Despite my smoldering epidermis, we chatted for about an hour. Today’s events has sent her reeling, and she was now profoundly re-evaluating everything about her life and outlook. It was odd to be talking to a perfectly sober stranger who was laying bare her whole soul to me. It was even odder that I didn’t feel awkward, but found it pleasantly comforting.

The car had been ready for twenty minutes by the time I got back. They knew that I needed to get up to Seattle and so had moved it up the list of jobs. Already most cars on the Interstate had some sort of flag on display, either in the window or fluttering from the aerial. Several bridges had kids draping flags over them and waving at the motorists. The radio implored all drivers to put their headlights on in remembrance of those who had been killed that morning. It was still broad daylight, but most of the oncoming traffic was lit up.

There weren’t too many cars on the road and Nick’s directions were good. Their house was in a very posh part of town, overlooking the waterfront at Evergreen Point. It was near Bill Gates’ neighbourhood of Medina. Nick had three sons and his wife, Gabrielle, was expecting their fourth. The welcome was warm and soon I was installed with a beer in front of the TV, feeling very much at home.

Nick seemed calmly circumspect. He thought that comparisons with Pearl Harbor were a bit of an over-dramatization. They had lived in the USA for three years and had become well acclimatized. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t appreciate the full horror of what had happened, more that they factored in an allowance for the natural American tendency for melodrama. Whatever the justifiable and understandable response to these events, Americans would typically ramp it up to an even more hysterical level.

Nick made the uncomfortable point that it would probably make my story more interesting to more people now, but such thoughts still seemed grotesquely opportunistic. He also made the perfectly fair point that I might as well at least try and complete the trip. What else was I going to do for the next month? At the best of times I wasn’t the most comfortable of fliers, and the events of this morning had not inclined me to get on an aeroplane any sooner than was absolutely necessary.