Monday, September 12, 2016

September 11th

"Where are you?"  I asked my sister, emphatically.
"We are running late, I'm stuck in traffic....almost there."
"Do you know what is happening?"  I asked slowly.
"What do you mean?" she responded.
"We.... we are being attacked.  Terrorists are attacking the United States.  They have already hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon....".
"Get here.  Get here fast.  I am afraid they are going to impose martial law.  They don't know if the attacks are finished....".
Images of blocked roads and military police filled my head.  My three year old niece was in the car with my sister. 

Alec and I spent the majority of the year 2000 traveling.  We started in Nepal, spent time in India, flew to Thailand, checked out the majority of Southeast Asia and ended our trip on an archipelago east of Flores in Indonesia, after passing through Malaysia and Singapore.  I was often asked "How was your trip?" and could never really muster an adequate answer.  I do remember mentioning once that I had been unaware that the whole world hated us.  Though it didn't define the trip, I noticed it and felt it, especially in Malaysia and in Java.  Sure, I knew that Americans aren't the most loved nationality around, but it was different experiencing it face to face when you are going out of your way to be as nice and polite as possible.

We stayed in New York a little while so that Alec could visit his family.  Shortly after our return to Atlanta, my mom offered me a secretarial job in early 2001.  I spent a lot of time reading the New York Times on the internet when I wasn't busy, which was a lot of the time.  On that pretty, clear-blue sky morning, I recall seeing a little sentence in the rolling news portion at the bottom of the Times' internet page.
"Plane hits World Trade Center"
I didn't even click the link.  I assumed it was some small plane that had basically bounced off of one of the formidable towers. Strange, a curiosity, but I had read that little planes had been known to hit the Empire State Building, too.

I kept working.  I don't remember how I heard about the second plane, but I do remember clustering with my mom in her office, hovering around the radio dialed to an AM station.  At the time, that seemed more up to date than the internet.  People were calling in, some from the actual towers.  There wasn't really a lot of reporting, but more a crowd-sourced telling of events from people on the ground or in contact with someone on the ground in New York.  Or better said, in the towers, high above New York City.

A women called, talking of her son that was trapped in one of the towers.  Somehow, his voice came on and he spoke of smoke and fire.  Caller after caller spoke through the radio.  As alarming as it was, I still somehow pictured a long day for those people and an eventual rescue.  Suddenly, things got very quiet.  The tower collapsed.

I looked at my mom and sputtered.
"But...but..they have to, they have to have evacuated those people....they have to have rescued them....., right?  They were always ugly buildings anyway...."
"Are those people we just heard dead?"
I thought of that woman, calling about her son.
"They need to get in those fighter planes and head the fuck to Afghanistan, NOW, because everyone knows who did this and they need to fucking pay."
I wanted it.  Right then and there, even while the smoke still filled the air.

My step-dad brought in a television and we hovered around it the rest of the day.  The phones didn't even ring.  Everyone had stopped everything.

Details trickled out that day and the following days and months, some that would hold a principal role in the memory of the events and some that would disappear.  How many more cities would be hit?  Every plane in the air could be a weapon.  Fighter jets threatened to shoot down commercial airliners that did not respond to radio contact.  Hospitals braced for the injured that would never come.  They all died.  People lined up to give blood that wasn't needed.  A plane crashed in Pennsylvania, what was its destination?  Where would the next plane hit?  Was it over, were the attacks over?  Crude box cutters became the worst weapon anyone could think of.  Tales of men that went to flying classes but never wanted to learn how to land the plane.  The horror of the jumpers, people faced with the decision to be burned alive or crushed, or to jump from one of the tallest buildings in the world.  The images of them and the apocalyptic sounds they made when they landed.  Our president was circling the country in the air, because it was not safe for him to land on U.S. soil.   There was talk of whether or not to rebuild, if they did rebuild would anyone rent office space on the tallest floors?  Should office workers in skyscrapers be equipped with parachutes?  American airspace was closed, indefinitely.  I looked at my passport and felt trapped, I couldn't leave even if I tried.  Much of the government was in an "undisclosed location".  The subsequent demands that everyone be vigilant and go back to work; Osama bin Laden wanted to destroy our economy and it wouldn't happen if we got back to work.  A fire like the core of the earth raged where the towers once were.  It would take months to put out. 

I finally went home and waited for Alec.  The restaurant he worked at had stayed open all day.  Neither of us used cell phones at the time and when he came in, I wanted to know what he knew.
"We listened on the radio.  They attacked the World Trade Center."
"Alec, the towers are gone....they collapsed."
A look of shock crossed his face.
"Have you considered calling your family?"

Two days later, we "celebrated" our fifth anniversary.  As we sat outside at a normally busy restaurant, the silence induced by the lack of planes in the sky seemed deafening.  My back hurt from sitting without moving in front of the television for days.

One afternoon in the days following the attacks, I stood in the street with several other people, staring at the sky.  Low flying Blackhawk helicopters flew lowly over the neighborhood.
"I think it's a presence, a show of force to make us feel protected...." one guy said skeptically.
"Those bombs hanging off of the bottom of the thing don't make me feel so protected."  another responded.

In a matter on months we would be back in New York for another heartbreaking event.  As our plane banked Lower Manhattan, the area where the towers once stood was vacant, save for flood lights and a massive cloud of smoke.  

Sunday, September 4, 2016

In the Shadow of a Steeple

Lola and I made it to Atlanta before nightfall on the third day, effectively driving from the Pacific coast of Mexico to Georgia in seventy-eight hours, including sleep time.  She was never sedated during the ride home. 

I wanted to see Alec.  I wanted to see my plants under at least a shred of light.  I didn't want to come in at three in the morning, blurry-eyed, and sneak into bed.  We dodged floods coming and going, and social unrest that we didn't have any inkling was coming.  We made it.

I sat at the kitchen table, high-alcohol American beer in hand, chatting with Alec and marveling at my big, air-conditioned home while Lola galloped through our fenced-in yard.

Within days of returning, two unarmed black men would be killed by the police.  Days later, another man would open fire on the Dallas police force.  A summer filled with news of unpunished college rapes, massacres at nightclubs and violence within my own family would spill wide open.  Cities would ignite in flames while floods drowned the citizens.  One of the candidates for president would fuel and fan the flames at a convention that threatened to tear another city to shreds and instigate the worst tendencies of many Americans. 

I watched my Facebook feed. 
"I can't be calm, I have a black son." a friend posted.
"Stop putting up beach pictures," another implored, "they are killing our kids."
I could feel the stress, the tension, the fear.  And I felt powerless. 

As the days grew nearer to my school's summer retreat, our official start of the new school year, I feared the stress that a lot of our students would carry into the school after the long, hot, violent summer.  The legitimate fears of their families that they would carry, the things that they had heard, the relatives they knew, the things they had experienced.

"The community is under stress."  one teacher said.
"This has been hard on us." another added.

"Iris, I'm sorry.  I am off topic and I am asking you this question because you are black.  Yes, congratulations, you get to be my window into the black world.  Iris, what are we going to do?  How can we effectively deal with the trauma these kids are bringing with them through the doors of the school house in a matter of weeks?  I know they feel it, what can we do?"

I stared at her, in the conference room at Agnes Scott.  My friend, Iris.  We were supposed to be talking about what we liked about the teaching profession.

"Hilary," she said slowly, and with a smile.  "This summer hasn't been any different than any other summer for us.  We're used to it.  It's more of the same."

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Oliver's Army

We were driving, passing through endless Mexican towns and desert on our quest to reach the border.  We scuttled through several military and federal checkpoints where Lola threatened to rip the faces off of men with massive guns as they questioned me about my presence in Mexico.  Thankfully, I avoided secondary inspections and most of the heavily-armed men thought Lola was funny.

Overall, there were less checkpoints and convoys of ski-masked men with giant firearms than in previous trips. No tanks, either. 

In the late afternoon, Lola and I arrived in Nuevo Laredo.  Again, I got lost trying to find the road that leads to the bridge that serves as an international port of entry to the United States.  We cruised by the Rio Grande, where Mexicans fished and swam on one side and the U.S. Border Patrol sat in trucks on the other side, staring at them.  Finally, I made it to the line to exit Mexico, located where to turn-in our temporary vehicle import permit and tipped a guy that had waived me to the correct lane where I could turn in the permit, though I could tell by then where I needed to go.  Lola and I cruised forward, toward the small no-man's land area between Mexico and the United States. One last Mexican check point came into view.  I had not remembered that from the year before.  It was charging twenty pesos simply to leave and I had given away the rest of my pesos.  I dug through change, scrounging up pesos and American quarters to pay the fee.  The guy finally let me through and I entered the massive, uncoordinated, thirty lane-wide mess that constitutes "the line" to enter the United States.

After driving over the strange marker on the bridge that serves as the official border between the U.S. and Mexico, we finally made it to the last American checkpoint.  Agents waived mirrors under the car and sneakily assessed the weight I might be carrying by the level of the car's tires.

"How long have you been in Mexico?"  the Border Patrol guy asked.
"About a month."  I saw an eyebrow raise. 
"What do you do for a living....." he asked slowly.
"I'm a teacher." I answered, while Lola barked viciously at him. 
"What do you teach?"
"Spanish." I responded, afraid that I had inadvertently sounded sarcastic.
"You go to Mexico alone?"
"My partner came for half of the trip but had to return to work."
"Whose car is this?"
"Where were you?"
"Oh you know, hanging with El Chapo's crew in Sinaloa...."  I thought.  
"I spent most of the time on a town on the Pacific coast, kind of by Puerto Vallarta...."  I felt like I was lying, even though I knew I wasn't.
"Are you bringing any cigarettes, alcohol, plants, fruit, blah blah, er blah blah, bluh blah blah?"
"No." I answered, thinking of the pile of prescriptions laying on the passenger side floor of the car and the trunk full of Cuban rum, covered in underwear that I had pulled from the dryer in La Cruz shortly before leaving. 
"Open the trunk."

Another Migra came up to the window and good-copped me, making small talk about teaching and asking questions about Pit Bulls, while the other guy dug through the trunk.  After a few minutes, he closed it.
"Yeah, they're good dogs, don't believe that stuff you read about them." the original Migra said to the Good Cop.
"You can go."
"THANKS!" I blurted and sped off on the large open highway, glancing back over the massive bottleneck that the border created.

The landscape felt different, though we were only a matter of miles over the border.  We crept through the speed trap town, literally without touching the gas in order to NOT exceed the speed limit. I had one thing on my mind:  Whataburger.

And one came into view, its orange sign a beacon in an otherwise unexceptional town.  There was even a gas station next door.  All of my needs would be met in one stop.  We exited the drive-thru with a bag of deliciousness waiting to be eaten and scooted over to the pump to fill up.  I fed Lola her celebration, good girl made it over the border Whataburger through an open window of the car while I filled the tank.

I hopped back in, eager to mow through my food and get back on the road. But....I turned the key in the ignition and nothing happened.  My brain filled with dread.  If I was alone it would be merely inconvenient, but it was over a hundred degrees and I couldn't turn on the air-conditioning on for Lola.  Standing next to the car, waiting for help at a gas station with her on her leash wasn't really appealing either.

"Hey Alec?"
"Yeah, what's up?  Where are you?"
"We are across the border..."
"But.... does your car ever glitch out and sound like it has a dead battery when it really doesn't?  I mean, is there some way that I just hit some switch by accident that makes it, uh, do that?"
"WHAT?  The battery is dead?!"
"Yeah, and it's hot as hell."
"I'll call triple A, find out where you are, what's your address."
"No, hold on.  I'll call you back.  Someone here has to have jumper cables."

I opened the hood of the car, eyeballing all the men in cowboy hats with giant trucks, mentally encouraging one of them to glance over and say:
"Hey little lady in your wimpy hybrid, you look like you need a hand! Let me fix her right up for ya!"

I noticed that one of the cables was completely off of the battery.  I shoved it back on and jumped in the car.  It started. Air-conditioning blasting, Lola and I drove off, Whataburger in hand.

Later in the night, we arrived at our Motel 6 in Ganado.  It felt like the Ritz.  Lola walked around the grounds and hotel like it was her second home, showing a strange memory for places that I didn't think dogs had.

I popped the trunk to grab some things and was surprised to see the oldest bottle of Cuban rum prominently displayed on top of all of my things.  I certainly did not put it there and the only other person that had been in that trunk was the Migra.

I closed the trunk, went back to the hotel and crashed with Lola in the loveliness of our ice-cold room.