Quiet, Sunny Mornings Before the World Wakes Up
West Coast Reflections on 9/11
It’s been 13 years since that quiet morning. I woke up alone in the carport-turned-studio apartment on Kenneth Street where I lived my sophomore year in college. I was enjoying the freedom of living off campus, working at a local candy shop and rehearsing for the big debut of our indie rock band; after all, our first show at the Big Bang Music Festival was just a couple weeks away. Being the nerd that I am, I was also excited for school to start back up- I’ve always been the kid that gets bored over the summer and can’t wait to be back. I was a film major at the time- less concerned with production but more excited about theory and the history of movies and television. I was going to be a film critic-slash-rock star. I was 19 years old.
I worked at Marini’s At The Wharf and since I didn’t make enough to pay to park my car there all day, I usually walked the ~3.5 miles down Bay Street. There’s something very relaxing to work opening shift in that tourist town- you get to see roads without cars; the Boardwalk without people; you become familiar with shop owners who hose down their entry-ways in preparation for the busy day ahead.
Just before I left for work, I checked the internet for headlines. We were so excited to have a 50 foot ethernet cable that stretched from the main house to our out-building in the backyard. As I recall, I was using free AOL at the time and I noticed a tiny thumbnail of DubYa and something about a plane on fire. I didn’t really pay attention- I actually thought it might have been another Columbine-type shooting or Oklahoma City bombing or Waco mass suicide or OJ Simpson White Bronco chase somewhere but I didn’t have time to read about it or I’d be late- it was almost 6 and I had to be to work by 7 with a long walk ahead of me.
I headed off to the Wharf, enjoying the peaceful walk and the sunrise. This was right before iPods came out, so people didn’t walk around with white cords hanging out of their ears. Hardly anyone walked around talking on a cell phone either- my soundtrack was completely natural and I could hear the seagulls getting louder as I approached the beach. Marini’s is actually on the far end of the Wharf, so I usually passed all the trucks making their morning deliveries, the dishwashers opening the backdoors to hose down those rubber pads they stand on all day, the fisherman with a few fish flopping around in their five gallon buckets. But it wasn’t like that this morning. I thought it was a little strange- there was just one single deliveryman on the Wharf that morning: Dreyer’s Ice Cream. You midwesterners call it “Edy’s” but we all know it’s really Dreyer’s.
The Dreyer’s deliveryman was sitting in his truck with the door open and I could barely make out any words from the blaring radio. Something about a tragedy, a tower and smoke. It was almost 7- time for my shift to begin. I made my way inside and saw my supervisor- she had the radio on and we listened while we prepped the shop for customers. I started a batch of frozen yogurt, wiped down tables, helped carry the new drums of ice-cream into the freezer.
It was difficult to understand exactly what was happening- I’m a very visual person (hence my love of film as a storytelling medium) and I hadn’t seen any pictures or videos yet. We listened to the radio and I was hoping this was another “War of the Worlds” hoax. Of course it wasn’t a hoax,
and we tried to grasp the scale of what was happening to Manhattan, America and the World.
My clearest memory of that day was that of a family who walked into the store just as we were opening. Mom, Dad and a young boy and girl- not yet preteens so they were still sweet and happy to be out, rather than snotty at Mom & Dad for forcing them against their will. They were clearly on vacation and they had no idea what was going on. This was before Twitter, before instant news feeds, before you could stream live video on your cell phone and obviously the Santa Cruz Sentinel didn’t have time to publish anything in the newspaper yet. If you didn’t have a TV in your hotel room and didn’t turn on the radio, you would just be walking around the Wharf completely oblivious as this family was.
I held a broom in my hand as I saw those kids bopping about. I knew the world in which they would come of age would be drastically different than mine. I didn’t know exactly what to do- we were still open for business so I scooped some ice cream for the kids, poured coffee for the parents and the family went on their way. I wanted to tell them to stop having fun, to stop their vacation on the beach, to stop altogether.
I don’t know if I resented the fact they didn’t carry the same burden I felt or if I just wanted to enjoy seeing happy faces one last time. I decided to just let them keeping going.
My supervisor and I were numb as we kept listening to the radio- we didn’t have any personal connections to New York and I had never even been to the East Coast- but we still tried to wrap our heads around what those people must have been going through. I stared out into Monterey Bay, watching a beautiful, sunny morning on the beach. We started getting phonecalls from the other employees- mostly high schoolers- who said their parents wouldn’t let them leave the house to come to work. My supervisor told me to go home and thought I would act like I was preparing for an earthquake- get batteries, flashlights, granola bars, bottled water and top off the gas in the car.
I kept wondering what else would be a target- the Golden Gate Bridge? What about my parents? What if this was it? It sounds overly dramatic but we just didn’t know how big this attack was- would terrorists care about shutting down the Bay Area or Los Angeles? We have big skylines but not as symbolic as the ones with the Statue of Liberty or the White House. When would it stop?
I don’t even remember how I got a hold of my parents to let them know I was okay. I had my first cell phone back then (a Nokia from Cingular Wireless) so maybe I called them while I walked home. I don’t remember the walk back- my mind was probably racing- but I knew it probably wasn’t a good time to be alone. I showed up at the California Street House where two of my bandmates lived. We all sat on the sofa watching TV- this was my first chance to actually see what had happened. People running, smoke filling the screen- they ran the video of the crash over and over again. We sat there for hours huddled together until we just couldn’t watch it anymore. There was no *new* news anyways. Flights were grounded so my housemate wasn’t able to fly home that day. Traffic was absolutely insane, all over the country. Did we know how paralyzed we’d be just from shutting down air travel for a couple of days? Would people still want to procreate? What would it be like to be born in a post 9–11 world? We always heard about “the good old days” that were actually filled with nuclear bomb threats and cigarette smoke; was my generation going to take over as participants in “the good old days” before America was bombed?
The next few weeks were bizarre- students returned and classes began. We kept going. The band started gearing up for our shows, practicing at California Street House and concentrating on press releases. We lined up a ton of shows and started recording our album at the music studio on campus.
I started thinking about my future as a film critic and how trivial that now sounded after everything that happened. I decided I should aspire to something more- so I changed my major to Community Studies: the theory and practice of social change. I did a concentration in Social Documentation (aka documentary filmmaking) and knew I would never be satisfied unless I was spending my time working to make change. As trite as that sounds, I believed it then and I still believe it now.
I’ve been to New York City twice now, but I never had a desire to go to Ground Zero. I know it’s a place very meaningful for some- especially for New Yorkers who lived through it- but I have no personal connection and don’t think I would be especially moved by visiting a construction site. No disrespect intended for those who have travelled to see it; I know all too well that a funeral isn’t for the deceased and I’m happy to live in a country where we can grieve in our own ways.
For me, I’m reminded about what happened that day when I see waves crashing on a beach, when I observe happy tourists on vacation, and on quiet, sunny mornings before the world wakes up.