When my phone rang at about 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, I thought for a moment that it was a prank call. “A plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center,” said the voice on the other end. It was an editor with an assignment.
I had just moved to Key Largo, Fla., to begin a new career as a writer and part-time diving instructor. The furniture still hadn’t arrived from Annapolis, Md. My only links to the outside world, other than a phone, were a slow dial-up connection and a clock radio.
Kari and I drove a few miles down the Overseas Highway to the Blue Marlin, a Cuban cafe. Like most businesses in the Keys in September, it was practically abandoned. One or two patrons sat at the bar. We found a table and ordered Cafe con Leches in Styrofoam cups from a server who looked bored.
A television in a corner quietly offered a play-by-play of the unfolding drama. In Spanish.
We watched the second plane crash into the building. Shortly after that, both towers imploded.
The images drew no visible reaction from the other guests. They might as well have been watching another made-for-TV drama, which, in a sense this was. Only, it was real.
During the next few days, I made the Key Largo Public Library my de-facto office, filing dispatches on travel like this one.
I wanted to feel the same sense of outrage and anguish that I sensed in the many people I interviewed. But I just couldn’t.
I’ve never really understood why. Was it professional detachment? Geographic separation? Even indifference?
Today, five years later, I think I have a clearer idea. No, it isn’t that the Keys are their own world — the “Conch Republic” as they often refer to themselves. It isn’t that I’m a jaded journalist incapable of feelings. Those who know me know that it isn’t true.
It is, instead, my first impressions of 9/11 from the Blue Marlin that shaped how I would see these events. At the Blue Marlin, New York City was a distant place, and a large-scale terrorist attack seemed like just another tragic event in a world where there is no shortage of tragedy.
A few months later I happened to be having lunch in a seafood restaurant in Marathon, Fla., the halfway point between Key Largo and Key West, when word came that Gulf War II had begun. The place was packed with German tourists, and the reaction was much the same as from the folks at the Blue Marlin.
Not a single shaking head, or sigh. Or a cheer. Nothing.
I don’t think that means the Germans or Cubans care any less about our tragedies and wars. Only that their point of view is different, and that because I happened to be with them when it happened, I share their perspective.
Maybe instead of asking if something will play in Peoria, we should be asking how it will play at the Blue Marlin. Who knows, it could solve some of our most vexing foreign policy problems.