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Flying To New York City on 9/11

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The cabby yells jubilantly out his window through the early Sunday silence: “How are you doing today?”  It’s too much, too early, especially for heading to the airport on the fifteenth anniversary of September 11.  The cabby’s name is Mahmoud, a Venezuelan with a Jordanian mother and he’s been driving all night. He’s not drunk, he explains, it’s just been a crazy night and he’s trying to stay positive because it’s been a bad night. He’s been trying to get blood-bank runs, which are much more lucrative than a standard fare, but he’s been cut off or gotten the short, small shipments while the taxis in front of him get the big gigs.

“Don’t look out for what the other person has,” he says.  As we get to the airport, our talk turns to international relations.

“People in other countries love the U.S. — let me tell you,” he says. “They know they have to work hard here or you will wind up homeless. No one’s going to help you.”

There’s a long line at the security checkpoint (so much for everyone being afraid to fly on 9/11), and an agent makes announcement of what and how things need to go through the scanners.

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“The only thing that can be in your pockets are lint and air!” he projects out to the crowded line. Whether some of that lint is technically legal in the destination states of the passengers is up for debate, but it’s safe for now.

Illegal lint and legal weed. My yes, an awful lot has changed in fifteen years. Security certainly wasn’t this stringent in 2001 and there’s almost no comparison to the day that DB Cooper, the world’s first skyjacker, boarded a flight and passed an “I have a bomb” note to a flight attendant (which they called “stewardesses” way back then).

There’s way more tech around these days. The ProVision ATD machines that scan your whole body are new since the Twin Towers attack. Everyone wonders whether they’re giving us cancer so you can opt out and get frisked instead. Near the gate, a sushi restaurant has nine flat-screens showing a scenic mountain pass with wild flowers swaying in the breeze. Jeeze, technology is everywhere.

ProVision ATD machines

These days technology makes it possible — however unlikely — to Tinder match with someone you’ll be seated next to. This wasn’t achievable during W Bush’s first term because there was no Tinder app back then. Hell, cell phones were still just phones back then and most people were still using landlines.

The phone in the hall rang early in the morning on the day of the attacks. “Turn on the TV,” said the voice on the other line.

Then came another call. It was from Japan this time, a foreign exchange-student friend from high school that had visited recently. He was calling to make sure we were all right in San Francisco. After he was assured that we were fine — and still three thousand miles away from Wall Street — he apologized for breaking the fishbowl during his visit.

“The USO center would like to invite all military personnel and their families to use our facilities,” says an announcement at the airport today. “For more information information, use a white courtesy phone.”

Well, that’s a little different. Does that include would-be journalists flying alone if their grandfather served in WWII? Probably not.

But other than a gracious offer of a quiet lounge, there’s nothing else to betray the day. There’s no fanfare, no banners, no extra American flags. Just another craptastic day to fly.

“How are you doing today?” Asks the pilot as the plane fills.

“Ok,” says a passenger. “How are you?”

“Hanging in there,” says the pilot.

“That’s all you can do sometimes.”

“You got it.”

Perhaps today’s anniversary holds special significance for the pilot. Perhaps he’s just overworked and underpaid like most people in this country. But perhaps 9/11 does hold special significance for all of us, whether we were touched personally by the tragedy. It’s a subconscious reminder of our mortality, a nagging feeling of the impending, inevitable end. And the fifteen year anniversary marks the passing of time, let’s you read part of that tracking number for that dark package that’s in the mail for each of us.

The first flag of the day is out on the wing tip of the plane. The skyline quickly disappears beneath a thin but complete blanket of white cotton as the plane pulls into the air. The sun rings the vessels shadow in a rainbow while, far out in the distance, Mt Tam pokes out like a shark fin.

Now the East Bay with its parking lots and subdivisions nestled into the brown hills of California. The armory near Concord and the windmills in the Delta. Memories of a romantic vacation sweep by a leave regret at the passing of love. Memories of love and the regret of its passing.

This is how flying on 9/11 will get you: it forces you to examine whether your life is where you want it. Regardless of whether you are actually concerned about dying in a fiery wreck, flying on this day reminds us of death and marks the passing of time, leaving a lump of doubt sitting in the stomach like a stone.

The Sierra Nevada mountains leap up, great teeth of rock, waiting through time immemorial, backdrop of a million lives, impervious to the small worries of a minuscule monkey flying overhead in a metal tube at 434 mph.

The lakes in the mountains are low. Reno sweeps by and then Pyramid Lake, the Black Rock Desert a hazy sheet on the horizon. The high desert encapsulates the view, all cloud shadows and dirt cut by the tiny lines of roads that trace the Great Western Myth in the dust. Circular crop field speckle the land like small drops of water on a massive parchment stretching to a parched infinity.

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The Bonneville Salt Flat appears and then the Great Salt Lake with its sickly purple. The Rocky Mountains rise up like sentinels at the end of the desolate plains. Skirting north, we fly over the salted plains and craggy hills of Wyoming, then the square farmlands of Iowa with their ruler straight roads.

We cross lake Michigan, almost like an ocean, then Lake Erie, the wavy green of the Appalachians and circle across the saturated settlement of Long Island where we meet the Real Ocean, the Atlantic. The plane circles around over the water and then there it is: Manhattan, that glistening, jagged and unbelievable monstrosity of endless churning, the pinnacle of all humanity’s energies. It’s the capital of the world the same way that Los Angeles is the capital of Mexico.

It’s a bumpy landing. On touchdown, the plane pulls hard to the right, then hard to the left before straightening out. Murmurs and short exclamations tinkle around the cabin. “They save the exciting stuff for the end,” says one voice, chuckling.

Etihad airlines is at the same terminal, proudly flying Middle Eastern colors of black, green, white and gold, just as this plane displays red, white and blue. Arabian writing is scrawled on the fuselage.

Inside the airport, there’s still no sign of reverence, no hint of the date’s significance. There’s no special military detail, no evidence of heightened security. Just the same old America, devoid of health care and full of racism. The America where no one’s going to help you and you have to work hard. There’s a giant McDonald’s near the gates and a Persian announcement on the overhead speakers.

That night, twin spotlights will shoot into the sky from Ground Zero. There were almost certainly ceremonies at the memorial sight, but nothing on the Long Island Railroad or the subway.

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Two days later, the spotlights are gone but the skyline still glistens.

The next night, strolling through Washington Park, a New Yorker points to the arch and says, “I remember this was being worked on back then. So it was surrounded scaffolding. And days after 9/11 it was just plastered in ‘Have You Seen Me’ fliers. I mean, covered. It was heart breaking. And the smell. It was just like death, everywhere.”

Two days later, water flows endlessly into a square granite hole and drains into another, vanishing, falling from sight like so many people fell. And names are cut into steel by the sides. Loraine Antigua. Gone. Gone forever but in hearts and minds.

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A man in a turban stands alone and stares into that massive drain. He does not smile. His forehead creases. Perhaps he was family of the terrorists. Perhaps he’s strengthening his resolve for an attack he’ll participate in.

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He brings up a camera and snaps a few shots when a short, sweaty man with two bags walks up.

“Hey man,” says the traveler. “How’s it going?”

“Oh, pretty well, thanks,” answers the man with the turban in a British accent. He’s here to visit his sister, who’s just had a baby. He plans to visit family and help change some diapers, which he calls “nappies.”

“We sure have a long way to go,” thinks the traveler. Should he have left the man alone? Surely it’s better to try to face your fears than to assume the worst. Surely communication is better than condemnation. And a Mark Twain quote comes to his mind:

“The thing in man which makes him cruel to a slave is there permanently and will not be rooted out for a million years.”

And the traveler hopes that he’s wrong.

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Sam Devine

Sam Devine

Sam Devine is a San Franciscan weirdo that rides bikes, plays music, drinks beer, and likes to write about the important things in life -- namely bikes, music and beer.