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September 15, 2015

The Eleventh

It was a bright clear fall day as I drove over the Tobin Bridge and into Boston. I commuted in the early morning to avoid rush hour. I was in a good mood. I had some Doo-wop on the radio and a four-shot Americano in the cup holder. I drove through the maze of twisty downtown streets, pulled into my space in the parking garage, grabbed my coffee and my Land's End briefcase and took the elevator up to my office. I managed the documentation department for a large software company.

I booted my computers, adjusted the blinds against the glare of the early morning sun, turned on some music (Bela Fleck this time), sat down, and got to work. I answered the overnight crop of email and checked my schedule for meetings and approaching deadlines.

I was just settling into a rat's nest of verbosity disguised as a chapter of a software manual for automated backups on enterprise networks, when there was a knock on the door and Kate from Quality Assurance opened it and stuck her head in.

"Got a radio?" she asked.

"No just a CD player."

"Okay." It was an unusual request, so I called after her, "What's up?"

"Just wanted to listen to the news," she said turning back. "There's a weird story I heard on the car radio, something about a plane hitting a building in New York."

"One of those little private planes?"

"Must be."

"Let's find out."

She came back while I accessed a streaming news feed. As we listened, the door opened and someone else came in. I waved them to a seat without turning.

"Be with you in a minute," I said.

But of course it wasn't a minute ... it was September 11th.

We sat quietly listening as things progressed getting worse and worse.

Finally over-saturated I turned down the volume and turned from my computer.

My office was full of people, and there were more people grouped outside the door in the corridor. Friends and rivals among my co-workers were sitting on the floor or had pulled chairs from neighboring offices. Many were crying, some were hugging each other for support, but all of them wanted the volume back up.

For a couple of hours we listened in silence, until security came and told us that the office building was closing and we had to leave. We were in a tall office building in downtown Boston, and paranoia had begun to emerge.

The streets were jammed. I called my wife to let her know what was going on and that it would take me some time to get home. She was shaken and asked me to detour to Mission Hill to pick up my daughter and bring her home.

On the way up Huntington Avenue. I watched crowds of students, brightly-plumed, or raven-moody Massachusetts College of Art students, somewhat more preppily garbed Northeastern students, piling off the trolleys and flowing across the street. None of them seemed to notice the increased traffic around them. None of them noticed as a plane flew overhead and drivers ducked.

My daughter wasn't at home, so I drove to where she worked to pick her up. It took hours to get through the clogged streets and back up to the North Shore. We didn't talk much during the ride. Just listened to the news on the radio, switching back and forth between WBUR's NPR coverage, and WBZ's CBS feed.

At some point during the drive something occurred to me. Among the people sitting in and around my office, aghast and horrified and frightened and angry, had been a veritable UN. There were people from every corner of the earth ... people of every religion; Moslems, Sikhs, Coptic Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Wiccans, Atheists, Agnostics, even an eccentric who claimed to be a Jedi practitioner.

And there we all were, sitting side by side in shared disbelief, horror, and communal sympathy, rivalries forgotten, failures unimportant, and, in my microcosm of an office, peace reigned. It's an image that I keep with me, an image that lets me hope.

All these years later, I still feel deep affection and a surge of pride in my fellow geeks and nerds who, in a work environment that prized logic and scientific thought, spontaneously formed an emotional community that ignored differences of culture and spirituality.

And I guess what makes me proudest is that I wasn't surprised, that I knew that there was a commonality, that respect for others' work, understanding of common goals, can lead to an environment where differences are less important than humanity.