Sep. 11th, 2014

zanzjan: (manuscript)
...because in 2001, the sky couldn't have been more perfect. I viscerally remember sitting on the lawn outside my office building staring up at the beautiful blue and the few clouds, trying to comprehend the enormity of what was happening, absorbing how strangely silent the sky had become. Beautiful September days still make me uneasy.

My September 11th started on September 10th. Or at the start of that summer, depending on how you look at it.

I was working at a tech startup outside Boston. It had started off a very promising company, we'd had one of the top IPOs of 2000, and things looked bright. Then some of our investors decided that rather than continue with our very competent but fairly inexperienced CEO, they ought to bring in some bloated deadweights from Lucent to run the company instead. Upper management tripled in size and handsomely rewarded itself with lots of stock options and compensation packages and expensive office furniture, while engineering started getting cut/ignored. Our IT manager, whose primary crime was not being able to articulate what IT did via powerpoint, was pushed aside in favor of bringing in a new guy as CIO, and a new IT manager, neither of whom seemed to know a damned thing about computers at all.

That summer, the CIO decided he could save a lot of money -- and, coincidentally, take some amount of control away from an IT team he hadn't picked and didn't quite trust -- by outsourcing huge amounts of our financial, hr, and manufacturing systems to an outside vendor. He did not, apparently, do his homework on whether said vendor was itself solvent. A matter of days after he'd cut and they'd cashed the last of several very, very large checks, that vendor declared bankruptcy and, as their sole concession to us, dumped the servers they'd set up to host our systems back on us.

The problem was, the servers were set up full of proprietary software which would not work unless the servers genuinely believed they were still on the vendor's network. A pair of consultants were hired from a firm in Los Angeles to come in and integrate those servers into our own environment. The lead consultant was a man named Pendyala Vamsikrishna, although everyone called him Vamsi. I didn't have a lot of interaction with the other man, who was quiet but pleasant enough. They were out in our offices for an extended period of time (more than a month, I think?) working ridiculous hours, and bearing the brunt of the CIO's impatience and frustration on the situation and, probably, need to distance himself from being the cause of the problem in the first place.

When he first arrived, Vamsi had a bandage on his forehead and some significant cuts and scrapes. Over the course of working together, he told us how he'd been in a bad car accident a few weeks earlier and how it had really scared him, and how this was going to be his last big traveling job and once it was over he was going to stay closer to home so he could spend more time with his wife and they could start a family. He was a really nice guy, and as you can imagine, not only did he work closely with me and the rest of the IT team, he was involved with finance, and hr, and all the other departments whose systems had been initially outsourced and were trying to be pulled back in.

So September 10th rolled around, and the integration was almost done. But the first thing that happened that morning was that a quarter of the company was suddenly laid off, including the old IT manager and my office mate, and a whole lot of other technical and engineering staff. (Management spared itself entirely.) The cuts targeted employees not based on competence or contribution, but mostly on personal politics, and on who had been vocal about doing things the right away. It was a bad, bad day. I helped my office mate pack up her half of the office, and saw a number of other friends out the door. When you're working 60-70 hours a week, your coworkers are your friends, are family, and it felt like a betrayal of people who had given above and beyond to build a successful company only to watch the assets get sucked out of the place by the new management.

I wanted to go home. I wasn't interested in giving anything more to the company, that day.

The integration project was, as I said, almost done. There were a few little cleanup tasks left, some of which needed to be done right there, some of which could be done remotely. There was some documentation that I'd taken on responsibility for, and which involved sitting down with Vamsi for an hour or so to get answers to some questions while we still had him. The plan was to finish that on Tuesday, the 11th, and that he and his coworker would at last be free to fly home to LA that afternoon/evening.

The CIO asked me, as the dust of the layoffs and exodus was settling, if I thought I could get it done sooner. I wasn't going to say yes, but I didn't feel safe saying no, so I said I'd see, and he asked me to check in with Vamsi about what was left.

A short while later I was sitting in Vamsi's cubicle when his phone rang. It was his wife calling.

Over the many weeks we'd worked off and on together, it had become very clear that Vamsi's wife meant everything to him, and that he was entirely sincere about this being his last big travel job. Overhearing only one side of the phone conversation that afternoon, it was so apparent that they were absolutely head over heels in love with each other and missed each other terribly. When he got off the phone he made a sheepish face, actually blushing. "That was the wifey," he said.

I felt so bad for them for having been kept apart doing this stupid project for our a**hole CIO, and I wanted to feel like there had been something positive, someone doing the right thing, to balance out the shittiness of the day. So I stayed late and finished up the project with him so he could go home first thing the next morning. He changed his flight to Flight 11, and only ever made it as far as New York.

His wife committed suicide two weeks later. I believe she hung herself.

The other consultant ended up stuck in Chicago between flights, waiting for the planes to start flying again. The not-at-all-technical CIO decided that some small quirks remaining in the servers was because the software didn't know how to deal with dual CPUs, so one day when none of the rest of us were there he went into the server room, opened up the box, and tried to pry out a CPU with a screwdriver. The server never ran right again.

Meanwhile, a half-dozen people I'd known online just sort of disappeared that day. They were all New Yorkers, not people I'd ever met, but were part of my online communities. The absences were notable. One of the missing's brother posted on our list wondering if anyone could take her cats; it was the closest we came to confirmation of what we all knew, deep down, had happened.

Last year, googling Vamsi's name, I found a whole bunch of conspiracy theorists who latched onto how he'd been a last minute addition to the passenger list and was clearly Not A White Person and how his wife had died and decided it was further evidence of a 9/11 Cover Up Conspiracy. I'm all for imagination and investigation, but fucking with the lives and memories of real people who have died? Is shitty behavior of the worst sort.

It took me a long time to cope with that day. Lots of what-ifs: what if I'd made the selfish decision to not stay late, so he hadn't changed his flight? I never felt responsible, per se, for what had happened, but the knowledge that I had been a part of a chain of events that had ended as it had was disturbing, and deeply uncomfortable. I was grateful that my tiny connection in that chain was based on an unselfish decision.

We think of our actions (most of the time, anyway) in terms of their direct consequences, the logical path we expect to follow on. We stay late, someone goes home early, their day is better. But the truth is, we cannot see, can only guess the path the future takes after each thing we do. It may be that our intents and motivations are ultimately meaningless. Which perhaps makes it all the more important that we do what we do out of kindness and generosity as much as we are able. We can't know the future will be better, that we will make any positive difference, but we can at least know we did our best, or tried to, and that's everything.

I've told this story before, in bits and pieces here and there, in part right here on LJ several years ago, but every year the memory is a thing that must be picked up, dusted off, examined, even if it is set back on the same spot on the same shelf again at the end. It's been another year. Have we learned anything? Have *I* learned anything? At the very least, have I been, if imperfectly, motivated by kindness in how I interact with the rest of the world? And always, another year ahead to do better.

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