September 7, 2011

Shortly before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, I walked into an office building at Park Avenue and 50th Street in New York City to meet with an editor at Random House, in hopes of selling a book on how to fix America’s biggest domestic problems. There were no televisions on in the office (and Twitter hadn’t been invented yet), so we didn’t know that minutes earlier the first plane had done the unthinkable and a new era had begun.

Across America there are millions of stories of that day. My family’s isn’t special or noteworthy — there’s no courage, or suffering, or loss. But, perhaps as with your family, our conversations this week are filled with memories and feelings that can’t help but come flooding back. Shock. Fear. Patriotism. Love. Such stories bind us together. At a distance, they even offer a few laughs to help us cope with the tears. Forgive it spilling out here — columnists shouldn’t inflict therapeutic exercises on readers — but maybe you’ll recognize the urge to remember.

When I stepped out onto the building’s plaza after the meeting that morning, I knew instantly that something was wrong.

Taxis and limousines were pulled over to the curb, their doors open, radios (and, in the limos’ case, televisions) blaring. Strangers from plainly different socioeconomic backgrounds were huddled together, talking. Very un-New York. I looked south down Park Avenue. Giant plumes of smoke were rising.

I tried to reach my father and stepmother, who were with my 4-year-old daughter uptown. It was impossible; cell services were completely overloaded.

When I got to the apartment, my little girl said, “Daddy, we saw the plane crash into the house — and the fire!” How can you explain to a child what the world can hold? We made plans to get to my mom’s in Connecticut, thinking our daughter would be safer there in case further attacks were coming. We’d figure out how to get home to Los Angeles when things settled down.

My wife, in Seattle on business, and unable to reach us for hours, was beside herself with worry. But, bless her resourceful heart, Jody had leapt into action. Though commercial flights were grounded indefinitely, she quickly found two seats on a corporate jet headed to Los Angeles on which she insisted we fly home. My recollection is that the argument began like this:

“What would it cost?” I asked.

“5,000 dollars,” she said.

“That’s crazy,” I said.

“Per seat,” she said.

“That’s crazy,” I repeated.

“It’s the only way to get you two out of there.”

“We’ll be safe at my mother’s.”

“No, you won’t be, you’ll still be near New York.”

“Bin Laden isn’t coming down Mom’s street in the suburbs.”

“You have no idea what bin Laden is doing.”

When Jody finally resigned herself to the fact that the idiot she had married was not going to take advantage of the escape she had organized, we had to figure out what she should do. Amelia and I might not be home for days. Jody’s business in Seattle was done. Her colleagues were hunkered down with their own families, trying to make sense of what had happened.

The thought popped unbidden into my head.

“Call Mike Kinsley,” I said. He lived in Seattle (and was then single). “Call Mike and go over and cook him dinner.” I knew Jody had a huge intellectual crush on Michael. Who didn’t? So in a burst of end-of-the-world generosity and seize-the-day panache, I added: “And do anything you want!”

She cooked him dinner.

The next few days were a blur. I called my agent to say I was leaving town, on the assumption that other scheduled meetings with publishers would be canceled. “Not so fast,” he said. Yes, the world was ending, but there still might be a deal to do.

Jody took the fabled Coast Starlight Amtrak train home from Seattle, a jammed, surreal, 40-hour ride. In the dining car, people who’d been watching every calorie for years were slathering butter on rolls and wolfing down desserts. Why bother dieting when the end is nigh?

Time passes. The American flags we hooked up to our car windows are in the garage somewhere, I think. My book was revived in a different form a couple of years later. Our 14-year-old just started ninth grade and has no memory of that day. Jody and I still have intellectual crushes on Michael Kinsley. Two of our friends, military officers, spent much of the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rest of us got a tax cut.

And we haven’t suffered another major terrorist attack. Yet.