On September 10, 2001 I ate dinner in suburban Chicago with a member of my sales team whose territory I was visiting. We ended up debating religion and politics, which was as much a mistake then as it would be now.
I woke up early the next morning, used the hotel workout facility, showered and prepared for a day of sales calls. I was ironing a white shirt and watching the Today Show when it was first reported that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center Towers.
I was still puttering in my room 17 minutes later when the second plane hit and it became obvious that we were under some kind of attack. It was just after 8 a.m. Chicago time; I tried to call home, but my wife was busy shuttling my 8-year-old daughters to school and my 3-year-old son to preschool.
I did reach my mother, here in the Heights, and talked with her; she wasn’t in the habit of watching morning TV so I was the first to tell her what was going on.
But by 8:30 local time, I had to leave my room to meet the salesman in the hotel lobby for a day of sales calls. We were already in his car and stuck in ordinary rush hour traffic when the radio broadcast news of some kind of explosion or plane crash at the Pentagon.
I asked the salesman, Jim, to call our first appointment to ask if they even wanted to see us. Of course they didn’t; they were sending everyone home. Jim pulled out of traffic and into a gas station so we could regroup.
“Jim,” I said, “take me back to the hotel. Our day is over.”
“I think you’re overreacting a little bit,” he told me. “You’ve come here to help me sell, and by golly we’re going to sell.” (He really did say “by golly”.)
Our next appointment was scheduled for downtown in one of the big towers – all of which, the local news reported, were being evacuated.
It took me a long time to convince Jim to take me back to the hotel. By the time he finally relented, we had learned about Flight 93’s plunge in Pennsylvania and American airspace had essentially been closed down. It’s not that Jim didn’t get it; I think he was simply trying to carry on as expected – to be a good soldier. He wanted to take me back to his house, but I couldn’t tolerate his stifling style of concern over the fact that I was now alone, 500 miles from home.
I spent the rest of the day sitting on the edge the bed in a hotel room. I talked with my family and we all knew we were all OK. I wandered down to the hotel bar at about 4 p.m. and got tremendously drunk with strangers. One of those strangers joined me in buying dinner (on expense account) for 5 stranded flight attendants – young ladies earning lousy wages, expected to buy their own meals for as long as they were on the ground.
It was a cathartic dinner – doing a good deed while enjoying the company of strangers far from home. None of us ever traded business cards or wrote down each others’ names. We separated after dinner, unlikely ever to reunite.
I was stranded in Chicago for two days before I located a rental car to drive home. It wasn’t rough duty; I had a corporate American Express card, and there was no business to be done.
But I spent the time feeling isolated and insulted at being separated from everything that had meaning to me. I felt, perhaps for the first time, that a life of corporate travel was, for me, a life of futility. While I was a gold-card patron of soulless hotel chains, airlines, restuarants and rental car companies, I was a visitor in my own community.
It took eight years for me to change that. But today, a really live in my community. I make friends with local merchants as I buy their goods. I know the people who run my city. I volunteer for local organizations, and do things that I believe make our community better. I am an everyday presence in the lives of those I love most.
My life today has grown from a seed planted on that infamous September morning. Every year during the somber commemoration of 9/11, I can’t help feeling some level of gratitude.