In 2005, I took a memoir writing class. One of the assignments was to write something that could 'be a chapter in your memoir”. Here is that assignment(actual photos of DC were taken last week!):
What a beautiful day. The bright blue clear sky is gorgeous. It is in the low seventies, no humidity, not too hot, not too cold. The kind of day that makes you feel happy to be alive; makes you want to breathe a little deeper; makes you want to play hookie. But alas, it is my second day back from maternity leave, so I cannot. It is still paining me to leave my sweet little angel for the day; I wonder how women do this regularly. Yesterday after leaving him in the child care center at the USDA Yates building, I cried for an hour when I got to the restaurant for work. Today, I will be strong. The past three months have been glorious, but money is running out, autumn is here - a busy time in the restaurant business - and I need to return to work so I can start earning some money again.
I arrive at the center a little bit early so I can run a few errands. I need to get a federal ID that will allow me entry into the Yates building. The center was recommended to me by a client at work. It, was difficult to get a space in the center and I'm happy to be there. It is very secure and affordable.
I drop my son Jackson off in the able hands of Ms. Evelyn. She has been a teacher at the center for over 20 years and formerly worked as a nurse. She seems to be in her late 60's. I hand off my 12 ounces of breast milk and leave her instructions on how to care for his arm throughout the day. Jackson had a birth injury paralyzing his left arm. He is in physical therapy, but his arm must be slung properly and exercised periodically if he is ever to gain movement in it again. Ms. Evelyn listens with care and interest. Jackson is busy charming the other teachers in the room; he is jovial and so adorable in his "Got Milk" onesie.
As I give him a kiss good-bye, my lip begins to quiver; I feel better leaving him at the daycare today than I did yesterday, but leaving him still inspires a few tears.
There is a bus stop on 14th Street & Independence Avenue. After I pick up my new ID, I don't have to wait long before the #54 picks me up. The weather is so gorgeous, though, I wish I could spend a little more time waiting outside. The bus turns to go north on 14th and we immediately pass the Washington Monument on the left. The traffic is moderate with all the commuters heading into town; 14th Street is one the few major thoroughfares to get into Washington D.C. from Virginia. The bus takes me up the remaining eight blocks to 14th & K, where I work. I get out and walk the one block to my bank. Then head into work at about 10:00am.
I step into the restaurant and there are a few servers, bus boys and a line cook huddled at the bar, enrapt with the television. At that hour they should all be dispersing to start their morning shift. As I approach them, I start to give them a little bit of a hard time because they are not on the floor polishing the glassware and flatware at their tables:
"Oh so this is what you've all been up to while I've been away! Sitting around watching TV" I say.
"A bomb went off at the White House," a server says.
Another server shouts "A plane crashed into the Pentagon!"
"There's bombs going off all over D.C." adds the line cook.
I jerk my head to the direction of the television and smoke fills the screen. Nothing else is discernible.
(this is the actual program we were watching!)
"Where's Jackson?" someone asks.
"In a federal building, my baby is in a federal building." I feel hysteria coming on but at the same time I try to make sense of what they are telling me. The restaurant is only two blocks from the White House. I did not hear bomb go off while I was doing my pre-work errands.
I panic anyway. The restaurant I manage, is a two story establishment on the corner of two of D.C.'s busiest streets, 14th & K. The entire two walls are made of enormous glass windows.
I glance out the 14th Street side and see a 54 bus heading south. I dash out the doors and run to the bus. I don't have to go far, the bus is already stopped because traffic is gridlocked. I bang on the bus door pleading with the driver to allow me to board even though I'm past the actual bus stop. I get on and he doesn't even bother to check my bus pass or ask me for a fare. There are only three other people on the bus. The bus is just sitting there. All I want is to get to my child. It is more than want- I need him in my arms. It feels as though my heart will stop beating if I do not get to him soon.
Gratefully the bus starts crawling along 14th Street. But it is a free-for-all; no one is paying attention to the traffic lights; horns are beeping; anger and anxiousness fill the air. Along 14th Street, every building's fire alarms are going off and the little strobe light like bulbs are flashing near their entrances. As we pass the MacPherson Square Metro station I see people funnel down the stairs and escalators like water going down a drain.
Things slow down again as we approach Pennsylvania Avenue. There are more law enforcement agencies in D.C. than I can count on my hands and toes. As I look out the window, police are scrambling - there are D.C. Metropolitan Police, Secret Service Police, White House Police, Capital Police, National Park Service Police, Metro Police and others.
We cross Pennsylvania Avenue and a Metro Police officer bangs on the door of our bus as we are stopped again. The driver opens the door:
"This is crazy shit, man," the driver says to the officer.
"Shit's fallin' out of the sky man, be careful. God bless, brother." The officer takes his fist and gently pats his own heart and walks away.
The driver closes the door. He turns to me. I am quietly sobbing.
"Where you headed ma'am?"
"I'm just trying to get my baby . My baby is in the USDA building. I just want to get my baby."
The lady behind me, a young woman of Indian decent, pats my back.
"How old is your baby?"
"He's only twelve weeks old," I cry.
Silence overtakes the bus again. We approach the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center on the left and traffic comes to a halt again.
The parking lot is being emptied. Cars speed out of the basement, while officials spin their arms around and around in a circle hurrying them along. At least five minutes pass and this is more than I can stand. I ask the bus driver to let me out. He reluctantly agrees and lets me out on the six lane street that at the moment resembles a parking lot.
I make my way to the sidewalk, on the right. It is not as crowded here near the Mall and museums as it was further north where I started my trip. I sprint down the street. I am not crying anymore. The enormous building of the US. Chamber of Commerce takes up the entire block. As I approach the end of the building which ends at the National Mall, I smell a strong acrid odor. It is pungent enough to make me slow down and start looking around. I walk nervously at a brisk pace. As I get to the end of the block it is stronger still and smells as though something is burning, like rubber or metal or something, I can not place it.
When the Mall comes into view the smell is no longer a mystery. I am at the corner of 14th and Constitution. On the other side of the Mall on 14th, is the Yates building. Just to the right is the hill that the Washington Monument sits on. Between them, thick black smoke possesses the air. I know that behind the hill and the building, is the Potomac River. Beyond that, Route 110. And then the Pentagon.
My stomach lurches. Is it a bomb? Did a plane really crash over there? Is it an accident? Did someone do it on purpose? And is there really 'shit fallin'out of the sky?' I begin to run again.
I arrive at the Yates building and it is loud.
All the doors are open and there is not a guard in sight to check my ID when I come in. The fire alarm is deafening and every few feet there is a red light flashing alternatively with a white light.
When I get to the day care center door, it too, is wide open and even louder. In this space, competing with the sound of the alarm is a woman's voice repeating over and over, "There has been an emergency, please leave the building." The center seems deserted and I fear that they have taken the children somewhere else.
But when I get to the infant room, Ms. Evelyn is wandering aimlessly wiping down surfaces. Jackson happily swings in an infant swing. There is one other infant in the room, a baby girl. She is on the floor screaming. In spite of the aural chaos, I feel weightless as relief washes over me. I calmly take Jackson into my arms.
"Do you know what is going on Ms. Evelyn?"
“Honey, I don't know. One minute we felt the buildin' shake. A few minutes later one a the per'nts came in hollerin' HAAAAARRRY HAARRRRY HARRRY. Then he grab his baby an' run outa here. Then the alarms started goin' on and one by one all the per'nts came and get their babies. There's an explosion or something." She slowly shakes her head.
"Well, there's so much smoke coming from where the Pentagon is." I tell her.
"That'ed explain the build in' shakin' like it was. The Pentagon. So close by. It was like an earthquake in here, honey!" She picks up the baby on the floor, puts her on her hip and begins wiping surfaces again.
Jackson was content. All the noise didn't seem to bother him. I grabbed his Baby B'jorn carrier and left the building. There was not a single vehicle in the northbound lanes - so I wouldn't be able to take the bus. I would later learn that they closed all incoming roads to the city.
I start the walk up 14th Street towards my house. The Mall is more crowded.
Sitting on a bench, there is an old man listening to a transistor radio. A crowd has huddled around him.
I stop on the outskirts of the crowd. I untie the sweater around my waist, put it on a grassy area and lay Jackson there and begin playing with him. The black smoke still billows behind us as we listen to the static laced news report. We learn the facts about what had happened within the last hour. We get more details about the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Our group is grave.
Now that I know what has happened I realize that my mother is, no doubt, terribly worried about Jackson and me. No calls are going through. Finally, after some thirty or forty attempts, I get through.
I tell her about my morning so far and mention that I am on the Mall and can clearly see and smell the smoke from the Pentagon and the way it ebbs and flows. Upon hearing this she is silent. She is almost crying.
"I've been talking to Annie." (Annie is my mother's partner and Annie's sister-in-law, Debbie, work at the Pentagon.) "From what they've seen on TV, they think her office is exactly where the plane crashed."
“Aim, Debbie was just at the house last weekend. I just can't believe it."
"Oh no." I ache for Debbie's two young children ages 7 & 5. I hug Jackson a little closer and begin to cry myself.
Moments later, a herd of horse-mounted police come over the hill of the base of the monument. They announce through their megaphones "You are all in danger. Leave the area at once. This area must be evacuated immediately. "
I am exhausted, emotionally and physically. I pack Jackson back up in the baby carrier and begin my trek north on 14th Street. My apartment is at the intersection of 14th & N. About 15 blocks away. Now droves of people crowd the sidewalks. Traffic is still atrocious. As I pass the historic Willard hotel,
a Metro Police officer pulls me aside and emphatically suggests I seek shelter in one of the hotels, he tells me there is still a plane in the air and it is purportedly headed to D.C. I'm not sure why he shares this information with me. Maybe because I am carrying an infant and sobbing as I walk down the street.
I realize though that I have been dilly dallying. I really do not want to be around if another plane drops out of the sky. I pick up the pace since I am in a small radius of what I assume to be targets - such as the White House or the Washington Monument.
It doesn't take me long to get to the restaurant. There are only a few people hanging around: one of the other managers, a chef, and a few employees. I get a big hug as I walk through the door and I am happy to pass Jackson to someone else to hold as my arms are so sore. But he wails in hunger so I sit down to nurse him. I am irritated that I left all that breast milk at the center. I know they will throw it away. It's the rule.
We get word that we are going to close the restaurant for the day, but the owner asks that we hang around to answer the phone for a little while. I lay some tablecloths on the floor of the lounge and set Jackson down to nap. The chef cooks a nice lunch for all of us. There are six of us and we each take a seat at the bar as we watch this horrific day's new unfold.
After the phone not ringing for a couple hours, our group decides to lock up and go. It is easy for me to get home. The others plan carefully how they will get home as many of the bridges and roads to Virginia and Maryland are closed.
It is oddly quiet outside. There is not a person in sight and not a single car on the road. We are all surprised to see a military tank on our corner with a few soldiers pacing around it with machine guns. We have a laugh that we missed the tank arrive there.
Our group disperses on the sidewalk. 14th Street resembles a ghost town. With Jackson in the carrier I walk the few blocks north. At each block there sits at least one armored tank and several armed soldiers. It is still so quiet. The only noise I hear and will for the rest of the night, is the roar of fighter jets patrolling the sky.