What I Remember About September 11, 2001

We are now at the twentieth anniversary of September 11, 2001, the date of the worst terrorist attack in American history. As I ask of any anniversary, whether mournful or celebratory, where did all the time go? Looking back, it seemed like time just stopped even as the clock kept ticking. As with the current COVID-19 pandemic, our way of life has forever changed and will never be the same. While so much has happened between 2001 and now, it still feels like yesterday when those planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania.

I still remember this morning vividly. I was living in an apartment near the Sunset Strip and West Hollywood. At the time, I was working at Disneyland and enduring a ridiculous 35-mile commute to the park as I was determined not to let anything stand in my way, including common sense and high gas prices.

That morning, I got a call from a Disneyland scheduler. They usually call me to see if I want to start working earlier in the day or pick up an extra shift, and I usually jump at the chance to do so as I was never got enough hours when I started. Instead, the call went as follows:

“Hi, can I speak to Ben please?”

“This is Ben.”

“Hi Ben. Don’t come to the park today. The park is closed and your shift has been cancelled.”

“What?”

“The park is closed today.”

This truly stunned me as anyone familiar with Disneyland knows the park never closes and is even open on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. The only time it ever shuts down is if there is some catastrophic electrical failure or, as we have seen recently, due to a global pandemic. After a brief pause, the scheduler told me:

“You still get paid though.”

“Oh really?”

This made my ears prick up. Not having to go to work and still get paid has to be an American dream of sorts. It also put a smile on my face as there were things I had to take care of, and now I had the time to do so. Of course, I had to ask why Disneyland was closed today as I figured part of the park was flooded or something. To this, the scheduler simply said:

“Turn on the news.”

Well, after jumping up and down on my bed, reveling in the fact I was getting a day’s pay without working for it, I turned on my 27-inch JVC television. As I watched, I wondered why Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” was playing on NBC, and I was stunned to see all the thick fog in downtown Manhattan. Does it ever get this foggy in New York like it does in San Francisco?

Quickly, it dawned on me what was going on. The twin towers known as the World Trade Center in New York City had been attacked. Planes had flown into them, and by the time I had turned on the news, one of the towers had completely collapsed. No doubt about it, this was all really happening, and yet it felt so unreal. I could not fully register all of what was going on, and my neighbors, who also just got the news, looked like they couldn’t either.

The whole world shut down on this day, and I remained glued to my television set for most of it, slowly adjusting to the new reality we all had been thrust into. All of what had happened still left me completely numb, but I eventually turned off the television after I saw a man falling from one of the towers to the ground. This particular visual was just too much for me, and I needed a break from reality, however short.

I ended up taking my car, I had a red 1992 Acura Integra at the time, to a nearby 76 gas station on Sunset Boulevard to get a smog check as it was part of my registration renewal with the DMV. The attendant there greeted me, looked over my paperwork and then said, “Hell of a day, huh?” Yes, it was. Even as everyone went about their business, our hearts were heavy. Since the smog check was going to take a bit to complete, I decided to go for a walk up and down Sunset Boulevard.

I came across The Laugh Factory, and its marquee said, “No Laughing Tonight.” Got that right. The House of Blues, long before it was torn down, was closed, and The Comedy Store was understandably vacant. I picked up a copy of the Los Angeles Times which had just put out their latest issue that included everything about the attacks. It’s newspapers like these you want to hang onto as this is a moment which will forever be burned into our memories. Plus, this newspaper might be worth money someday.

The rest of the week had me overcoming my state of shock. On September 12th, I went back to Disneyland where I was an interactive host in the Tomorrowland attraction of Innoventions, and me and my fellow cast members were subjected to getting our ID cards checked over and over again before we even got off the bus. Seriously, it was a real nuisance. A couple of days later, I was standing outside the Hollywood Improv where I was taking classes at Second City, singing songs such as “America the Beautiful,” “My Country Tis of Thee,” and of course the national anthem along with my fellow classmates. These are songs I hadn’t sang in years, and some of them had me trying to remember the lyrics.

What I want people to remember most about September 11, 2001 is how it brought us all together. Divisions between political parties ceased to exist, and as Americans we were one with each other. We shared deeply in the sorrow, and we thanked all the first responders who spent day and night searching through the smoky rubble for survivors.

Perhaps this is why I am publishing this more towards September 12th more than September 11th. We have to remember how this tragic day brought everyone together and created a unity which, in retrospect, seems short-lived. In 2021, we live in a time where America has never been more divided, and I would like us all to remember how unified this terrorist attack made us. It would be nice if we were this unified today.

Exclusive Interview with Barbara Lee and Abby Ginzberg on ‘Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power’

With “Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power,” filmmaker Abby Ginzberg has given us one of the most memorable feature length documentaries of 2021. It introduces us to American politician and social worker Barbara Lee who currently serves as a United States Representative for California’s 13th congressional district, and this is someone we should now about. She has served in Congress for many years now and remains a strong voice for human rights, peace, and economic and racial justice in America and around the world. As Barbara’s story unfolds, we learn of her many experiences which shaped her life and beliefs such as volunteering for the Black Panther Party and escaping an abusive relationship. We also get testimonials from various politicians, journalists and other well-known individuals such as Cory Booker, the late John Lewis, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Van Jones, Danny Glover and Alice Walker, all of whom cite her as a tremendous inspiration to them and others.

More importantly, Ginzberg shows how Lee has remained steadfast and true to her beliefs to where she is not worried about popularity. While politicians mostly vote along party lines and are more concerned with their corporate donors instead of their constituents, Lee is not one to merely obey those in power. This is made especially clear when we see her oppose George W. Bush’s resolution granting the President unlimited war-making authority as it did not include much in the way of specifics and was, as she put it, “too broad.” In addition, she was the only representative in Congress to vote against this resolution. While everyone else was beating the war drum, Lee did not succumb to the cries for vengeance as she issued this stern warning to her colleagues: “Let us not become the evil we deplore.”

I got to speak with Ginzberg and Lee recently about the making of this documentary. Ginzberg herself has been a filmmaker for over 30 years, and her movies are about tackling discrimination and the legal profession. Her works include “Soul of Justice” which is about federal district judge Thelton Henderson, “And Then They Came for Us” about the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and “Soft Vengeance” which documents the life of anti-apartheid freedom fighter Albie Sachs. With “Speaking Truth to Power,” she is keen in making Barbara Lee’s existence known to the world at large.

During this interview, the two discussed why this is not meant to be a chronological or linear documentary, Lee expressed her thoughts on President Joe Biden’s recent extension on the moratorium for renters, and they talked about what needs to be done about homelessness and the war on drugs in America.

Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power” will arrive in theaters on August 20, 2021. In Los Angeles, it will be playing at Laemmle’s Royal Theater in West Los Angeles, and there will be a Q&A with Lee and her son following the 4:30 pm showing on August 21st. In Northern California, it will be showing at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and at the Roxie in San Francisco. Barbara will appear at the Roxie after the Thursday showing on August 26th. It will play in theaters for one week, after which it will be available to stream on Amazon and iTunes.

Please feel free to check out the interview below as well as the trailer for the documentary. And remember, stay woke!

Two Days Before September 11, 2001…

country-bear-jamboree-poster

As much as I want to talk about what I was doing on September 10, 2001, I can’t remember the specifics of that particular day. Back then I was more consistent in keeping a diary of what I did from day to day, but September 10th was a day I never got to write about. So instead, allow me to go back two days before those planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11th

Back in 2001, I was working at Disneyland in an attraction called Innoventions. It was in the spinning building located in Tomorrowland where America Sings and Carousel of Progress used to be. That particular attraction was about technology of the future, but others described it dismissively as a corporate playground, and I was an interactive host doing game shows and helping guests have the best day possible at “the happiest place on Earth.” (Writer’s note: Innoventions finally closed down on March 31, 2015.)

Anyway, this particular day stood out because, right after the park closed, cast members, Disney lingo for employees, were invited to catch the very last performances of the Country Bear Jamboree attraction, the famous audio-animatronic show with bears and the mounted heads of dead animals singing country music. This one was close to reaching its 30th anniversary, and while Walt Disney never got to see it come to fruition, he really loved the characters who were part of it.

Country Bear Jamboree was being closed down to make room for a new attraction which seemed sacrilegious to those who worked at the park, but change was in the air and we couldn’t stop it. Some said what would replace it would be one-part Circle-Vision, that 360-degree theater in Tomorrowland which had railings for guests to hold on to instead of seats as they were made to feel like they were moving along with the images shown onscreen. Others said the other part would be “Captain Eo,” the sci-fi 3D short film directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Michael Jackson.

Now when I was working at Disneyland, “Captain Eo” had not been shown there for years, but guests were still constantly asking us where they could see it. We all figured all the guests would know the movie was no longer showing at the park, but no one is quick to look at the map to see what is and what isn’t there. Sadly, it would take Jackson’s death to bring it back to Tomorrowland in all its technologically dated glory.

While I was never a big fan of the Country Bear Jamboree, I felt obligated to attend its final performances. At the very least it gave me the unique privilege of allowing me to say I attended the last show, something millions of visitors would never get to lay claim to. It was like when the dorm I stayed in during college got a zero score on the first week of back to school contests. No else got a score as low as ours, and we wore this fact with pride as only we could lay claim to having accomplished that.

country-bear-jamboree-teddi-barra

After all these years, the bear I remembered most was Teddi Barra who descended from the ceiling on a swing decorated with roses and wearing a yellow raincoat. This soon made perfect sense as she began to sing “Singin’ in the Rain.” Many will want the starring role in a production, but it’s always the supporting players who command the most attention. Trust me, I speak from experience.

country-bear-jamboree-animal-heads

Also, the mounted heads of animals on the wall left a vivid impression on me. These were animals shot for sport, and yet they still sang with a lot of heart and spirit despite the fact they were now forever nailed to a wall. And keep in mind, Walt Disney also made “Bambi,” and we know what happened to the title character’s mother. Why didn’t they have Bambi’s mother’s head up there? I’d like to think it would have made a difference for all the children forever traumatized by the movie.

Many in attendance were wearing “Save The Country Bears” t-shirts which, while well-intentioned, proved to be utterly pointless as the decision to close the attraction down was made a long time in advance. Still seeing this attraction being closed down felt very sad because a part of Walt Disney’s spirit which brought about this park’s creation seemed to be going away with it. But change keeps coming for better or worse, and Disneyland would never have survived without the corporate world backing it up.

When the final performance came to a close, the cast members operating the attraction asked if we wanted to see it one more time. Of course, we said yes as it was not lost on any of us how we were a part of something many others would never get to experience. Seeing it for a final time made us feel lucky and special, and when it was all over we gave the attraction a long lasting and an ear-splittingly loud standing ovation. I personally felt privileged to be a part of this because many other jobs never would have allowed for such an opportunity like this.

walt-disney-with-friends

There are those cast members who say Walt is spinning in his grave with all the changes being made to his land of imagination. We still wonder how much of him is left in the park, and I’m not just referring to those urban legends like the one which says he’s buried underneath it or cryogenically frozen. I had the great opportunity of working with cast members who truly want to preserve the magic Walt brought to the park as it seems the damage Michael Eisner left in his path feels irreparable.

In retrospect, the closing of the Country Bear Jamboree served as an accidental allegory for the change which forever changed us in the wake of September 11th. Back then, I felt so lucky to be catching the bears’ unfortunate end when so many others couldn’t, and at least we had to chance to say goodbye to something or somebody. How ironic it was that a couple of days later we said a horrific and unexpected goodbye to the twin towers and many innocent lives in a way we didn’t see coming. It proved to be a time where we wanted to change the course of events, but of course we could not. The world can be very cruel, and 15 years have now passed since we were greeted with the worst terrorist attack in American history. Here’s hoping we continue to learn from the events of September 11th to where we can finally keep history from repeating itself.

Writer’s note: The Country Bear Jamboree attraction was eventually turned into the Winnie the Pooh ride. Truth be told, I am a die-hard Eeyore fan, so I have to admit I was really excited at what it would look like. It proved to be fun, but there could have been a lot more of Eeyore featured in it, a lot more.