Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years

I heard about it from Geekydaddy. Back then we were cohabiting, not yet married, though we were already living in the home we still have here in San Francisco. He called me from his drive to work, and I turned on the TV in time to see the second plane hit. My mum and dad were visiting from England that week, and on the morning of September 11th 2001 they were at the San Francisco Airport, waiting for a flight to Las Vegas. They watched the events unfold on the airport TV monitors. They were efficiently bused back to an eerily quiet city, and wondered about the wisdom of being dropped off downtown amidst San Francisco's skyscrapers. I took the shuttle to work, everyone sitting on it in uncustomary silence, watching the sky, waiting and wondering whether our iconic American structures too were destined to burn.

Sometimes it doesn't feel as if ten years have passed since then, but other times it feels as if we live in a different world. Especially when traveling by air. International travel always had fairly rigorous immigration and security, especially at Heathrow, but do you remember domestic US air travel before 9/11? When, if you didn't have bags to check, you just walked into the airport and strolled right up to the gate to check in? There were no security checklines, and you could carry whatever you liked in your carry on bag. Your non traveling companions could walk you to the gate and kiss you goodbye right as you boarded the plane. Geekydaddy would meet me at the gate, often with flowers hurriedly purchased at the airport shop designed for just that purpose, when I arrived home from a conference.

When I moved out to San Francisco back in 1996 I was invited to ride in the cockpit for part of the flight, courtesy of a friend of my fathers who worked for the airline. I can't imagine my children will ever get to do that. The children are seasoned travelers though. For them it will always be normal to remove your shoes at the airport, to walk through body scanners and to pack tiny ziploc bags of miniature toiletries. We all moan about the inconvenience, but to be honest, I have got used to it. Perhaps it has already saved us from other acts of violence. We probably never hear about many of the near-attacks that are prevented.

No amount of security can protect us from idiocy though. Southern California should have been on a code red idiot alert last Thursday, when someone flipped the wrong switch and inadvertently sent the whole of SoCal into the dark ages. We are so dependent upon the flow of electrons through our world. When there is no power there are no ATM machines, credit cards are useless, cell phone service is patchy and gas pumps don't work. I was standing at the self check in machine, ready to fly back home from what was supposed to be a day business trip to San Diego when the screen went blank. A long line began to form behind me. My scheduled flight time came and went. People started to mutter and wonder if something more ominous than a simple power outage might have occurred, this anniversary being forefront in everyone's minds. Twitter reassured me that there was no foul play, so I found a taxi to take me back up to my company's office in La Jolla so that I could join the rest of my stranded colleagues. Our admin staff back in SF got us booked into a powerless, but fortunately not drink-less hotel, but there was no way to get flights rebooked while the airport was still without electricity. I was fortunate to be with our company president, an amazing woman who I always want to be with in any crisis situation. She found a cab with enough gas to drive us to LA, and had enough cash on her to pay the fare. The amazing admin staff, working overtime back at mission control in our SF office, got us booked into the LAX Hilton, and on flights back to SFO the next day.

This was a minor crisis, a mere adventure in the grand scheme of things. Even the children were unphased by the news that Mummy would be back a day later than expected. I showed up at work the next day in a snazzy LA souvenir T shirt, having been reminded that so much in our lives is beyond our control, and is instead in the hands of the randomness of chance. From now on though I will always carry cash, and have spare pair of knickers in my handbag.