Essay by Greg Baysans


(Margie Boulé solicits stories describing how 9-11-01 has affected her readers. I hope this response is no longer than that column:)

Not a change in my perception of America but a confirmation, 9-11-01 has shown this is neither the land of the free nor the home of the brave.

Two anecdotes follow, one at work and the other at school. I'll briefly describe pre-existing conditions.

A few months before the horrific date, my part-time job had dwindled from few hours to fewer. I had been, since spring, 2001, enrolled in a business "school" that claims to train students for "skilled" jobs.

A month before that vivid day, I found a temp job (temp jobs being the new American way: it's business chic for companies to employ squads of temp employees, easily replaceable in these hungry times, and low-cost: no health benefits, holiday pay, etc., to consider). Luckily it was a full-time position, so I was working from 5:45 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. and going to school from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Within a couple weeks, I had been "fast-laned" into a department where longer-employed temps were at work on a somewhat specialized "case" (with no increase in pay, of course), a sort of "inner cadre" of the better employees.

In this department I had just arrived that early morning when the news began to trickle in: "The World Trade Center's been hit by a plane. There's another down in a field in Pennsylvania." I immediately thought terrorist act, precipitated perhaps by the action of the previous week. The U.S. and Israel had been the only two countries to boycot a Peace Conference in South Africa, reportedly because of the Palestinian presence and their "statehood agenda."

(Much later that evening as I watched the video-taped CNN coverage of the day unfold -- my partner at home had put a tape in when the first coverage began that morning, knowing I was unable to watch at work -- the announcer doesn't mention the possiblity of it being terrorism until after the "dust" has settled. It's amazing bumbling to watch.)

"The second tower has been hit," I heard next through the grapevine. About the same time: "The Pentagon has been hit." A co-worker was risking censure by monitoring the situation on the internet. I requested e-mail updates. Work (answering phone calls) slowed noticeably), and the time spent reading e-mail was not detracting from the workload.

"This is one of those days we'll talk of years from now and remember exactly where we were," I commented as I tried to consciously take in the looks of the eight or nine co-workers in the cubicle den in the middle of the factory-sized building.

Before long our supervisor, who'd grown up in New York and had a superior attitude to prove it, brought in a tiny television from the new car he'd been talking about for a week. He put it on his desk at the far end of the cul-de-sac we occupied. The woman closest to his desk could see what was transpiring and related to the rest of us what she was seeing.

"The south tower has collapsed," an e-mail update report informed me sometime about 10:15 a.m. I looked to the tiny tv and still saw two towers. I couldn't see they were endlessly repeating footage of the impacts. "The other tower is down." I could still see two towers. Had the bottoms of the towers crumbled leaving the tops?

Talk began of us going home a bit early this day. An hour later, I began my forty-five minute walk home. There the tv was still recording CNN and I tuned in another set to investigate various station's coverage and keep myself up-to-date. The towers had, I now unbelieveably learned, completely fallen. I remembered my only visit to the top in the 80s.

Having that morning imagined being a pilot ordered to fly into a building, my brain had fried beyond being able to empathize with those in the towers, either above or below the points of impact. (Another vivid thought of the day: I wished myself incapable of imagining such a monstrous event and obscenely envied the victims.)

The next day (and the next) the tv stayed at the supervisor's desk. He'd been quick to exclaim on September 11 his wishes that "we"'d" (meaning our nation's young; I couldn't imagine his portliness in a cockpit) "go bomb 'em."

Another employee's September 12 comment, "Nuke the towel heads," went unadmonished (even by me). A co-worker whose husband is an FBI agent was sure to join the hawkish talk.

Around 7:45 a.m. that morning, Sept. 12, the supervisor came to my desk to bring me some instructions but stopped dead in his tracks a foot away. I had a crossword puzzle on my desk. He was barely able to withhold an emotional outburst as he slowly let out, "" (There was no irony in his voice. Those are his exact words.)

Expecting him to continue with whatever he'd come to tell me, I looked him full in the face and waited. Dead silence. A longer-than-pregnant pause.

"Remove it... now," he quavered, trying not to erupt. I complied. Only then was he able to continue with what he'd come to tell me. I took a break, right on strict schedule, minutes later.

I walked faster than usual outside the building to the six-square-foot smoking area on the two acre lot. "It's that kind of double standard that brought down two towers," I shouted, almost in tears. The two co-workers with me, within the well-marked lines, puzzled their faces.

As the next weeks went by, the hawkish talk continued, neither increasing nor decreasing in fervor and always without my participation. (The only department co-worker likely to have agreed with my less military response had transferred from the department on Sept. 10, likely because of impatience with Mr. New York's constant need for reinforcement of his views.)

In October, one week after I'd earned my "eight weeks of service" raise of 25Ç per hour, I was told that "the slowdown in calls" meant I had to be laid off. "Your work was excellent and we'll call you if a new case opens up soon." (Nine months later, their factory still operating, new batches of temps have come and gone. My phone sits silent.)

America, land of the Free?

The night of 9-11-01, I had school to attend and, surprisingly, it did meet ("Business marches on.").

Midway through the evening, I heard that an instructor had been admonished for answering students' questions. Asked why any group would want to attack us, the instructor briefly described U.S./Israeli relations and was later rebuked by the Dean of Instructors for making comments inappropriate in the classroom.

Minutes after I heard story on a break, class resumed and my next classroom teacher remarked "This is a great country. We are safe. We have a good President." Were these comments deemed inappropriate? Not in the least.

America, home of the Brave?

Ten months later, my latest temp job is only a part-time position. I live below the poverty level.

I've finished with my classes at the technical "school" and they are unable to help me find employment, despite the fact that faculty can't practice what they teach (and dress nicely to drive their urban trucks, thank you). A persistent loan company the school sold the loan off to is getting nasty in their demands for payment for tuition.

I'm left reciting an Allen Ginsberg poem memorized twenty-three years ago: "America" "America, I've given you all and now I'm nothing, America, two dollars and twenty-seven cents, January 17, 1956. I can't stand my own mind."

I only meant to memorize the poem, not to live it. "America, you don't really want to go to war."

July 10, 2002