I woke up in a strange place

By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
See also: a novel about a monkey.

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September 16, 2001

I nearly slept through the evacuation. On the day that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, I was late for work, as usual. I was in the middle of a two-week temp assignment at a telecom joint in the Sears Tower. I was having fun. There was free soda and food for the employees, there was no direct supervision, and there were free pinball machines. You can guess, then, how I spent my time. The company laid off a full third of its employees on the day before I started, and one of my favorite pastimes was keeping track of the euphemisms that the remaining employees used to refer to the ones who were gone: the funniest were the people who would meaningfully intone "Yes, he was affected by the layoffs" - presumably, themselves unaffected and resolute - and the creepiest were the people who, with a tentative giggle, would refer to the former employees as "the departed...(giggle) the deceased." They'd always look up for confirmation that I liked the joke. Their heads would arch slightly forward as if representative of their entire venture into risky comedy, their sly metaphorical link between death and unemployment. (I could keep going, but to deconstruct the expression further would constitute brutality.) They'd look at me for confirmation that I liked the joke. What do you want me to say?

I was half-asleep as I entered the building. I remember noticing that the lobby was unusually chaotic, and I remember thinking that these (several hundred) people must be a high-strung tour group or something. In the chaos, I managed to slip past the security guards and make my way to the elevators, somehow oblivious to the fact that I was the only person headed into the building. Once upstairs, I took a roundabout way to my work area - hoping to avoid detection - and, once there, scattered a bunch of papers to make it look as though I'd been working for at least a half-hour. (It was 8:35am.) Then I went back into tardy ninja mode and, still undetected, hid in the executive lounge with a newspaper and a soda. I didn't see a single person on my way, and I chalked that up to exceptional ninja work.

At one point in the blur of that morning, it was being treated as a certainty that the fourth plane - the one that eventually crashed in Pennsylvania - was headed for the Sears Tower. It made sense at the time; it's the tallest building in the United States, one of the best-known, and architecturally vulnerable in all the same ways as the WTC. There's currently no reason to believe that it was a target, of course, but at the time, the building's management had been informed that they were the third target by someone sufficiently high-ranking as to have them treating it as a fact. I wasn't aware of any of that. As I gradually awoke in this strange place, it finally occurred to me to wonder why there was absolutely no one around. I had some good patter worked up for explaining my presence in the executive lounge, should anyone have asked. I may never have found out that the building had been evacuated - and, honestly, had I not been told, I would probably have just dozed off there for a few hours - had some goofball executive not come racing back into the building for his briefcase.

So that's where I was.

I feel uncomfortably conscious of how badly I wanted that day off from work. I needed the money and couldn't justify calling in sick, but I was tired and I had a lot of writing that I wanted to do. I spent most of the train ride to work scheming for ways to get the day off. That sticks in my head a lot. On the way out of the building, I saw one of the Partnering With Change packets that I'd helped to assemble the day before. I cut two of my fingers while doing it, and I wound up bleeding on the backs of all of the stress worksheets.

On my way home, I stopped at the grocery store to buy milk, bread and veggie burgers. While there, I decided to canvas the delivery guys for their opinions on the day's events. Three out of three felt that immediate military action was called for; one said that "we" should "kill all the bastards", and another added that "we" should "go over there and level the place".

What do you want me to say?

I saw three old ladies playing poker at a bus stop on Thursday. On Friday, I received my first paycheck in four months. On Saturday, a mute man of Arabic descent tried frantically to tell me in sign language that he (point to self) would (point to wood paneling in the train car) fight (machine gun) but (point to butt) he wasn't allowed (shrug) but he (point to self) hated (finger across throat) Osama (trace letters in the air with finger) very much (finger across throat again). The homeless guy behind me kept yelling Hell yeah!, but the mute man wasn't interested in him. He wanted my understanding. I didn't want him to feel like he had to hate to be accepted by me, but I didn't want him to be afraid. I didn't know what to say. I went blank.

I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.

Often discussed:

Antarctica, Beelzetron, Books, Chicago, College, Communism, Food, Internet, Japan, Manute Bol, Monkeys and Apes, North Korea, Oregon Trail, Outer Space, Panda Porn, Politics, RabbiTech, Shakespeare, Sports, Texas.


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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.