Never mind the nutjob in Florida with the book-burning party, or even the wrenched and fractured bit of World Trade Center steel that New York brought here to Arlington a few weeks ago, so heavy with symbolic freight that no one is sure what we are going to do with it.
I live about three miles from the Pentagon, give or take, and friends of mine heard their windows shiver or saw their trees bow in the wake of the aircraft hurtling toward the building’s west front nine years ago. South Arlington shut down; unlike Manhattan, where dust and debris rolled out in a cloud and an entire metropolis emptied in all directions, the county was eerily paralyzed under a lucid cornflower-blue sky, only a trickle of weeping or dumbstruck Pentagon workers trudging westward along Columbia Pike, which passes a few minutes’ jog south of my house.
As soon as it was clear we were not all going to be asked to leave the area, I laced on my boogie shoes and took off eastward along the back streets to see what I could see. Intersections were blocked by police cruisers detouring people from the interstate ramps; engines and rescue vehicles from as far away as Pennsylvania were already staging at the nearest fire stations. The Pike was blocked at the Washington Boulevard bridge, a crumbling antique which for years before had dripped — and drips to this day — some ingredient of its dissolving structure onto the pavement below in disturbing glossy concretions, like guano. Eastbound traffic, allowed neither to the Pentagon nor to the I-395 ramp just past the bridge, was being detoured down Queen Street into the modest neighborhood of Arlington View. The redirection, as I approached, was being indicated by a lanky, leathery man in a reflective vest and shabby ill-fitting clothes; bearded and slightly pop-eyed, he neither looked nor moved like a county public-safety worker. It dawned on me that with a shelter for homeless men just over the next rise, many of them alcoholic vagrants trying to pull themselves together, the police had temporarily deputized the most willing and able of the residents to help keep things moving. He turned and gestured like an Indonesian dancer, as if he had more than the normal complement of joints — grinning from ear to ear, greeting everything around him with the sweep of his arms, working, needed.
I stood at the top of the rise above him and watched for a while; the steam of the Pentagon — white heaped vapor, not dust or smoke — rose in a luminous and almost static column behind him. Now and then you could hear sirens, the rest of the time the stunned silence of the earth turning. The people streaming out of DC across the bridges had yet to arrive.
I wonder what happened to him, sometimes.