Ghosts of the past: Stock photo of the WTC
with St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in the foreground
Doubtless you’ve heard a hundred teary eyed 9/11 stories about someone who died or a tale of heroism told by a firefighter, airline passenger or ordinary New Yorker. This is not one of those stories.
My 9/11 story starts several months before in Jersey, where I arrived just in time for a snowstorm dumping a meter of snow for Christmas. Aside from digging myself out of the house and being charged double at the dry cleaners to get salt out of my suits, I was in America to recoup losses after the latest bureaucratic hurdles in Greece.
Instead of going all the way to California, I chose to station myself as close to Europe as possible, even though I had no job, no contacts and no previous experience living on the east coast. A Greek-American family that befriended me, when I worked for the summer in their hometown on Rhodes, offered to let me share a tiny bedroom occupied by their son. I was grateful for the futon, even if it came with a side of snoring, selfish behavior and unidentifiable smells.
Maintaining a certain demeanor after commuting two hours by train, subway and on foot to Manhattan while freezing my as$ off, then selling myself with enthusiasm two to three times a day was necessary when job hunting in winter. After three months of this and random insults for being from the west coast, it finally paid off. I was offered three jobs.
The first job was with Cantor Fitzgerald, as an executive assistant; the second with an entertainment firm, as the office manager; the last for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Salaries were $75,000, $65,000 and $50,000, respectively.
When I called to share this information with my family in California, it seemed like a no-brainer: Take the one with the highest salary.
But I don’t make decisions based on money alone. I factor in things like long-term career goals, longevity, how I can contribute and whether the work has purpose and the potential for growth. Essentially, I apply personal principles based on love, truth, charity and righteousness.
The way I live life has earned me the title of family black sheep – odd, unconventional and illogical – deserving of scorn and the rolling of eyes for going against societal norms in which they taught me to conform. So of course I chose the lowest paying position with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. In return for contributing my skills and experience to further philanthropic projects, I would learn about Orthodoxy and thus gain a better understanding of Greece, a country close to my heart at the time; the salary was negligible. My parents were beyond disappointed.
Fast forward six months to the Upper East Side where most of us gathered around Presvytera’s TV set, baffled that morning by a plane that hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. It was 8:55 a.m. when I arrived, and I remember thinking, “That’s definitely no accident, but what the hell is it?” And when the second plane hit a few minutes later at 9:03 a.m., I wondered no more.
The last sms I sent before New York’s communication networks collapsed was, “We’re under attack.” And after both Towers fell like sandcastles in mere seconds, F-16s flew overhead and the city fell silent, I could not speak, sleep or eat for three days. I also did not cry. I stared at the World Trade Center (WTC) security swipe card I was issued when I interviewed with Cantor Fitzgerald, the institution suffering the most casualties on 9/11 with 658 employees trapped and burned to death at the “Top of the World.”
My parents were relieved to hear I was alive but never once acknowledged that my life was spared by defying them and choosing a path unmotivated by greed. They took it to the grave.
It’s difficult to believe it’s been 10 years since that historical day, and I know the world has changed for worse and thousands are dead in its aftermath. But I don’t know anyone who died on 9/11, I only know someone who could have died. And every time I look at my WTC card, it reminds me of the power of choice.
Choices define you. Choose wisely.