9/11/2003: Epilogue/Prologue #1, The Job

I’m not going to rehash the account of my experiences 2 years ago today. What I am going to do is, in more than one part, describe the effect on my life. It will surprise you.

What I find particular is the effect it had on my interaction with people. I don’t mean that gushing hippy oneness with my brothers and sisters in NYC. That was cute for about a week. If I have to hear about “New Yorkers banding together” one more time I’m going to single-handedly rebalance the scale. Shut the fuck up, go back to Woodstock and take a shower you ridiculous rainbow hippy freak…

But I digress 🙂

After 9/11 the company I worked for moved to a “disaster recovery” space in Jersey City. My commute went from a 20 minute walk (across the Brooklyn Bridge) to a 1 1/2 hour mass transit fest. Into Manhattan, then a several block walk to the Jersey Transit “Path” trains (the path trains are essentially an independent subway system that’s designed to connect northern Jersey with Manhattan.) Those would take me into JC and then there was a bit of a hike to the office.

Every morning and afternoon we had to contend with people packed like sardines on trains, pushing and shoving each other to be the first out the door when they pulled into station, then running to the stairs only to clog them up with a 10 minute wait while cops tried half-heartedly to manage the crowds.  More often than is healthy they wouldn’t be able to get everybody out of the path station before the next train came in, leading to a chain reaction of jammed up bodies, already angry at 7:15 in the morning. All this with the smells and the heat.

After too long I, like any New Yorker worth their salt, knew which doors to use on the train that would put me closest to the exit. I would stand right next to the door and “ease” (if you could call it that) my way right in front of it so that when it opened, I was out like a shot. I already knew which turnstile I was going to leave from, which side of the stairs I would emerge through, exactly what route I would take to get to work past the bagel place where I’d go in and shout “everything toasted little bit of creamcheese” while I was still 4th in line so that when I was finally first with exact change in hand, they handed me my bagel in a bag and I sped out the door with a hearty “have a nice day” and was off to work in the shortest possible time. My ass would hit the aeron chair by 7:32 am.

I was a good little commuting monkey.

For about a month.

The environment into which we had settled while our new building was being built was what some people describe as “trading floor”. Now, these weren’t traders. It was just a room full of long tables with computers and people lined up.

Most of the company was sales and customer relations. Then there was the geek squad which consisted of 5 or so teams of about 3-4 people each. But all day there was the shouting of “Fidelity on line 6! Deutche on 2! Is Jimmy even here today!?! God that jacket is so last season! What did you do last night? Jesus christ I said Fidelity on 6!” From 8:30 am to 5. (which is why I came in as early as I did.)

Ever try to think in that environment? Frankly the cacophony of my own thoughts makes it hard enough to do anything, without having to listen to every irrepressibly articulated non-thought from 100+ sales and marketing monkeys within a 50 foot radius. There was one girl in our marketing department (of 2 people) who had the strongest “ya know, like, valley girrrlll” accent I’ve ever heard. She grew up (insofar as she ever will) in Scarsdale. Scarsdale is in New York, a bit north of the city. “The Valley” is SoCal. You do the math.

We had a trading system that pretty much everybody had up and running at their desks. It was all centrally controlled and had an opening bell sound that would ring as the market opened. Well, one time the techs decided to change the sound. I noticed them snickering to each other and 9:30 hit….”CRASH!” A huge cacophonous explosion came out of about 80 computers all at once.

People lost their SHIT. More than one screamed. The guys in the corner were laughing like maniacs. It was really funny but…in February 2002…in reMARKABLY bad taste.

So I brought in some headphones and a couple CDs a day that I would rip. At least I could focus on my Buddha Bar CDs (those are great to program to!) But I could still always hear what was going on around me.

Add to that the fact that it was a CMM level -3 development shop, with production software being built on developer’s PCs and QA being entirely circumvented if it was convenient. So I started (in addition to my waning workload) developing automated test tools, build scripts, all the great toys you need for a mature development shop.

I was a good little coding monkey.

For about 6 months.

My workload had dwindled (our project was moved into production and tested rather exhaustively. I’m a frameworks and infrastructure guy so from then on the addition of business functionality was handled quite well by the rest of my team.)

I was exhausted. All the time. By the time I fought my morning campaign to get to work I was tapped out. The rising noise level had me pulling my hair out by 10:00 in the morning. Every petty concern and trivial thought anyone in the office would have was voiced, loudly. As a friend of mine says “I can’t not listen because I can’t not hear.” It perfectly reflects what went on in my head.

Because I had less put upon me to do my mind had more focus to spend on the content of the surrounding din. Who was getting married to whom, office romances, whose fashion sense was “just…like… off”.

I was unsatisfied, unchallenged, and perpetually annoyed.

One Monday morning in mid April, 2002, I sat thinking about all this while sitting at my desk, in the calm between the commute and the noise in work. I thought about the cost of my rent. I thought about the amount of money I had socked away. I thought about the trip to Costa Rica that I’d planned and paid for already. In that strangely calm moment I realized I’d had enough. I was done.

I distinctly remember looking straight ahead and thinking “I don’t want to do this any more.” Apparently I’d thought it rather loudly because everyone within a 15′ radius stopped and looked at me. Apparently I’d said it with a tone that left no doubt as to what I meant. So I turned to my boss, sitting at my right and said “yeah… we’ve gotta talk.” A bead of sweat dripped down his forehead.

So we went to an aisle where nearly nobody sat and he asked what was up. I went through most of what I’ve just said (thought it wasn’t quite as clearly formed in my mind then) and I added “I just have to go.” He asked if I’d received a better offer, etc. All those questions a surprised manager asks.

“Nope. I’ve just got to go. I think I’m going to take the rest of the year off, do some travelling, and put my head back on straight and see which way it’s pointing. I figure I’ll start looking again in January.”

His reaction surprised me, and it’s a reaction I’ve received pretty consistently since then (it surprises me still.) “I envy you. I wish I was secure enough to do that.”

So in early May, 2002, I walked from an obscenely well-paying job; because no amount of money was worth my soul.

I spent the remainder of 2002 traveling (infrequently) meeting people, being social, working on my own projects (this weblog began during my last week on the job.) I went to Costa Rica in June and the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador in October/November (both with Social Circles.) I spent a few weekends up at Club Getaway in Kent, Ct. I was out meeting people and doing things for the better part of 7 months.

When I got back from Ecuador it was time to start looking for work. So I started with the recruiters and online job sites. The response was less than stellar and the masses of the employment industry said “Oh no. Not this late in the year. Start again in January or so, when new projects are allocated.”

It seemed sensible enough, so I waited. In January 2003 I blasted my resume out there, had a call schedule and started committing myself to 10-15 job applications a day.

Nary a peep.

Undaunted for several months I just kept at it. I had a couple interviews (really just a couple) that went wrong for one reason or another. Usually it was business-level requirements. (When it became a buyers market the job requirements became much more stringent in terms of long-term industry experience. As a career contractor I’d bounced industries rather steadily.)

But I was a good little job-hunting monkey.

For about 6 months.

…and I started to worry. The last time I had looked for a job it went like this: On Sunday night at midnight I put my resume up on monster.com, hotjobs.com and nettemps.com. Monday morning at 10:30 I had 9 messages on my answering machine. It was a different world.

I watched my cash stores dwindle. I started going out much less frequently (you can’t really walk out the door in the city without dropping $40 unless you go to the pizza place and back.) I slept less and less and needed more and more caffeine just to be interested enough to get going. Nytol at night, Stacker III in the morning. 10-15 job applications became 5-10, which became up to 5. Then it rapidly dwindled to “well… let’s see if there’s anything out there today.”

Before too long it was “maybe I’m not that good at what I do.” and “you quit? and you’ve been doing what for the last year?”

I’ve always known that at some point I would burn out on being someone else’s programmer. I love what I do and will always do it. But at some point you have to do what you do on your own terms. It takes too long to develop relationships with managerial staff to create the trust required so that I can do what it is I do best, which is exceed expectations in entirely unexpected ways. Far too often people you work for/with are simply not open to letting someone fly on a project. (this makes perfect business sense and I don’t fault people for it. But there are people who are exceptions. Up at H2-L21 for instance. (Yes, there are 1-2 people who will get that reference. The rest of you, don’t ask.))

In my long term goals, industry change was 5-10 years away. That’s 5-10 years to reduce my standard of living, figure out where I want to go and educate myself enough to get an entry-level job in that field. A healthy approach and healthy amount of time. (my current situation simply does not allow for an industry change. My monthly expenses are about $3500 a month.)

I have been beginning to think that I needed to speed up that schedule a little. People from most aspects of my life have been saying things like “well, you should clean up your apartment just in case you have to move.” and “you know, if you need a place to stay for a couple months…” I have amazing friends.

One month ago I received a sudden strange opportunity. Someone was going away for 6 months and was in desperate need of a house-sitter. Rent free. Furnished. Everything. Starting October. The lease on my $2100 apartment ends at the end of September. The decision took about 3 minutes and one phone call to my customer service representative at “First Bank of Reality”, my sister, for a check.

Now my apartment is full of boxes and I’ve taken this day, the 2 year anniversary, to reflect and write. But next week I’m going on a trip to Iceland for a week (that was paid for back when I thought I could still afford it, thank the gods.) and I’ll have a week or so once I get back to get out.

For six months I will have virtually $0 living expenses. On one hand I’m living on borrowed everything. On the other hand?

My life is proceeding 5-10 years ahead of schedule.

I would never wish the terror, death, and destruction of 9/11/2001 on anyone. And would (to hyperbolicly understate my case) rather it not have happened. I would rather the firemen and police I passed on my way down the stairs have all made it out. I would rather nobody’s father, mother, brother, sister, lover, wife, husband, friend, enemy, died there.

But. Given that it did…

I’d go through it again in a heartbeat. Because, you see…

I would never have done this on my own. I would never have had the strength and courage, given the “golden handcuffs of doom” path I was on, to shake myself up, break myself down to virtually nothingness, to a point where I was completely unable to look into the mirror in order to rebuild my life as I see fit. From scratch.

Without the gift to my life that was 9/11.

“It is only after we have given up everything, that we are free to do anything.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *