Homeland Security

Showing Up for Work on September 11, 2001

(Larry Bruce/Shutterstock.com)

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.

As a family man with school-aged children and a business to run, terrorism was not high on my list of worries. The 1993 attempt on the World Trade Center struck me as a pathetic and insidious failure, and weren’t the perpetrators rotting in prison? The October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole penetrated further into my psyche, but it happened far away, and to a military target. By the start of the new millennium, I expected terror to manifest that way.

By September of 2001, the recent event that had most garnered my interest was almost a year old—the tortuous presidential election of George W. Bush, and my huge sigh of relief that Vice President Al Gore had been denied.

Back in Forest Heights, it was lunch time. My crewmates had brought lunches, but I wanted a radio update and so took my truck to a nearby drive-thru restaurant. On the way out of the development, I noticed the woman who had asked for access to the garage was sitting talking on her cell phone in a small pickup, her landscape crew nowhere in sight.

On the radio I heard that conservative host Michael Savage had come to work on 9/11 too. A woman came on the line, hysterical, saying, “They’re going to kill us all!”

“Take a Prozac,” Savage yelled back at her.

That afternoon, a Hispanic framing crew hammering away across the canyon from us cranked their salsa music up loud enough for all to hear.  It occurred to me that the events of the day had rattled them too, with an added element of fear that the terrorist attack would lead to Draconian new immigration enforcement.

Around 4:30 we boxed the site. Forest Heights is located on a busy air traffic corridor, with a steady stream of jets coming east from Hawaii and the Pacific, and as many more flying south from Seattle. We didn’t yet know that all U.S. air traffic had been grounded, and were only subconsciously aware that no aircraft had appeared in the blue skies over us all day.

My evening was more typical of the way most Americans spent the night of September 11, watching the coverage, the unbelievable replays, attempting and failing to absorb the horror and process emotions of anger and sadness. I hollowly reassured my children, called around to family members, and even spoke somberly with the architect whose house we were painting. He was surprised we had shown up for work.

The attack changed me to the extent that I became more politically conservative, more staunchly nationalistic, and more culturally vigilant than I already was.

Around eleven p.m. on the West Coast Fox News ran a montage of the day with music. I watched, and then flipped off the set and bedded down.