WASHINGTON, D.C. — Military Police Humvees were on the streets of downtown Washington, D.C. One drove down K Street, along Farragut Square. At least three were parked on corners of nearby blocks.
It was early, about 8:15, on September 12, 2001. Two M.P.s stood on the corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street. One poured a sugar packet into his coffee cup while the other looked downtown, toward the national mall and the White House.
There were steady radio requests for blood donations Tuesday afternoon, so my girlfriend Carolee and I were walking to the Red Cross center at 1915 I Street, between 19th and 20th Streets. Neither of us had given blood before, and we weren’t sure whether we should’ve eaten a lot, or nothing, or normally beforehand. In the end, we ate normally.
At the corner of 19th and I Streets, an M.P. stood with his hands behind his back. He looked at the traffic, at the pedestrians, then downtown.
We arrived at 1915, entered the exterior door and found a sign that read:
Donate Today at
1730 E Street, N.W.
9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
We mulled outside and looked at our watches. Five people went into 1915 and read the sign while we discussed whether we had time to go to 1730 E Street, the Red Cross Headquarters, before work.
A large man in a baseball cap walked up to us. “Is this the place to give blood?” he asked. He hadn’t read the sign yet.
Carolee said, “No, there’s a sign that says go to 1730 E Street.”
The man said, “I was just there, and it’s not open.” He spoke loudly, but in a gentle way.
I told him that the sign said the other center wouldn’t open until 9:00.
He said, “Okay. I got a bunch of people with me, but that’s where we’re going then.” He walked off.
“Do you have time to go?” I asked Carolee.
“No, let’s go after work.”
It was a good idea, so we planned to meet there after work.
Carolee walked one way along I Street. I walked two steps in the opposite direction when I saw the man we’d talked to. He sat in a black WKYS-FM van parked at the curb. A white minivan pulled up next to him.
They coordinated. The man said to whoever was in the white minivan, “No, this station says to go back to E Street. I’ll meet you there.”
As the white minivan accelerated away, the WKYS van stayed. A pedestrian yelled in the window, “Hey man, can I win some money today?” Whatever the man in the WKYS-FM van said made him laugh.
There were fewer pedestrians and cars near the White House than on most Wednesday mornings. Still, those pedestrians walked the sidewalks in business dress. Various laminated security badges hung on colorful bands around their necks. A First Serving van supplied food to homeless people near the corner of Pennsylvania and 18th. Despite the beautiful late-summer weather, only two people sat at two of a cafe’s fifteen outdoor tables. Directly across the street from the north side of the White House, a trumpet player played in Lafayette Square.
Since May 1995, a month after a truck bomb razed the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, only security and official vehicles have been free to pass through the closed-off area of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. Pedestrians, rollerbladers, and bikers are allowed to travel through, also.
There were more police in front of the White House than I’d seen there before. The north side of Pennsylvania was half-filled with police cars and horse trailers and motorcycles. Police patrolled the area on foot, on bike, and on horseback. They talked with one another and they were vigilant and they joked around, because right now, what can be said about New York and Washington and Pennsylvania and the entire country besides that it was terrible, it was heinous, it was horrendous, and we feel for the people who are lost or missing?
Carolee called me at work at 4:00. The Red Cross had announced that it had plenty of blood donors for the day.
“Do you want to go anyway?” I asked.
“No. They’re full,” she replied. “They’re stocked full of blood for the day.”
I told Carolee that I was going to go to 1730 E Street anyway, to see what was going on, and to find out how we could donate blood Thursday or Friday.
At 5:00 the traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue was unusually light. A helicopter passed slowly over the shopping center at 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue. A white van was parked out front. It had a transmitter dish and camera on a telescopic pole, extended twenty-five feet in the air.
A siren ran in the background. An ambulance approached. A woman stepped out of the van and set up a stand for a TV camera.
I asked her what she was going to tape.
“We’re not taping. We’re doing a live feed here in about twenty minutes,” she explained. “It’s a story about how workers are returning to work, not hiding away.”
“But don’t you think there are fewer cars than usual?”
“Yeah, but people are still coming out. We heard from a bunch of people this morning — I usually work the morning show, but things have gotten busy yesterday and today, so I’m doing the evening news, too — and I taped so many people who said they’re not going to let the terrorism stop them.”
I told her that was great.
She said, “But they don’t know that they’re standing at ground zero.”
She fiddled with wires that led to the correspondent’s earpiece. I didn’t know where the correspondent was.
I asked her what she meant by ground zero.
“Everyone’s gunning for D.C., don’t you know? Man, I thought when I moved up here from West Virginia it’d be cool doing camera work in the big city. There’d be glamour and big political events. Nope. It’s death and destruction. What I wouldn’t give for a nice feature story about a pot-bellied pig. In West Virginia, I won an Emmy for a feature story I did about a pot-bellied pig. I’d love to do another one.”
A police car drove by with its sirens on. I said, “There have been a lot of sirens today.”
It was mostly police sirens, she said, mixed with ambulances. She covered her ears as the police car drove by.
As I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, toward the Red Cross, I passed a policeman who carried a fierce-looking, black-metal gun with a crescent-shaped clip. It looked like a machine gun, although it could just as easily have been a sub-machine gun, semi-automatic, or fully automatic. The policeman met another policeman at the corner of 20th and Pennsylvania, where they conferred.
A thin-faced policeman in mirrored sunglasses rode a motorcycle up Pennsylvania. He drove from the direction of the White House to 20th Street, where he crossed traffic and joined the pair of policemen. The thin-faced policeman pulled some papers from a compartment on his bike. They looked at them then he rode off.
Three minutes later, the motorcycle cop passed me again. He must have done a security loop near the White House. I turned down 17th Street, toward E Street, toward the Red Cross blood donation center.
The Red Cross headquarters is a beautiful three-story building with a white marble exterior. At the top of the building, just below the large Red Cross icon is a dedication: “In Memory of the heroic women of the Civil War.” The semi-oval asphalt driveway in front of the building was lined with sedans, SUVs, minivans, and a red-and-white Red Cross Humvee. A huge donor bus was positioned near the street. A sign on the bus read, “Give blood, please.”
A Red Cross worker with dark red hair and a ruddy complexion stood on the staircase, greeting people as they arrived to donate blood. The man clutched a stack of papers flat to his chest.
I asked about donating blood.
“We’re not taking any more donors today,” he said. He’d no doubt said this to many would-be donors. “We’re supposed to be closing in twenty minutes, and these people,” he motioned toward the twenty or so people of various ages (high school students to college students to forty-ish people) who sat on the marble stairs and in chairs at the top of the staircase, “they have a three-hour wait.”
A woman who had come up beside me asked, “Will you need more donors soon?”
“We’re going to need blood tomorrow,” he explained, “and the next day, next week, and so on.”
The Red Cross worker continued, “About thirty minutes ago, Dr. Healy, the President of the Red Cross, returned from a meeting with President Bush. As she walked toward the building from her car, she told the people at the end of the line just how much they’re appreciated. She said that the President informed her that we still need a great amount of blood for the victims in New York and at the Pentagon.”
This Red Cross donation center has thirty beds, and the Red Cross representative estimated that 1,000 people offered to donate blood today.
An agitated man in his forties said to the Red Cross worker, “I didn’t realize you moved from your other location on I Street.”
“That location would’ve had trouble handling this many people,” the Red Cross worker explained. “So we moved everyone here.”
“I just spent fifteen minutes looking for a parking space over there. I wish you’d let people know.”
Before the Red Cross worker could apologize and explain that there had been 1,000 would-be donors, because that’s what I assume he’d have done, because he seemed genuine and kind, a newcomer asked if she needed to fill out a form while standing in line.
The Red Cross worker held a finger up to the man who had trouble parking — just a moment — then told the newcomer, “We’re not taking any more blood donations today.”
The agitated man huffed off. He was the only person I saw all day who had become upset about anything other than the terrorists’ acts.
The thin-faced policeman was back at the corner of 17th and Pennsylvania. When I got my “Walk” light to cross the street, he drove across the intersection and back down Pennsylvania Avenue.
I walked into the section of Pennsylvania Avenue that was directly in front of the White House, where the police presence had increased slightly from this morning.
There were four more motorcycles parked along the fence between the White House and the Old Executive Building. White sedans, minivans, and SUVs, some with sirens and police markings, others not. The horses were gone, but their smell was still strong. Police patrolled Lafayette Square, Pennsylvania Avenue, and the two exits to and from the closed-off area of the Avenue in front of the White House. Flags hung at half-mast.
At night, much of the activity of the morning took place again, only in reverse. People with security badges exited the White House grounds. A man passed through a security gate and said to the guard, “See you tomorrow.”
I asked a policeman if tourist traffic had changed.
“I haven’t worked this location in years, so I really couldn’t tell you.”
“So security has been really strengthened here?”
A group of six fourteen-year-olds turned the corner at 17th and Pennsylvania and marched along the sidewalk, toward the front of the White House. Their leader was a kid with short, bleached-blond hair. He marched with a Memorial Day-sized American flag on an aluminum pole. He held it with both hands in front of his belly as if he was leading a parade. At the rear of the group, a kid with curly hair and a Pantera shirt in a fiery font waved a small, hand-held flag.
The kids marched past a woman who posed next to a policeman as her husband took a photo. The boys marched past a man who looked like Popeye, who had asked a tourist to take his photo with the White House in the background. Popeye leaned against the iron gate as if he was at a lake leaning against his boat.
The boys marched on until a woman asked them to pose for a photo in front of the White House. They agreed then struck poses in front of the iron fence. They flexed their biceps, triceps, and pectorals. No smiles. They affected stare-down expressions. The leader held the flag high. They were tough. They were invincible, these kids. The woman snapped the photo. The boys marched off. When they reached the corner of the White House fence, they turned around and started back.