4:00 AM CDT, September 12, 2001
We lived in two worlds in Chicago Tuesday.
We were there in the horror of New York, Washington, that field in Pennsylvania. We were safely home.
From the TV came the cries of people and of sirens so desperate they seemed next door. I looked out my window and heard only the rustling of September trees.
Over and over on the TV, a plane--a jet full of ordinary people trying to get somewhere on an ordinary Tuesday morning--flew purposefully into the World Trade Center. I looked out my window and saw only a woman with a stroller singing to a baby.
Over and over on the TV, the World Trade Center's twin towers--"the icons of American capitalism," intoned some broadcaster--crumbled; debris and smoke gushed skyward then tumbled, turning into a monster that chased New Yorkers between the buildings, through the streets. I stepped onto my back porch and smelled the potted rosemary.
"An unspeakable act of terrorism that will change this country forever," intoned some broadcaster. I looked down at the morning's front page and saw that Michael Jordan might come back to basketball.
And so we lived Tuesday in Chicago: in the stunned, confused grip of a spectacle that could leave you sobbing in your living room while surrounded by the mundanities and beauties of a perfect late-summer day.
Whatever had mattered Monday--Michael Jordan, a fight with a friend, your last stock statement, your weight--hardly mattered now. And still did.
We learned the news while driving the kids to school, taking a shower, on our way to work. I didn't hear until I got into the car at 10. "Why are they broadcasting an old report on the bombing of the World Trade Center?" I wondered, half-listening to the radio. "Is it an anniversary?"
At the moment that the unthinkable truth came clear, I noticed a couple of cars pull into the parking lot of Crate & Barrel, shoppers getting an early start.
The apocalypse had come. But not here. But, of course, it was here and it was to us.
That was part of the unique terror of this unique day. Americans are a traveling tribe, more connected across vast distances than we often realize. Tuesday's terrors reminded us the nation is a small town. If you live in Chicago, there's a reasonable chance you know someone--or know someone who knows someone--who works in or near the World Trade Center, in or near the Pentagon, who was on one of those kamikaze jets traveling between Boston, L.A., Newark, San Francisco.
And the passengers in those murderous, suicidal planes, whose awful final moments we are left mostly to imagine or try not to? They were members of the family, and not only because two of those doomed planes belonged to United, our hometown airline.
And so we grieved. Seethed. And the idyllic Chicago day went on.
By noon--when we still didn't know the killers or their reasons or where to point our fury--I walked downtown from my neighborhood. On the lazy streets, people ambled with their dogs. Carried bags of groceries. Sat in sidewalk cafes chatting about vacations and the Cubs. Kids laughed and raced around a schoolyard.
But then Chicago's skyscrapers, symbols of the city's strength, wheeled into view. How dangerous they looked, how vulnerable. "Duck!" I wanted to scream at the John Hancock Tower.
"Lovely day, isn't it?" said Katie Elmore, a doctor's receptionist, who sat reading "Encore Provence" on a nearby bench. Then a thought darkened her face. "What about that news?"
Lovely day. What about that news? Two worlds.
One world: On Michigan Avenue, hand-scrawled "Closed" signs hung in the store windows.
Another world: Shoppers tugged in disappointment at the doors.
I passed a man on a cell phone. "You know the Merc," he said cheerfully. "They'll be open tomorrow. Gotta get back to business."
We can only hope it's half that easy. What happened in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania on Tuesday happened everywhere in America. It happened everywhere in our one shared world. We can only hope the hatred that springs from this horror doesn't prove to be the biggest horror of all.
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