Day of Infamy

My generation wasn't around for Pearl Harbor (and most of us were smart enough to skip this spring's Hollywood-ized version of it).

Some of us (those of us on the cusp of the baby boom, and those who came after) know where we were when Kennedy was shot - but many of us were still in diapers.

None of us will ever forget Tuesday, September 11, however.

I was at my desk early, and had been in a news vacuum from about 7:30 till 8:30, which is the quiet time I use to write, answer mail, and make phone calls.

I'd just picked up my desk phone to call my best friend Helen, in New York - to tell her about running into a long-lost classmate of ours the night before at Jalapeño's, when my cellphone began ringing insistently (and I ignored it).

I called her office in the Viacom building and got dead air. Thinking I had the number wrong, I tried again, and got a fast-busy. Tried again: this time a recording, "all circuits are busy." Same thing with her cellphone. Same thing with her line at home.


As I kept trying, my cellphone was ringing non-stop. Finally, I picked up the first message from Charles. It was simultaneously rambling and cryptic something about the World Trade Center.

I called his office, and suddenly, he was telling me some insane story about a commercial jet flying into the World Trade Center. It seemed unbelievable, but at the same time, my mind and heart were already a thousand miles away with my friend Elle, who works on Wall Street. Her husband Mario was flying to L.A. this week for his first art exhibit out there. (And wasn't that jet headed for L.A.?) Elle's subway stop is at the WTC. My mind was also on Helen, whose train passes underneath the WTC between 8:30 and 9 a.m. every morning.

As we spoke, he exclaimed, "Oh my God!!" Another jet had hit the second tower.

I typed in NORAD on my search engine. The site was down. I asked about Charles's brother John (who lives in Brooklyn), and he was fine - though he was scheduled for an appointment at the WTC at 4 p.m.

I ran into the art department, where NPR was on. Some "man on the street" interviewee was insisting there were no planes, only an explosion. "Probably a bomb," he was speculating. The anchor was protesting, in an English accent, that the television footage clearly indicated two planes.

Within a half hour, our staff was convened in the front office, glued to the TV.

Our Associate Editor was absent - waiting frantically by the phone - we knew her fiance was in New York on a due diligence trip, but no one seemed to know where.

Our V Magazine project director, Dan Elkinson, was also absent. His father works in the World Trade Center. On the 34th floor.

Our spring intern, Eric Newman, was somewhere in Manhattan, at New York University. He's 18 years old.

Our summer office assistant, Bobby Houlihan, is also now a freshman somewhere in New York City.

And then there was the Village Voice, and specifically Village Voice Media, in Cooper Square. Their executives were all scheduled to be there for a meeting - all of our former bosses. Dead air everytime we called their main number. Fast busy every time we tried their direct lines.

We sat in the front office, next to the switchboard, in front of the television, watching the tragedy unfold while we worked on our laptops in the floor.

As we all stumbled around in a state of half-shock, Jim Shambhu, our longtime art director, was the first to ask, "what are we doing here? What are we doing, as a newspaper?"

Our options were so limited. We were halfway to press. We were contractually obligated to deliver V Magazine, our literary quarterly, to the stands this Thursday. Content and art was in. The imposition was done. Layout was almost complete. We were ready to line-edit.

My editorial had already been devoted to Rick Bragg's upcoming reading. I'd finished that Sunday night. Reality Truck was penned on my porch, one silly morning this weekend. At that particular moment, I didn't have anything more serious on my mind than matching the right date with the right shoes.

Dan had worked very hard on V Magazine - collecting a beautiful array of literature and art. We'd even managed to get Wendell Berry to contribute a poem. We couldn't scrap it.

Instead, we carved out room where we could.

Finally, we connected with the Nashville Scene. Albie Del Favero (co-founder of the Scene, executive vice president at VVM, and my former boss) had landed. He was safe. His account of the events from the air, phoned in to Scene editor/publisher Bruce Dobie, appears on page 6.

Eric Newman, our former intern, also had the wherewithal and presence of mind to immediately get his observations on paper. His essay appears on page 6.

Bobby's father emailed me this morning to let us know his son is safe.

Elle and Helen missed their morning trains. Mario was on an earlier flight to L.A. He was overwrought and in tears by the time I actually spoke to him (after he'd endured 45 minutes of being unable to locate his wife). Dan's father was in the WTC, but made it out. A miracle. Eloise's fiance, David, drove home in the middle of the night, shaken but ok.

As far away as we were, our lives here were consumed by so many near misses. As American citizens, they'll be consumed for far longer by far more global implications.

As human beings, our hearts go out to those who are living in the eye of this storm.

As Mario emailed me this morning, "There are simply so many we love in this world. My thoughts and prayers go out to others who were touched by this disaster. I have this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that I will have known a victim of this atrocity."

Before it's over, it's almost certain that we all will. And on more levels than any of us can anticipate right now.