They say you always remember the first story you publish. In my case, I remember the first story I didn’t publish. It was years ago, for this paper. I was a fact-checking intern, fresh out of school, slaving away in L.A. Weekly’s Research department (back when we had a Research department). We groveling fact-checkers fought each other to get stories in the paper. Some of us wanted into the News section. Some Film. Some Theater. The section I coveted was A Considerable Town, for its scenic-short-story qualities. I hadn’t articulated why back then, didn’t even know the term “narrative nonfiction,” but what I loved above all was writing about people going through a moment, whether collectively or solo.
At last I’d gotten the go-ahead for a “Town,” as they are known in-house. An earthquake had rumbled through Los Angeles, and the wall of a glass-blocked building had collapsed in my Westwood neighborhood. The local TV news reporters drove in to film it. No one was hurt, but the shattered glass on the ground, the neighbors chatting out on front lawns, the wrecked building made for good evening-news eye candy. I wrote it up. Turned it in. Prepared to see it run in print.
But it never did. Because the next day, a sunny day in September, more buildings fell: Terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center. It was September 11. The world had gone insane.
It was also a Tuesday, the day much of our paper goes to the printer. Once the editors made the decision to cover the events of 9/11 instead of letting the old news run, I witnessed firsthand what grace under pressure looks like. I knew, but didn’t fully know until then, what a truly talented bunch of people I’d fallen in with. They rewrote, re-edited and redesigned an entire full issue of the paper — something that ordinarily takes weeks — in a single day.
One of the stories that ran instead of mine in A Considerable Town that week was an elegant, spot-on scene piece by Steven Mikulan — one of the most gifted writers I’ve ever met — titled “The Day the Sky Fell.” It captured the confusion and conflicting emotions of that moment in the very last place you’d think to go, given the events of the day. In other words, a classic L.A. Weekly story. “Everyone on the road was still on alert, in the same way that we all revert to an animal wariness after an earthquake or thunderclap,” he wrote. “But I was on my way to the safest place on Earth — Los Angeles International Airport. … An elderly, cheerful couple from Salt Lake City had been waiting since 7 a.m. for someone from United to tell them how to get to their destination. … None of these travelers were griping, though, for the obvious reason that they were alive and a whole lot of people weren’t.”