Those were some dark days. For everyone, yes, but even before 9/11…that was during my Hades servitude, before I hit my limit and threw down my two week notice like a woman downing her last shot of the night. Which means the day everything turned inside out in America I was earning a paycheck answering customer service calls and pushing paperwork. And that, now that I think of it, is a rather typically American way to pay the bills.
My friend and I shared a small office, cubicles facing each other, cracking jokes over the divider between calls. She played a local radio station in the mornings – one of those talk shows filled with random commentary on weird headlines – and it made the time pass faster. I’ll still catch that show today if I’m in the car at the right time, and I remember we thought they were joking when they announced a plane flew into the first tower. That makes no sense now. Who on earth would think that was funny? But really, at the time I simply didn’t have the bandwidth to imagine what was about to become our reality.
Some watched from afar as frightened Americans; others were living the terror firsthand in the attacks or desperately worried about their loved ones. We all carried our memories of that day forward into a new way of life, into a world of threat assessment and security measures.
But sometimes when I think back on that time, I remember the waiting.
A few days after 9/11 my company asked for volunteers to staff a hotline. They were preparing to run DNA tests on bodies recovered from the rubble and they needed employees willing to answer calls from people looking for their loved ones. It was such a tragic time, one where people living outside New York wanted to do something but found themselves stuck with CNN updates instead. Here was a way to help and I jumped at the chance. It seemed like such a simple thing.
But waiting for that phone to ring was excruciating. Waiting to talk with someone living a nightmare, preparing to listen to their unspeakable pain – anticipating each call was the worst because nothing I said even made a dent in their anguish. I had to accept that just answering was enough. I remember reading a book between calls, clearing my head of one person’s sorrow, making space for the next.
I joke about that job being a dark period, but I look back on those evenings with pride. It wasn’t much, but if it gave even one person a shred of hope to help them make it through then it was time well spent.