David Kahl was in New York City on 9/11
His office was in midtown, on 56th street, on a floor high enough, it had a direct view of the Twin Towers, a little over four miles away. Four miles sounds like a safe distance. But of all the lessons to be learned that day, perhaps the most profound lesson was that four miles was nothing at all. Four miles might as well have been right next door.
That day, many people experienced an abrupt, surreal recalibration to their concept of distance. Suddenly everyone was neighbors, family—a sentiment that was, by no means, confined to just the United States. There is no mistaking the effect this tragedy had on the world community.
I was in Amsterdam that day, and the next day, when the whole city and, presumably, everyone in our time zone stood still—literally. I was in the heart of Amsterdam’s commercial district, arguably the busiest part of Amsterdam, when everything just stopped. There was no announcement. Everyone just stepped to the sidewalk and crossed their hands and said nothing. For three solid minutes, nobody said anything, nobody moved and everything was silent. It was so quiet and so clear I remember hearing a pigeon’s footsteps, a sound I’d never heard before, like grains of rice on cobblestone.
The observed silence lasted for three minutes, or one minute. I can’t actually remember how many minutes, which seems like a big detail to overlook. But these were not standard, earth-minutes. These were minutes that stretched into a small lifetime. 9/11 and the spell it cast seemed to be turning both time and space into malleable abstractions.
Back in America, (which was now right next door to Amsterdam)
New York city was reeling at the epicenter of this unearthly vortex. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like.
Not only had the city’s concept of time and space recently become untrustworthy, but the subways were also shut down so everybody was walking. Imagine that for a second. Everyone on the sidewalk. Everyone who was suddenly terribly connected to one of the almost three-thousand people who’d suddenly died, or one of the six-thousand injured. This was their city, their people. It was their Lower Manhattan that was smoldering rubble.
Maybe this perfect storm explains the phenomenon in the days following 9/11 when New Yorkers, a notoriously tough and isolated crowd, were no longer avoiding each other on the sidewalk. They were looking at each other. Not only were they looking at each other, but they saw each other. They talked to each other. There were random gatherings on the sidewalk, spontaneous conversations, if you can imagine such a thing. It’s as if an entire community materialized from nowhere. Epiphanies were commonplace.
David Kahl, having come to an epiphany of his own, was walking home from the job he’d just quit. He was carrying a box that contained all the items from his old desk and a non-disclosure agreement.
Until very recently, he’d been an accountant. His was a world of numbers and logic, guided by the reliable formula that assets + liabilities = owner’s equity. It was a useful formula, cornerstone to what would be (at least on paper) a wildly successful career that hired him from LSU to Los Angeles, to Mexico City then finally to New York. He’d risen first through the ranks of Price Waterhouse, then to companies such as Sony and Warner Brothers—an impressive but largely unfulfilling journey. His was a journey that gave credence to the old warning: for all the time spent making a living, we should not forget to live.
Where was he headed?
If you ask him today, he’s still not sure where he was going. But it was an exhilarating, heady walk home, to be sure. There was the very real sense that numbers and the formulaic core of high-level accounting had proven just as pliable as both time and space. And in this momentary leave of distraction, there was real life, clarity and a connection to all things.
Of course, this glimpse at clarity would be brief. It wouldn’t take long for New Yorkers and the world to sober and find a way to move on. But again, that’s ‘moving on’ if you’re measuring life in regular time and regular space. Anyone who really saw this moment was likely changed by it.
David Kahl saw it. I saw it in that profound silence in Amsterdam. And maybe you saw it too. Sometimes we find ourselves strapped to an unthinkable tragedy. Whether or not we think we deserve the ride it takes us on, is not the issue. It’s what you make of the journey. That’s the only thing that matters.
We are a furniture company, that much is obvious. Here on earth, we sell desks and chairs. So why are we talking about 9/11? September, for starters. It is a time for remembrance, and to mourn. Also, to recall the intentional spirit in which this company was founded. To chase down the long game, if need be, to reveal the authentic connections to be had in this life. While these may be high-minded, somewhat nebulous concepts, we are after their very real, very practical grounding- to root us in ourselves, with each other and in our work.
life: David Kahl
story/writing: Nate Barber