Where I was on September 11, 2001

I was in Houston, and I was so sick of all the bickering.

After spending a very brief stint at an architecture office, where I was daily criticized by former sorority sisters for the outfits I wore (I hate Ann Taylor because of that stint), I had made the blind leap into politics.  Grassroots, unglamorous, first-time-serious-attempt-at-office politics.  It was supposed to be non-party based, but you could pretty much call my work Democratic.  I worked with three other people at a core level, and we would each expand and contract campaigns, building staff and volunteers as you headed toward election day.  There was nothing fabulous about the work because it was straight-up hard work.  Anywhere from 12 to 20 hours of hard work.  In hindsight I look at that time spent as my Masters in the Real World, because the real world came hard and fast when you worked in grassroots politics.  West Wing this world ain’t.

Before I had joined the Head of Campaign Management had gotten one person into city office.  An amazing woman named Annise Parker.  I remember when I met her I knew she was the kind of person who went into politics not for personal glory, but for the actual call of making a city better.  At the time she was running for re-election to an At-Large Council seat, and I listen to her advice slavishly, having no clue to what I was doing.  I had been assigned a woman named Ada Edwards, who had a fascinating past as a single mother struggling to improve her area of Houston, District D.  I was to work her house party fundraising.  For those who don’t know, house parties are a very easy way to raise campaign funds and introduce a candidate to about 20-30 people.  The can be simple or elaborate, but the concept was the same – raise funds, raise awareness.

Ada’s main competition had on its side a Congresswoman named Sheila Jackson Lee.  Congresswoman Jackson Lee is a tough cookie to stand up against, and she didn’t mess around.  Using Ada’s son, who had died in the midst of gang violence, she went on radio and decried Ada as a bad mother.  It was merciless, and the lesson it taught me quite a bit about rising above personal attacks.  But at the time it was just too much to listen to, and so, on September 11, 2001 I had decided I was not going to listen to the radio.

I was so tired of the bickering.

I was happy that day, because everyone was going to be out of the office that morning.  I was going to get a mess of paperwork done.

The weird thing was, everyone was driving so slow.

Anyone who lives in Houston knows that the speed limit is a suggestion.  If it says 35, the speed is 45, if not 50.  I had made it through the roundabout (yes, Houston has one) and on to Montrose and was just trapped in cars going the actual speed limit.  In my frustration I bypassed the usual Starbucks run and fought my way into work and into silent, peaceful bliss.  I had pulled apart all the file cabinets and was sorting everything for all the campaigns we working on when my colleague Dave burst into the office.

“A plane has hit the World Trade Center.”

Those words floated through my head.  World Trade Center.  World Trade Center.  I had visited there in high school.  The elevator to the observation deck was quite a ride.

At the time playing television over the web was a bit of a novelty, but with a finesse that was obviously channeling importance, he had it on and running.  There it was, a smoking tower.  A few moment later our boss came in.  He was supposed to be meeting with the Mayor, but when the plane hit the first tower they rushed the Mayor off.  Houston is the third or fourth largest city in the US, and a key holder of oil and gas business, so it was precautionary.

We all sort of stood there.  I recall some vague attempts to get back to filing.  I couldn’t.  I stood there.  Then my colleague called out from the back of the office, another plane had hit the other tower.

After awhile our boss told us to go home.  We would assess what to have the candidates say tomorrow.  Today was a day to be with family.

I went to a friend’s house.  They had a big screen television.  We found out they attacked the Pentagon, and then we found out a plane had crashed in a field.  We just sat there, shocked.  Her Mom made us food, but everything felt empty.  In a bit of a strange, American consumerism moment, I desired an American flag.  I wanted to have something, hold something.  The stores were sold out, and there were people on corners selling them in bulk for ridiculous prices.  We may have just been attacked, but by God we were businessmen.

In the aftermath fundraising became abysmal.  People who had been working on our small little campaigns jumped ship to fancier campaigns for firefighters and workers who had lost their lives.  I couldn’t blame them.  The general feeling in the US was, for a time, comradery.  Despite, it was as if the work we had done on our little campaigns were wiped away like the towers were.

We fought back, though.  Annise got re-elected, and Ada entered her first term as Councilwoman for District D.  Ada would later end her long and storied career as a re-elected Councilwoman and Annise would eventually become Mayor.  In between I experienced a lot of failure and endured a final campaign that – I would later realize – would serve as a platform for election of Sue Lovell to City Council.  Sometimes you have to lose in order to win.

If there is one thing that September 11th taught me, it’s that sometimes you need to forget yourself and think about the greater cause.  Before the World Trade Center was attacked I had been so insulated with this silly fight between campaigns I had forgotten why in the world I had gotten into politics.  To be so self-absorbed, so stuck on the infighting I had forgotten that there were thousands of people who didn’t give two cents if Ada had lost her son to violence, they just wanted their city to be a safe place to live with good schools and good infrastructure.

I started listening more after that.  Tried harder for it to not be about me so much.  It’s made me a more decent person in the long run.  I think in terms of human lives more than numbers these days.  Perhaps it’s because of all those memorials, where they put up a flag or a candle or a flower for all the people who died 10 years ago today.  Each little memorial speaks of a life cut short.  A person’s life.  You don’t need to know what they did, or if there were some great person or a total jerk, but that they were a person.

I hope today, if not going forward, people start treating each other more like people.  It annoys me that tragedies sometimes have to happen for people to remember that there are other people out there besides them.  That perhaps if we were nicer, if we listened, if we conversed and didn’t spend our time just screaming that the world would be a better place.  That fewer people would grow up to aspire to hurt and instead to heal.

We need more peace on this globe.  Today, lets have a bit of peace.

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