We Are the World

It's business as usual at the World Trade Center.

The towers are not quite twin: The south building, with 29 stories, has one more floor than the building to the north. They look like office buildings in any big-league city: black-glass monoliths with a plaza between them; a mini-bank, E-trade station and convenience store within reach; orderly rows of marigolds and impatiens leading visitors into the lobby. And at 1625 and 1675 Broadway, you're never too far from the sight of an American flag.

This detail might seem superfluous if the buildings were not clearly marked with the words "World Trade Center."

Passing them, I feel a little more alert -- not frightened or patriotic, just alert. World Trade Center. Remember?

Building for the future: Denver's World Trade Center.
Building for the future: Denver's World Trade Center.

Inside Denver's World Trade Center, they're mighty alert.

"I have no information for you," says a security guard you can picture however you want. (But a deliberately bald head works.) "Whatever I say to you will be misconstrued. I know how you work. Things are not reported; they are subject to interpretation."

At lunchtime, office workers stream out the doors of the World Trade Center, past the picnic tables and the statue of an allegorical polio victim and a doctor, courtesy of the Rotary. Everyone observes strict, unwritten rules regarding personal space.

Smokers: Stand back against the twin-tower walls; look furtive; don't chat with other smokers. Guys in ties: Maintain 24-inch distance, even when discussing golf. Co-workers just starting your corporate climb: Accidentally bump into each other, even if you suspect a forbidden workplace fling. Young women in platform shoes: Heads together, discuss Being a Woman as a serious topic, with only 25 minutes of lunch hour left.

Only the crazy street people break stride. They lean in, blather nonsense, walk up to you as if you were acquainted! Everyone: Manage, somehow, to see through them, then shoot a disapproving look as you retreat.

Inside the south tower, this look follows me wherever I go. Wandering through office hallways is an iffy activity since September 11, 2001 -- for all I know, it was before then, too. I haven't had so many patrician men in oxford-cloth shirts dis me since prep school. Even receptionists, rather than saying anything, look over their glasses at me with a silent Hmmmm?

Finally, on my eighth ride up the elevator, I hear some good old-fashioned inter-office kvetching.

"Why can't the managers each kick in a hundred bucks of their own?" a woman asks. "If they each came up with a hundred bucks, that makes 600 bucks. To actually live on. As if they care."

"Yeah, that's what I think," says the man. "But you know them."

"Yeah," she says darkly, "I know."

Finally, something familiar.

On the night of September 11, 2002, the World Trade Association, located inside the World Trade Center, will begin a class in export marketing. A few weeks later, the association will host the director of the New York World Trade Association, which carries on despite the fact that its home is gone. There are roughly 300 world trade centers in the world, all private nonprofits, helping entrepreneurs do business with 92 countries. Colorado's own outpost was a joint venture of a number of city entities, all of which got behind the idea of Denver as an international business capital. In 1988, a bust year when any business development looked good, the towers became the World Trade Center, even though the part of the buildings devoted to world trade is negligible -- even if former U.S. Senator Bill Armstrong, Republican stalwart, has an office here.

But is it fair to quantify import/export using square footage? People at the Denver World Trade Center love their jobs. At the drop of a hat, they'll send out a raft of encouraging statistics detailing sales figures for such Colorado products as vacuum pumps, compressors, "parts of balloons" and "skins of bovine animals."

"All the WTC members in New York got out safely," says Cindy Davenport, program director. "That's what I'll think about on September 11. That, and it's interesting that people in Colorado don't even know there is one right here."

"I'll notice that date," confides one young women in the Denver WTC elevator. "That morning, me and my roommate, who both worked here at the time, saw it on the news. It seemed a little counterintuitive to show up for work at a place called the World Trade Center. We called the office, and they weren't even aware at first. Then they began to evacuate the building. After a while, they said we could make our own decision about whether to come in or not, and I didn't for a few days. We had a few bomb threats."

"I don't see how this building could be a target," says her friend.

"It's small," the woman agrees. "How important is it, really?"

"It had nothing to do with the name of the towers," the friend decides. "It was a symbol of commerce and American pride. That's what they were after."

Feeling a bit jumpy one day last fall, the woman and a few colleagues tried a mock escape from their high-rise office suite.

"The stairs were narrow, we were wearing heels, and there were a lot of us trying to crowd down. It took several minutes too long," she recalls. "It was ridiculous."

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