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On a Mundane Morning, the Clock Struck 9

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2001;

America opens at 9, which is to say 9-ish, which has become our saddest hour.

9:02, for example. Or 8:45, or 9:04.

Or 9:11, six minutes after the second jet hit the second tower, and the mind started connecting dots in a panic. At some point we may have stopped to consider the date, 9/11, which reads as 9-1-1, which is keypad-speak for: Oh God no, help, please. Perhaps the day could simply be called Nine One One.

Apart from the middle of the night, or the predawn, which are both fraught with simple darkness and somnolent vulnerability, 9 o'clock has taken on a peculiar quality all its own: terror before the day even really gets started, before the second cup of coffee, just before the staff meeting you'd as soon not go to, just when you think you're five minutes ahead by being five minutes behind.

The people who would kill ordinary Americans in order to make a point have zeroed in on the humdrum of our early-mid to mid-mornings, with the idea that we're all up and at our desks doing . . . doing what, exactly? In somebody's interpretation we are busily playing our notes for an intricate orchestra of Western evil, of conspiracy, of a capitalist McDomination.

When really what we're doing is mundane.

We're at the office, or about to be.

Nine o'clock?

You're as likely to be where you're supposed to be, only not quite -- the atrium lobby, or that little croissant place across the plaza, or in the elevator, or aboard the early shuttle flight. You are two floors down, or one floor up, perhaps not exactly where your loved ones thought you'd be, which either saves your life or seals your fate.

At 9 -- if things have gone smoothly, if there was time to dry your hair and do your daughter's braids and explain to her why she can't wear her tutu to school, if the bridge traffic moved okay, if you didn't screw around too long with the crossword, if the bus was on time -- you are still sort of waking up to the fact that you have woken up.

Showing up is the American way. By 9 you've endured the loudmouths on the clock radio who were trying to get a woman on her cell phone to stick her bare bottom out of her car window, which made you switch back to NPR's "Morning Edition" and its breakfast drone of militant rebels in the jungles of countries with new names.

In the cities, at a little bit before 9 a.m., the buildings still cast shadows up and down the concrete ravines.

Eight forty-five sounds like a delivery truck backing up, beep beep beep beep beep beep. Eight fifty-two sounds like brakes on a city bus with standing room only.

There are lines at bagel shops. Five of nine has a flavor of after-shave and non-dairy creamer. There is muttering in the snack room about the machine being out of Diet Coke, about the copier being jammed again. We do what we can to be cheerful and positive at 9; we do what we can to avoid those who seem to have been up for hours, jogged six miles, read both papers, and already have revision ideas for the buyback presentation next Thursday.

Nine o'clock talk in offices tries to be as simple as possible: Gretchen, could you get me that committee report on the interface transfer? Thanks, and how's your brother, the one who had the thing with his leg? His hip? Great.

It may be some small, tenderest mercy that many Americans have come to regard the 9 o'clock punch-in as a suggestion and not the rule. We may not be the Greatest Generation, but we have learned through a variety of flextime and day-care problems and relaxed rules that it's okay to get in by 9:30, or quarter of 10. (It's okay, that is, if you've made it past a certain boundary line of privilege, seniority, white-collarhood. The gal in the next cubicle is still going to chide you for being late. "Put it in my personnel file," you snap back, in the loving way you and the gal in the next cubicle relate.)

This could mean that many of the thousands of people who worked in the World Trade Center didn't have their act quite enough pulled together enough to be in the office by 8:45 for a rendezvous with history.

If they were scurrying toward work, there was suddenly a clear sign from above to scurry away from it. Of all the narratives that transmitted out of Manhattan yesterday, many were about the near-misses of the 9 o'clock hour -- people who got out fast, or turned the other way, or were running late in the first place.

Nine o'clock is a good hour for Type A personalities; it is a nonexistent hour for right-brain creatives who stayed up all night writing poems. It's a lousy hour for alcoholics. It's too early for a coffee break, too late for pancakes.

Brokers, unfortunately, and Wall Street types live off the energy of the early morning -- gotta get in there, markets open at 9:30, gotta be first. The worst picture, to some, is the one of all those people leaning from the blasted-out windows of the World Trade Center. These are the people who get in by 9. These are the ones who had the breakfast reception at Windows on the World, on the 107th floor.

Nine o'clock, as reported in the Dolly Parton song about the workaday life: It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it.

Then there's the Pentagon, which makes 9 a.m. into something else: 0900.

The military gets up famously early, like monks who never fail to get up for morning prayers. Nine o'clock to the brass might as well be midday. Yes sir, by the book. When American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the military-industrial complex at 9:40, it sliced into what outsiders have always presumed to be the most perfect and bland expression of a well-guarded bureaucracy.

Timothy McVeigh, who conducted his strange and bitter life with a military man's eye for detail, parked his rental truck at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City right before 9 a.m. on the Wednesday morning of April 19, 1995. The Murrah Building, before that blast, was the very definition of nondescript. McVeigh's rage was focused on a conspiratorial empire out of control.

Inside, at 9 a.m., there were credit union tellers, Social Security case managers, people who processed HUD forms, day-care kids sipping their morning juice, and a sprinkling of federal agents who, unlike the federal agents of airplane novels, didn't exactly lead day-to-day lives of thrilling espionage. There were people there that day who simply wanted to fill out a form, at offices that opened promptly at 9.

The memorial that stands there now, in fitting tranquillity, is centered around the idea of what 9 o'clock is to America: Nine o'clock is normal, except on the day everything changes.

On either side of a block-long reflecting pool, the Oklahoma City memorial is bordered by two bronzed gateway arches, each several stories tall. One arch reads "9:01," the other reads "9:03," and the pool itself represents the horrible moment -- 9:02.

Pearl Harbor lasted from 7:53 till 9:45 on a Sunday morning. To a military mind, this now seems almost gentlemanly and strategic, as nightmarish sneak attacks go: centered on a military target, clear in its meaning and intent. The United States bombed Hiroshima at 9:15 on a Monday; Nagasaki a minute before noon on Thursday.

A popular T-shirt in the 1970s pointed out that "A nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day." In both history and movie lore, nukes don't get dropped at night. They seem to come when everyone's out of the house, at school, or downtown, or stuck on the freeway when there's no hope of getting home.

The nighttime raid seems anachronistic, going back to a time when war was easier to define.

It turns out broad daylight was so much scarier.

The 9 a.m.-ness of it all came raining down: all 243 pages of the committee report on the interface transfer, all those shreds of capitalistic minutiae, all those desk ferns and coffee mugs and Hang in there it's almost Friday posters, the blue copy, the pink copy, the yellow copy, the innocent working lives in tragic triplicate.

How the morning went so wrong.

But, oh, a day later: It's a little bit before 9 o'clock and everyone who could went back to work. The trucks were beeping, the line formed at Starbucks, and the eye contact we made with each other said what we didn't have to.

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