A Serious Drink: Thought About September 11th and Osama bin Laden

I woke up on the morning of September 11, 2001 filled with apprehension. I didn’t have any knowledge of the looming terrorist attacks against the World Trade Towers, the Pentagon or United Flight 93’s final destination. I didn’t have any clue how my pre-9/11 life would be different from my post-9/11 life nor would I ever suspect how the events of the last nine and a half years would change my entire world paradigm. I woke up that early fall Tuesday filled with apprehension because I had a dental appointment.

I had woken up early that morning to start the long, arduous process of preparing myself mentally for the impending diagnosis of a mouthful of cavities and the inevitable time spent under the drill. Brushing my teeth for the fifteenth time hoping that 20 minutes of tooth care could make up for two years of neglect, I turned on the television. I had fallen asleep to TeleMundo the night before and returned to what I thought was the beginning of a bad movie.

There was a Latino man dressed in a lavish uniform giving a news report from across the Hudson River one of the World Trade Towers was billowing smoke. Between flossing for the first time in six months and getting dressed, I considered everything on my small TV to be nothing more than background noise. Sitting down to put on my shoes, the broadcast felt less and less like a movie. The absurdity of a reporter that looked like Richardo Montalban dressed in a Capt. Crunch uniform giving a live news feed is only matched by my limited Spanish speaking ability. Unable to find the remote, I repeatedly watched as a commercial airline crashed into the North Tower until I got up to turn the channel to ESPN. There, sitting behind the SportsCenter news desk, was a very somber Stuart Scott telling me that theSouthTower had been hit with a hijacked plane and the United States was under attack.

Reflecting upon September 11th years later, I never forgot that I trusted SportsCenter coverage of the attacks equally if not more than those of CNN, MSN, FoxNews or TeleMundo. In TeleMundo’s defense, the fact that I went to bed the night before watching some Mexican game show only proves that I considered their programming limited to entertainment.

If there ever was an excuse to skip the dentist, 9/11 might have been a good one but I took the long drive up to Bountiful Utah for my dental appointment. I was listening to the radio trying to piece together the scattered pieces of information pouring in from every direction. The most important information I had was the knowledge that my family was safe. Even though they were scattered throughout the East Coast, no one I knew was killed or harmed in the attack. I found out years later that my brother’s best friend was walking into the WTC as the first plane hit. He turned around and ran like hell safely back to his apartment.

We were five months away from hosting the 19th Olympic Winter Games and I selfishly considered SLC to be the next logical terrorist target. I was working as the Lead Bartender at Shula’s Steakhouse at the Wyndham Hotel directly across the street from the Olympic Plaza and I was concerned how the attacks would impactSaltLake’s ability to host the games. Even with what limited information we had that day regarding the attack, I knew that the magnitude of the events occurring along our eastern seaboard were going to have real, recognizable and lasting impacts upon all elements of our lives. Unlike other tragic events that I witnessed: the Challenger accident,Oklahoma City bombing,Waco, the gravitas of these attacks were going to have lasting implications for all Americans.

Prior to walking into the dental office, I heard that the FAA had grounded all of the planes in the nation. Minus military planes, it was the first time since the Wright Brothers that there wasn’t air traffic in our skies. Working at the Wyndham Hotel, we were the way station for both United and Delta Airlines. Flight crews from these airlines and all of their distressed passengers stayed at our hotel. Upon hearing that all air travel in the United States had been grounded, I knew that we would be temporarily housing all of those travelers that were not able to get to their destination. It wasn’t a matter of if but how many people would be coming to the hotel.

After 45 minutes under the drill, I quickly drove home and dressed for work. The uniform for Shula’s Steakhouse was the standard black-and-whites of a slacks, dress shirt, vest and bow-tie. My shift started at 3pm but I arrived just after noon to start setting up. Throughout it all, I was listening to the radio as more information came in and the magnitude of the attack became more apparent. I turned on the televisions in the bar as I was setting up and people slowly started filtering into the club. I apologized to those early guests about not being set-up but they were very accommodating. In the small hotel bar that had an occupancy of less than 70 people, we were quickly filling up with people watching our five small televisions.

I set out the bottles, cut fruit, filled ice bins and wiped down counters. I stocked our wine shelves, got back-up bottles of liquor and stocked glassware. With the exception of the events of the world outside, everything felt normal for one brief moment as I was following my regular set-up procedure. At first people asked only for water and sodas. As the horrible images of the destruction from the WTC towers replayed over again on the televisions, people sat stone quiet. Slowly, they began to realize that they were not going anywhere and started ordering beer and food. Something that not many people get to experience in a bar is the collective look upon the faces of the guests as they share a common experience. Behind the bar, I have the vantage point to see the collective faces of the crowd. The look that I saw that day was a shared furrowed brow, gritted lips and sadness in everyone’s eyes.

The information released on September 11th felt like spaghetti thrown against the wall with only some of it sticking. We were learning the flight names, casualties, locations and peripheral details of the attacks. The factual details of 9/11 have been well reported and discussed over the years and I don’t feel comfortable giving a minute-to-minute account of the events. It took months for all of the information to come in and be processed into a manageable scale if something like that can ever be comprehended.

The real memory of that day more than anything was the fact that for the first time I actually was comfortable in not knowing what was going on. I recognized early that the situation was too big for me to grasp immediately. It wasn’t that I relished in ignorance but rather I knew exactly what my role was—I was the bartender at the Wyndham Hotel. I was responsible for pouring drinks and running food. More than anything, I had a role to play and I liked to think that I met my responsibility by providing a safe spot for scared and distressed people as the world seemed to be crumbling down around them.

As the day moved on, the bar became increasingly busier. There weren’t any televisions in the lobby of the hotel and both staff and guests gathered in the bar to get updates. I had my cocktail waitress, Amy Jo, join me at 7pm and she walked into a bar that was filled to capacity. When describing bartenders, I believe that they fall into two different categories: gun-slingers and slow plays. Gun-slingers are club speed bartenders that can pour drinks as fast as they are ordered. To be a gun-slinger, you need to be able to take multiple orders from different customers in a loud environment and make every drink as quickly as possible. Slow plays are the traditional bartenders that we’re familiar with from movies. They are part concierge and mixologist. They trade speed for personality and become the face of the bar that they are working. Being a slow play means that the most important tool you bring to work is the ability to entertain your guests while still making their drinks. One is not better than the other but in order to be a great bartender you need to be able to do both. On September 11th, I felt as if I finally came as close to being both.

On an average night, I would have been praying for Amy Jo to come in to bail me out but because of what was happening around the country everyone of my guests were incredibly supportive. Any other night I would have received complaints about slow service and long waits for food but on September 11th, everyone in the bar was incredibly patient. At Shula’s, I felt that I could adequately take care of up to 60 customers with no problems. That night, I had upwards of 150 people in the bar and I had every one of them completely dialed in. Drinks were going out, food was coming in and nobody was complaining to me.  I kept my nose to the grindstone the entire night making sure that beers were being poured, wine glasses filled and guest accommodated. Only sporadically did I look up to the televisions and see the horror that people were experiencing around New York City. I was glad that I had all of the guests in the bar that needed attention or I would have easily slipped into following all of the events.

The immediate impact of September 11th at the Wyndham Hotel was that we had received almost a thousand distressed passengers. The hotel wheeled out roll away beds into the banquet halls so that people would have places to sleep and were setting up buffet tables to feed all of the guests. Amy Jo and I worked a packed house for the entire night. Considering how many people were jammed into the bar that night, the room was incredibly quiet. I didn’t have to adjust the volume on the television once. In fact, the only people who were really reacting in any odd fashion were a group of about 15 flight attendants from Delta Airlines. They were in one of the corners of the bar, drinking wine and laughing. Not obnoxiously but rather the stifled nervous giggles of someone who avoided something. I think they were acting out because they felt that it could have been anyone of them on one of those doomed flights. I didn’t reprimand them or make comment of it to any of the other guests. Not having any direct contact with what was happening back East, I felt that they’re reaction was both juvenile and honest.

By law, we were required to shut the bar down at 1am. It was the only time that night that any of the guests complained to us. We did our best to accommodate any of our guest’s wishes but I was running on fumes. I had been pouring drinks for over 13 hours and it was time to go home. I felt bad that a lot of the people in the club were going to sleep on a cot with no idea how they were going to be able to get home tomorrow but I needed to end the night. The constant flood of information coming across the television and the images of people jumping to their death were too much. Add to the horror of the day those people looking lost into the news camera with pictures of missing relatives and I needed to go home.

We cleaned up the club and did our paperwork while drinking tall mandarin vodka and Sprite. We sat there in silence trying hard to suppress the emotion of the day. I had looked at the faces of countless people that were directly impacted by the terrorist attacks and seen the horror and shock of the day’s events. Adding insult to the events of the day was the guilt that I made more money in tips that day than any other single day I’ve bartended up to that point. I made over $800. It felt obscene to walk out of the bar with that kind of money after the collective destruction to the mental psyche of our nation. I ended up donating a lot of that money to the 9/11 Relief Fund but I still have a sick feeling in my stomach from all the money I banked off of people’s guilt, confusion and despair.

I was awarded the employee of the month for the hotel for September 2001. I’d like to think that it had something to do with the fact that I was the anchor of the hotel on a very dark, somber day. Being the lead bartender for the hotel made me the de facto face of the company and I hope that I put forth my best face. Airplane travel didn’t resume until September 13th. So, Amy Jo and I had to relive the experience of taking care of countless distressed customers for another day. In the end, I felt that we made the best of bad situation and provided some sanctuary away from the craziness of the world.

Smash cut to the 1st of May and I heard that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by Navy SEALs in Pakistan. The mastermind of the attacks on our country had been taken out. He was killed in a daring shoot out against American Special Forces and was finally brought to justice. Erin and I watched the coverage of his killing and the reactions to it in both Washington DC and New York City. I sat there blank-faced absolutely shocked that not only did we find and kill him but that he was still alive. After almost a decade, Bin Laden had become the boogeyman in the closet placed there to remind us of evil. Under his direction, he altered our day-to-day lives dramatically by disrupting life in America.

We watched the coverage and I commented that there were a lot of young college aged kids outside the fence of the North Lawn at the White House. Most of these kids looked as if they were ten years old during the attacks. They were chanting “USA” and singing the national anthem. Let me make something absolutely clear: I am very happy that Bin Laden has been wiped off the face of the Earth. He was a mass-murdered and the double-tap that he received facing down a Navy SEAL was better than what he deserved. We are better off with him dead. As happy as I was that our mission to destroy Bin Laden was successful, I felt that the gathering was inappropriate. The celebration for his death was mis-channeled and should have been reserved to the soldiers who stormed an armed compound in the middle of a hostile territory. The world forgets that Americans are serious people and should not be toyed with. By acting like sporting fans, I think the wrong type of message could be sent. I don’t fault people for gathering and celebrating. It just felt like the level of patriotism being expelled from these impromptu rallies should have been saved for an international soccer match.

It’s been almost ten years since I rushed to dress in my uniform to pour drinks on September 11th and how it directly impacted me. It is without a doubt the most significant bartending shift I have ever worked. Within a 24 hour period, everything that I thought about America’s place in the world had changed and I am still processing how those events still impact me today. Unfortunately, how my life has been changed is minor at worst. I am inconvenienced when I travel on an airplane and my privacy on-line has been impacted. The reality is that I escaped a lot of the horror on September 11th where as a lot of my fellow citizens have suffered considerably. Those directly impacted by the attacks and subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have paid a much higher price than I ever will and I hope that Bin Laden’s death can bring some solace to them.

In the end, I believe that the length of time between the attacks and Bin Laden’s death actually transcends time. When interpreted through the lens of America, it has been an unbelievably long. So much has changed in our country in the last decade that it is almost incomprehensible that the attacks were over nine years ago. Through my own lens, the attacks happened just yesterday. I don’t live in terror but I am very conscious of what happened that clear Tuesday in September and I reminded of the collective experiences that we underwent together. My hope is that we don’t ever have to experience something like this again and if we do, we continue to undergo that experience together.

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