I live in a rich neighborhood.
Rich as in one of the top-ranked zip codes in the 300-million strong USA. Rich as in one my daughter’s friends has a father who cashed in $250 million in stock options a few years ago, then the same amount the next year. Rich as in two friends of another daughter go on vacation in private planes. Rich as in the Kennedys have a very nice estate for the family to stay in. Rich as in going to the doctor can mean squeezing past the Secret Service as they keep an eye out for a protectee. Rich as in doctors and lawyers are never more than a stone’s throw away. Rich as in Saudi princes, and rich as in nearby neighbors who add extensions to their houses that cost more than the purchase price of my house. Rich as in the newly-built house across from mine is more than 6500 sq ft (600 m2).
Most houses are on a 1/2 acre (2000 m2) and we are within a few leafy miles of the District of Columbia. McLean is one of the unique suburbs in the world. Farm land until the 1950s, yet very close to a significant city. Any other city I’ve lived in or visited has smaller houses and lots close into town; larger houses and properties only appear further out.
By the way, I never said that I was rich. I just happened to buy into a neighborhood that is quietly wealthy without even realizing it at the time.
On a rainy day in August 2001, I was visiting from my home in Bern, Switzerland. I was doing the groundwork for a move to the USA for a new job. I had selected the McLean neighborhood based solely on past business trips to the general region and the very impressive academic stats for the local schools. I diligently looked at all the properties suggested to me by a realtor. A few days later, I had narrowed down the search and started negotiations. A few weeks later, I had my house, and had workers in, doing what the seller should have done, using cash from the price reduction I negotiated from his feeble selling agent.
A week after I closed on the house in September 2001, while the workers were toiling, I was in an underground facility in downtown Washington DC when the computer network failed. As events unfolded, it became obvious that New York City and Washington DC had been hit. The network was overloaded. Phones were overloaded and worked only for some numbers. Cell phones didn’t work. FBI agents with sub-machine guns streamed out of vans and manned the street corners.
Misinformation ruled. The State Department had been hit by a car bomb. The Capitol building was in flames. The next incoming plane was headed for the White House. Overwhelmed and worried, the Government and the city shut down. As the sunny morning wore on, people walked out of Washington, scared to use the Metro.
My work wasn’t done, so I didn’t get home until the afternoon, instantly hugged close to asphyxiation by children who thought I was among the dead. They didn’t know where I worked and I hadn’t been able to contact them. For the first time, I saw the pictures from New York. Oh my God.
The actual dead were counted over coming days and included local residents. The hole in the Pentagon made by the incoming jet looks small in pictures. But only because the building is so big. The cavernous gash and the fires are burned into many memories now. That part of the Pentagon now includes a pretty and quiet chapel. It memorializes those who died, now mostly forgotten outside the area by people whose memories of September 11 are formed by the crashing Towers.
It didn’t stop there.
Every week, there were false alarms. A possible bomb here, a possible gas release there. New sensors and cameras dotted the city, powerless to prevent anything. Then the anthrax arrived and postal workers and Senate staffers died. My postman handed me mail with his rubber gloves on, leaving me to wonder how safe it was for me to handle it.
It didn’t stop there.
Hurricane Isobel downed trees and took out power to the entire region. Malevolent snipers shot a dozen people in the area over the course of a few months, from teenage boys to bus drivers to people filling their cars with fuel. I was at one location, not long before the snipers arrived and killed a man no different than me. Huge bugs on a 17-year cycle emerged from the ground and flew clumsily around, horrifying anyone doing the lawn, waiting for a school bus, etc. A big snowstorm was followed by a torrential downpour that flooded many basements, including mine. A tornado alert briefly bunkered the populace and took out some houses in the western part of the County.
Somewhere in there, life changed. The relatively care-free and family-friendly nature of the neighborhood was overcome by the relentless stress. Tempers frayed and grew shorter. Neighborly relationships struggled. And marriages failed.
Divorce came to leafy McLean. But not for me. Not then.