Showing Up for Work on September 11, 2001

I went to work as usual on the morning of September 11, 2001.

My painting company had a contract on a luxury home in the sky-high Portland enclave of Forest Heights. The owner of the home was an architect who had specified—and paid a premium for—a brush job, no sprayers. There was a lot to be done, and to miss a full day of work in September with the Willamette Valley rains coming is never a good idea.

I was forty-nine years old and had a date with a forty-foot ladder.

I wonder to this day if I made the right decision, whether it might have been better to call off the painting, stay home, and watch coverage of the attack. A quick call around to the members of my four-man crew confirmed that all of them were willing to show up and sling their brushes.

Like the clear morning that had dawned in New York City and Washington, D.C., Portland was enjoying a summer-like day, clear skies, headed for a high of 84 degrees. Driving to work, I found that conservative talker Rush Limbaugh had been preempted by a live network broadcast from NYC.

Forest Heights is always pretty quiet at eight in the morning, with the attorneys, physicians, and Silicon Forest high-earners already off in their Beemers and Lexuss to jobs downtown or at the Intel campus in Hillsboro. The architect and his wife, a well-to-do mid-forties couple, were always gone before we arrived.

The morning of 9/11 it was preternaturally quiet in the upscale development, and as we met at the job site there wasn’t much to say except, “Bastards.” We got our ladders up and started brushing gray taupe on the precipitous walls of siding.

The first of any activity on the block that day was right out of bizarro world. A crew-cab pickup full of Middle Eastern landscapers pulled up at the very house we were working on. To say they received a glowering reception is an understatement, but soon a Caucasian woman came over to the side of the house we were painting.  She asked if we had access to the garage, and it became clear that the landscapers were in her employ. She told me they needed to get in the garage to troubleshoot the automated sprinkler system, which had been malfunctioning.

We did have access to the garage, a key to the side door, and had set up a small shop for equipment and paint. But I flat-out lied, with complete justification in my mind, and told her I had no way into the garage.  Thus began my abiding struggle with an instinct towards default negation when dealing with people of the Islamic faith.