I graduated from law school in May 2001 and took the bar examination in July of the same year. Few people know I had a health challenge that summer, and the guy I was dating at the time assured me it would not stop me. It didn’t.
But I still lacked a job. It was only the second time since my 16th birthday that I was unemployed, and I hated it. My self-worth was deeply tied to my titles, income, and job performance.
The firm where I worked for free as an intern decided not to hire me for pay. I turned down a job with a well-respected firm because it required me to give up my side gig—a minor league hockey agency I had put in ice (pun intended) while I studied for the bar exam. I was gambling with all my resources, hoping it would all come together. It did, but not how I expected.
My lease ended, and I still didn’t have the better job I held out for. A dear friend and classmate, Mark Campanella, let me store a few things in his space, and I drove back to Kentucky. At 32 years old. To live with my mother.
It was humbling for this overachiever who had overcome much to avoid being barefoot and pregnant as many people predicted. Then, the call came. (Not an email. A call—from a landline. It was 2001. Employers still called potential employees.)
My interview was at 9 AM on 09/11/2001.
It was my first post-graduation interview and the first at a New York City law firm. I was extremely nervous as I drove from the hotel to Old Country Road in Garden City on Long Island, which I considered NYC at the time.
I kept the radio off, so I could fully focus on getting to the interview on time and fully prepared. I hadn’t yet learned that Old Country Road runs through Mineola and Garden City and that the address numbers start over at the borders.
I parked my car and went into the office complex where it seemed the office should be. I asked at the reception desk and learned of my mistake. Then, I hurried back to my car to drive down the road a few more blocks.
Near the telephone pole by my car was a man talking on the phone. He was facing Manhattan and looking upward while talking on a cell phone. “I can see some smoke,” he said. I assumed he was inspecting the telephone wires and something was frying them. I had no idea what had occurred at 8:46 AM.
I reported to the reception area of the actual interview office at 9:06 AM. The office manager greeted me with “We didn’t think you were coming.”
A rush of experiences hit me: embarrassment, remorse, surprise, disappointment with myself for being late, and more. Then, I was frustrated that I drove approximately 14 hours over the two prior days for an interview that only six minutes were reserved for. By then, the second plane had hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
My face must have shown all the emotions. The office manager, who turned out to be my interviewer’s wife, explained, “You don’t know. A plane hit the World Trade Center. We have kids at NYU that we’re trying to reach. Mike went over to court and will be right back.”
I heard the words, but nothing made sense. She tried to elaborate, but we were all operating from confusion and shock. I’m not sure how much sense either of us made, but we eventually agreed I would go back to the hotel and wait for Mike’s call.
On my drive back, I kept thinking about my cousin, Marilyn, who had generously shared the driving with me. She had never seen Long Island and still hasn’t seen much of it.
I went straight to our room to tell her what had happened. She wasn’t there. Suddenly, all the fear I had been suppressing began to bubble up. I had the car. She couldn’t have gone far. But does she know? Is she safe? I needed reassurance, something familiar, someone who always made things better. Where was she?
I found Marilyn in the hotel breakfast room. She was surrounded by horse racing industry workers, which was fitting. Since leaving Standard Gravure, she had been working part-time at the Churchill Downs and Keeneland race tracks.
A staff member had wheeled an old television on a stand into the room so the guests could watch the live coverage of the attacks. The towers fell in front of our eyes. The broadcasters tried to maintain their composure, but we had experienced nothing like this before. We watched emptily. It was surreal.
The bridges and tunnels closed, leaving us on Long Island longer than we planned, but the hotel accommodated all the changes in plans. Mike, my interviewer, called me back to his office for an afternoon interview. We agreed I might as well go forward, since I wasn’t going anywhere for awhile. It gave us a tiny sense of normalcy that might have helped us get through the day.
When I returned from my interview, Marilyn and I decided to go to the beach for solitude. She always loved the ocean. She often traveled with my mom, and we had all shared a weekend at a beach in North Carolina the year before, on 09/11/2000, the day my dad died.
We didn’t know how to get to a beach from the hotel, but we figured we were on Long Island. How hard could it be?
It was harder than we thought, so we stopped at a small Greek cafe and asked for directions. The hostess gave us a reality check. “You can’t go to the beach. We’re at war.” Those are words we had never heard on our soil. Life had forever changed, regardless of how much seemed the same.
There are so many moments that will probably never leave me:
- Finally getting a message to another cousin, who called my mom and started the chain of reassurance
- Seeing the firetrucks rushing to Manhattan and the National Guard on the street corners
- Hearing my best friend sob for the second time since we met in seventh grade
September 11, 2001 was the day I became a New Yorker. The city that (supposedly) never sleeps, where we train to make it anywhere, and one of the last places I ever imagined living became the one that needed me. I hope I am making at least a tiny difference here.