How Long Ago Were the Old Days, Really?

Posted on September 14, 2011 by

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by Peter McKay

This is the first installment of a series of posts with the author’s personal recollections of 9/11, in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the catastrophe.

Perhaps the greatest measure of the otherwise unfathomable tragedy and consequence of 9/11 is how difficult it is to imagine a world in which the attacks never happened.

Think of a world in which the United States isn’t at war anywhere. Gasoline costs$1.56 a gallon. You aren’t subjected to daily inconveniences intended to make you safer, some of which have questionable effectiveness and all of which serve to unsettle you just a bit as reminders of lurking danger. Prolonged “security theater” at the airport. Police or even national guardsmen in public places in big cities wearing heavy armor and carrying high-caliber rifles. Metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs at sporting events. Cameras mounted everywhere.

Of course, this world isn’t 100% safe. But when someone commits serious violence against Americans, he’s promptly arrested, tried and convicted in an open federal court close to the scene of the crime. He has a lawyer throughout the process.

Danny Pearl is a great but mostly anonymous newspaper reporter. Four World Trade Center is just another almost-famous address where Eddie Murphy once made a movie. Politicians wear flag pins on their lapels at parades, but that’s about it. No one makes a big deal of it or questions their patriotism.

Of course, this is a world a lot of us can indeed remember. But it seems so far away, doesn’t it? Like it was 20 or 50 years ago instead of just 10. In a sense, we’re really not much better off than the generations who were either unborn or so young on 9/11 that they barely remember it. The old way of life has become an abstraction to all of us, one way or another.

Some people will tell you that pre-9/11 world is worth keeping in mind as something to aspire to now. Some will tell you it’s a just a baseline to measure how close you are to naivete, that we can never really go back. I tend to lean closer to the first group’s thinking, though we obviously can’t undo 9/11 itself at this point. I think we just have to find a better way to deal with it, even now. That quest still isn’t complete.

• • • •

A few months or maybe a year before 9/11 — I forget the exact date — I had lunch with Fred Varacchi at Windows on the World, the gleaming restaurant at the top of the 110-story tower known as 1 World Trade Center. Fred was president of eSpeed, an electronic-trading platform owned by Cantor Fitzgerald, whose headquarters were on the 101st through 105th floor of 1 WTC. I was a young reporter at the Wall Street Journal, whose headquarters were next door at 1 World Financial Center.

We met at Fred’s office and headed upstairs to the restaurant along with his head of public relations. Looking over the sunny, breathtakingly panoramic view of the New York suburbs from our table, Fred remarked that he could see the town where he lived with his family and the route he drove to work everyday.

As someone who regularly took the subway in from Brooklyn, I was struck that he traveled by car to work. That sort of commute is common in most parts of the country but often a big hassle in the congestion of New York City. To this day, I’ve never owned a car in New York, let alone driven one to work.

“Where do you park?” I asked.

“In the garage under the Twin Towers,” he replied.

This surprised me a little as well. I thought the garage had been closed off after Al-Qaeda planted a truck bomb there in 1993. That incident claimed “only” six lives but was plenty scary at the time.

Indeed, Fred informed me, they’d rebuilt and re-opened the garage, increased security a bit, and it was once more a very handy place to park.

What sticks in my mind now is how nonchalant the tone of this conversation was, not tinged with the slightest fear of another attack. After all, it had been six or seven years since the ’93 bombing. I was just a high-school student watching on CNN at the time of that incident, and I’m pretty sure Fred wasn’t working at WTC then. Ancient history, we thought.

Of course, it wasn’t really. On 9/11, Cantor Fitzgerald’s offices were hit almost point-blank by American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to crash at WTC. People were utterly unsuspecting at that point; most were sitting at their desks thinking they were in for a routine day at the office. As a result, Cantor lost 658 employees — more than the New York police and fire departments combined.

Fred and his PR guy, whose name I unfortunately can’t recall at this point, were among those who perished. The staff on duty at Windows on the World, presumably including many of the people who served us during that care-free business lunch, were trapped on the upper floors above the initial fireball. The restaurant lost 72 employees.

I was on the subway, on the way to work and very much unsuspecting as well. When I exited just a few blocks from Ground Zero, the scene was manic and I learned of thisattack from bystanders and my own eyes, not CNN.

Since then, not a day goes by that I don’t think of some aspect of 9/11. Very often, I specifically think of that breezy conversation with Fred. The memory somehow seems vivid and long ago, all at once.

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