I’ve never written anything about 9/11. In general, I don’t write about tragedies.
I once did some comedy about the destruction of the Columbia Space Shuttle. But it wasn’t really about the Columbia Space Shuttle. It was about CNN trying to milk as many ratings out of the tragedy as possible. They kept playing clips of people in Texas reacting to the explosion and crash. It was a parade of people describing the sound, how their dog reacted, how quickly they picked up their rifle, etc. I criticized CNN saying, “It’s not even news anymore, it’s just an endless documentary on how Texans react to loud noises.”
I think it’s still a fair criticism of CNN’s journalistic standards, but I also think there’s something humanizing about reflecting not just on tragedy but our reactions to it.
As 9/11 recedes farther into the past, the general reaction from our society seems to be “Never Forget.” Or if you spend a lot of time on social media, #NeverForget. I think “never forget” comes off as a cursory, vaguely ominous way to memorialize a tragedy, but every year I do actually remember where I was and what I was doing that day.
I was a Copy Consultant at Kinko’s Copy Center in the IDS building–one of Minneapolis’ oldest and most iconic skyscrapers. I had always hated the term “Copy Consultant.” It was such clear bullshit. Like we took rich people out to lunch, drank some martinis, and discussed how their decision to print a flyer for their garage sale on B3 (Cosmic Orange) might affect their grandchildren’s future. Calling that guy who works at Kinko’s a “Copy Consultant” was like calling a boxer a “Face Crushing Analyst” or a plumber a “Fecal Solution Expert.” Trying to make it sound better just made it sound worse.
About a year before 9/11, Kinko’s made all the Copy Consultants wear identical blue aprons emblazoned with the slogan “Express Yourself.” Yes, nothing says “Express Yourself” like being forced by a giant corporation to wear the exact same thing as all the other employees.
If you’ve ever been to a Kinko’s, you probably have a Kinko’s horror story. Here’s one of the reasons Kinko’s employees are surly: working at Kinko’s is like being a chef at a restaurant where all of the diners can see into the kitchen, yell at you to cook their food first, call you names, and threaten to save up some money to buy a gun and come back later to kill you. That last one is a true story.
As ridiculous and inconsequential as making copies sounds, it was a high pressure place to work.
On the day of this horrible tragedy, I was not just any Copy Consultant. I was the Assistant Manager.
We had a television playing CNN strategically placed where all the angry business people stood in line waiting to yell at us about printing some copies of their Quark file off their Jaz Drive.
All of the customers and Copy Consultants stopped making and/or yelling about copies and watched the surreal acceleration of events from horrible plane accident to well-organized attack to paranoia that every tall building in every city was a target.
I got calls from family and friends telling me to get out of the IDS Center immediately. Then I got a call from the IDS security saying they were considering closing the building. Then I got a call from my boss’ boss’ boss. I can’t remember his title. He was the “Count My Money While You Sad Bastards Make Copies and Get Death Threats Consultant.”
I had worked at that Kinko’s for two and a half years. As an Assistant Manager, I had closed the store once for Christmas Day. Even then, I considered staying in the building because we were behind on all the copies we were supposed to be making. Kinko’s didn’t close like Sea Captains never abandon their ships.
So I was shocked when the big boss asked me if I could please close the store immediately. So I did. And everyone was impressed that I knew where the keys were and how the doors were supposed to lock. At the time, closing a Kinko’s was like magic–arcane knowledge that only a few knew and most didn’t really believe existed at all.
I drove to a suburb and dropped off all our store’s work at another store. I felt helpless and struggled to find something normal to do. I stopped at a toy store and looked at Star Wars action figures. That seemed insipid and I felt guilty. I went home. I contacted friends in New York and Washington DC on a dial-up modem. I stared at CNN.
When I think about that day one of the things I remember is this: I believe it was the only day I ever worked at Kinko’s IDS in which no one–not customers, employees, big bosses, or myself–was a dick to one another. It was one of the few times I thought, “Wow. We did a really good job of expressing ourselves today.”
Strangely, I often forget a far more relevant memory. A few weeks later an FBI agent came into Kinko’s IDS and asked to talk to the manager on duty. I took him back to the manager’s office. In my mind, an FBI agent was Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks or Scully from the X-Files. A sharp mind with a kind soul, a black suit, and a gun.
This was a real FBI agent. A tired guy in a dumpy suit sitting in the back office of a Kinko’s armed with a notepad, a pen, and a ketchup stain on his shirt.
He sighed before he even started asking me questions. Like he needed to wind up before he could deal with another fruitless conversation. He told me that the FBI believed some of the terrorists involved with 9/11 had used computers at one or many Kinko’s locations in Minneapolis to communicate before the attacks.
He asked me if I or any of my workers had helped anyone suspicious.
At the time, the way a Copy Consultant had to log every single customer into the rental computers was with a password that changed daily.
Every customer ever hated this. They didn’t understand why they couldn’t just be told the password and enter it themselves instead of being treated like a child and having the Copy Consultant lean over them and enter the code.
So the question from the FBI, the question that made this tragedy relate directly to me, the question in which I could do something positive, was this: Do you remember anyone seeming violent or angry while logging them on to a rental computer?
And my answer was: Yes. Every person I’ve logged on to a rental computer in the last three years.
He gave me his card and I promised to call if anyone remembered anything.
It’s strange to me that I often forget this event. That I’ve never written or talked about it. It’s possible that I signed one of the terrorists onto a computer. If I did, at the time, it was a simple human interaction. The kind I had every day.
We don’t forget the tragedies. We don’t forget the horrible explosions. We forget the small human interactions.
Remembering every little detail of where you were and what you were doing on a given day seems like an odd, sometimes self-involved way to reflect on a tragedy. But it does remind me of how much I do forget. How many little human interactions that I don’t or can’t remember. There just isn’t enough room on my brain’s Jaz drive.
I have nothing new or particularly special to say about the tragedy itself or all the huge ripples and big dramatic events that it precipitated. I also have a ton of work to do today and probably shouldn’t be taking the time to write this. But for some reason, today, it just seemed worthwhile to remember and share the little human interactions. To remember not only what I was doing that day, but how much life has changed since.
I no longer work at Kinko’s. I find it much easier to express myself as a comedian and a writer than I did as a Copy Consultant.
A final note on Kinko’s. The company has since been bought out and what we once knew as Kinko’s is now called FedExOffice. But everyone still calls it Kinko’s. This makes me happy. It feels like if Satan himself came to this mortal plane and said, “Look. I know I’m clearly Satan. I’ve got horns and a pitchfork and everything, but could you guys all just call me Steve? It’s a rebranding thing.”
And we all said, “Sure, Steve.” And the “Steve” was just dripping with sarcasm because of course we’re not going to call you Steve. You’re Satan and we all know it. Just like we know FedExOffice is Kinko’s. A wretched hive of surly underpaid workers and stressed out angry customers who just want to get a damn copy made.
That is a place we all know. A place of a million little human interactions. That place is called Kinko’s.
And we will never forget.