Every time I hit the elevator button in my office building, I am relieved that I’m traveling only to the tenth floor. I work in that rare L.A. edifice—a skyscraper—and as much as I enjoy studying city grids from above, I suffer a bit from vertigo. To be honest, I also suffer from a certain fear that was born ten years ago this month. It’s not that I felt we were invulnerable before the events of September 11, 2001. I have often commented about the lack of security at public events in Los Angeles, about how little effort it would take to infiltrate a mall or a stadium, about how common it is to see unattended belongings—forget backpacks, what about couches and abandoned cars?—on the streets that would attract a 20-member bomb squad in other parts of the world. I just never imagined how easily jets could be flown into buildings, or how quickly those buildings could fall.
My mind wandered again to the World Trade Center one evening last May. I was in Chicago for a convention and met with colleagues on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Center for drinks. It was a gorgeous night, the skyline all twinkling lights, Lake Michigan a dark and ominous expanse below. I steadied myself at a floor-to-ceiling glass wall to take in the view. As I looked down from nearly 100 stories, I thought of the awful choice those trapped inside the towers had to make that September morning. I turned to join my group—thankfully, they were seated away from the windows—and we drank scotch and caught up on business until a coworker received a call from her sister, who asked if she’d heard the news. “Oh, my God,” my colleague said, looking up from her phone. “Osama bin Laden is dead.” I glanced over at the windows and had the urge to get to solid ground. We left en masse for our hotel bar, where a headline on the TV confirmed the call. Even when the bar’s patrons saw the news onscreen, they didn’t stop yapping and flirting as we struggled to hear what was being said. The night was still young. Maybe it was the past that was dead to them.
If I didn’t board the elevator in my building every day, would I, too, let 9/11 slip away? If I didn’t read the obituaries every morning, would I forget the endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? There are times when I wish I could flip the switch off, but it is hard to live in a city this big and unmanaged, with an infrastructure that hasn’t kept pace with the growth, and not feel vulnerable. The daily miracle is that most of us reach our destinations without incident. The daily challenge is to remember not to forget.
Illustration by Leif Parsons