By Jim McCarthy Sep 12, 2011 2 comments

What I Learned on September 13th, 2001

I don’t have one of those powerful personal stories for 9/11.  I was safely in bed in Pasadena, California when the madness began to unfold, and all I did was gape at the TV all day like most people, hoping the world wasn’t coming to an end.  There were only one or two people I knew very tangentially who died that day, though of course, I knew a lot of people who were there or nearby, as most of us did.

And really, no one needs to hear a 9/11 story from a person like me.  Only vanity would drive someone who was so far from the fireball to try to convince you that what I contemplated or experienced that day was worth mentioning compared to what we heard on the 10th anniversary yesterday from people with the important and powerful stories to tell.

I do have an important 9/13 story, though.  Well, sort of important.  Important in that I believe it revealed a special secret about human nature and because it helped nudge forward the existence of my company, Goldstar.  And because I’d like people to know this little secret.

Here’s my 9/13 story.

Like most of you who weren’t directly involved with the events of the day on 9/11, I sat riveted to CNN, Fox, MSNBC, ABC and the rest that day, flipping from station to station waiting for the next bit of info on the crawl.  (Not a lot of people remember that the “crawl” was invented because of 9/11.  Before that, tv screens were blissfully free of a never-ending ‘aside’ other than perhaps stock quotes on the financial channels.)

On 9/12, I got up and put myself right back in that same spot on the sofa in my old house.  But human nature’s funny: a few hours later, I got fatigued of this because, as riveted as I was and as important as the events were that were still unfolding, I couldn’t do anything about it and it wasn’t affecting me at that moment.  It was  late morning on 9/12 when something other than terrorism and cataclysm entered my head.

And do you know what that thing was?  Tickets.  Specifically, tickets to see Wynton Marsalis the LA Phil and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl.  And these tickets were for the very next day, 9/13/01.

In tv shows and movies, you sometimes see a person who’s trying to make a decision, and on one shoulder is an angel and on the other a devil.  Typically, these two figures resemble each other (and the person deciding), except that one is clad in red and might have a pitchfork and the other robed in white.  They’re basically equal and opposite; they symbolize the ambivalence of the person.

But if such a metaphorical pair of spirits had been standing over my shoulders, they wouldn’t have been equals.  The “Go to the Show!” side would be argued by The Hulk or Optimus Prime and the “Stay Home or You Might Get Blown Up!” argument would have some wretched creature like Smigel from Lord of the Rings or Jon Lovitz as its spokesperson.

I knew I wanted to be at that show.  It wasn’t even a feeling of wanting to “keep the terrorists from winning,” because on that day, at that time, they were winning.  Believe me, it wasn’t fatalism either.  9/11/01 also stands in memory for me as the first day of pre-school for my son Jake, so on a day of death, I had been given a profound reminder of some pretty good reasons to live.

No, I wanted to go because I wanted to be with all those people.  Something about confirming emotionally that the world wasn’t breaking up.  That the laws of physics still applied.  Remember that hysteria, perhaps rightly, was running pretty wild at that moment.  There were no airplanes flying anywhere in the United States or across the Atlantic.  (I remember in fact someone saying that the Atlantic is quiet for the first time since the 30s or 40s and just marveling dumbstruck at that idea.)  There was panic just below the surface, although Americans generally behaved extremely well.

But one thing that the chatterers who had been chattering as never before kept saying, as though they knew, was that people would not gather in large groups or that people should not gather in large groups because that could make them a target.  Surely, no one will gather in large groups any more, at least for a while, they said.  They said.  And they said.

But F’ it.  I was going.  If they didn’t cancel the show because no one gathers in large groups or high profile places like the Hollywood Bowl anymore, then I would go.  If I were the only person there, Wynton could play for me alone.  I hoped other people would be there, but either way, I was going.

And here’s the secret I wanted you to know: everybody else felt the same way I did.  There might have been a few Smigels out there, hiding in their caves, “afraid to gather in large groups,” but they were outnumbered by the people who poured into the venue, filling it up and creating an atmosphere of unhinged excitement that had the potential at any moment to switch suddenly to fury, grief or even delight.  It was like everything was close to the surface.

People did as they do during hard times of shared trauma: they treated each other nicely.  Food and wine were shared.  No one was a stranger, and conversation with people on the concourses and parking lot were easy.  That’s what you’d expect.  And the crowd did a truly impressive rendition of the national anthem.  Seeing  that flag go up somehow made people feel that if we could still raise our flag, we weren’t beaten.

The secret is that people need to be with people in settings where something special is happening.  They’re not just there for the “content.” They’re there because being together beats being alone.  In bad times, grim times, scary times perhaps more than when things are sailing along swimmingly, people want and need live entertainment.  They’re not just in it for a couple hours of amusement. They’re in it because they want to be there, with the performers, in the place, with the other people, in the scene, smelling the smells, listening to the weird little conversations, feeling the air, remembering what point in their lives this performance or game or thing marked.

We’re apart from each other enough.  Our experience is “mediated” enough, and now more than ever.

It’s not just entertainment for the sake of distracting you from an otherwise dull existence. It’s a touchstone that helps you understand what your life is and remember what it was and dream about what it’s going to be.  And in the darkness of the days following 9/11, I learned the secret that people needed that then perhaps more than ever before.

I have another ticket that I keep in my office.  It’s made of bronze and it’s almost 2000 years old.  It was a ticket to see a chariot race at the Circus Maximus sometime around the 1st century.  It’s a reminder that we work in an ancient industry fulfilling an ancient need.  I like to picture the Roman who was holding that ticket.  I even imagine, for the sake of making the daydream more exciting, that this Roman was one of my ancestors.  Who knows what was happening in that Roman’s life and why he or she went to the chariot races that day? It probably wasn’t shortly after a Roman 9/11-type event (of which they were many in a thousand years of history); but it could have been a personal moment of crisis.  Or a particularly beautiful Italian autumn day with family or friends or a new lover.  Anyway, I like to think that whoever held that ticket kept it safe (which enabled it to survive down to me) because it meant something to them.  It reminded them of what their life was like on that one day…

No one’s going to have my ticket on their wall in the year 4000.  It’s paper and it will be long gone back to dust.  And I don’t particularly want to spend a lot of time revisiting the way it felt after 9/11, even for someone like me who got off easy. It was awful, even at 3000 miles remove.  But I do like to think back on that moment at the Hollywood Bowl where I felt for the first time that despite the awfulness, it would eventually be ok again, at least for most of us, the lucky ones.

And I do occasionally like to remember the moment when I realized the business concept that Rich, Robert and I were researching might just make sense, not just because of what our data told us, but because of an important secret deeply embedded in the human heart.

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    • William the Idiot

      WOW..I am moved.

    • William the Idiot

      amazing, way to capture the moment!!! wish my life was just like yours.