The year was 2001. I can see it vividly. My back doesn’t hurt the way it does now. I know because I was slinging pallets and cases of Coca-Cola back then like the young man I once was. Hell, I might have even had a little bit of hair on the top of my head.
Tuesday morning, and I was in the backroom at the Kroger’s grocery store in Piqua, Ohio receiving area which was buzzing with activity. You know where I mean; that mysterious veil of retail some of us know all too well. The place marked by those dual swinging doors with tiny square windows no one can see out of, or thick flaps of industrial grade plastic that turn yellow and brittle with age. The immediate area smelled of overripe vegetables and a trash compactor that had been used to dispose of them daily since the seventies.
Vendors stood impatiently next to their stacked deliveries, while salespeople ran here and there punching in orders on electronic devices, long before anyone ever thought of an iPad. It was the sweet hymn of organized chaos.
I was right in the middle of it. I had recently taken over a new merchandising (for those not ‘in the know’ that means glorified stockboy) route. My goal was twofold: correct the stuff the lazy guy before me hadn’t done right, and to start doing the stuff he wasn’t doing at all- you know important stuff like rotating product.
At any rate, I was absorbed by my work. But not too absorbed to notice a majority of the vendors shuffling quickly outside. I wasn’t invited, but had to bring those empty pallets and shells outside to rot in the Ohio weather, so I decided to join them.
When I exited the oversized garage door that led to the back of the dock, I saw a strange site. Gathered around the Wonder-Bread vendor’s truck was every food vendor you could imagine in the Midwest. They were all huddled around the Wonder-Bread truck, leaning in as close as they could to the cab.
As I approached a UPS guy, drove up, hopped from his van with a couple boxes and hollered, “Boy look at this, a real meeting of the minds.”
“Jerry,” the Wonder Bread driver yelled at UPS, “You gotta hear this; they are saying some lunatic flew a plane into one of the twin towers.”
Jerry from UPS didn’t even slow his walk, “Whatever, you’re full of shit.” He continued inside with his delivery.
I approached Wonder-Bread van, and everyone else, trying to figure out if it was an insanely stupid joke or something else entirely. My mind immediately flashed to the original War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938, wherein people were supposedly whipped into mass hysteria because the production was interpreted as a newscast.
I got in as close as I could to the cab. I recoiled almost as eagerly.
I remember going from a 21 year old newlywed, who had lost his dad early that year, but still had everything figured out, to a speck, who knew nothing. “Why?” marched through my head, and all its friends followed, rattling me in a way that I never have been, before or since. The world no longer worked the way I thought it had. And that was just the beginning, because my phone rang. No wait, I didn’t have a cell phone. I had a pager. So…
My pager vibrated, I walked to the phone at the front desk and dialed my wife.
“Oh my God baby where are you?”
“Did you hear what happened?”
“Ya I just heard over a radio outside here.”
“Are you coming home?”
“No, I have a delivery to work.” Realizing how ridiculous that sounded I tried to shore it up, “Besides they aren’t going to let us come home.”
“Ok, get home as soon as you can, and you call me at every store!”
I didn’t and in fact, I worked my full shift that day, just as all my peers did. Perhaps, if I would’ve had more of the wisdom age has bestowed upon me, and less of the unquestioning desire to “get-ahead” that would’ve been different.
Fact is; I did get home to see my wife, as you all know I was lucky, because many Americans didn’t get home at all that day.
It was a day that shaped the world we lived in more than we’d like to admit. Or perhaps we’ve forgotten over time, even though we promised we wouldn’t. Even today, the aftereffects of its tragedy ring in our ears.
That is not to say those responsible “won”, or even gained any ground- assuming there was ground to gain.
It could be said that single act did more to define American zeitgeist than the Kennedy assassination, the Great Depression, or the World Wars. Of course, every generation has its defining moment.
They also managed to spread a consuming flame of hatred and confusion related to anyone that wears a turban, prays to Mecca, or has a beard longer than Chris Hemsworth (and a number of other details, accurate or not). Unfortunately, that might be the legacy that 9/11 offers to us most glaringly; cultural assumptions that lead to chaos. This maladaptive thinking proves dangerous to both sides, as it does nothing more than raise awareness for the things we can judge the other against.