I like not working on my birthday. September 14th fell on a Friday in 2001 and would cap a pleasant week of laying loose. Maybe I'd stay up late and watch movies. Certainly I would head down to Evanston for a day at Vintage Vinyl and 2nd Hand Tunes shopping for used records. Karen and I would hang out, go out to lunch, and be together more than usual. We always did better the more time we spent together.
For the actual day, we had a party planned, a special one. The guest of honor: a huge amount of Corky's barbecue flown up from Memphis. We'd just taken a family trip to the Home of the Blues and had an amazing time: Graceland, Interstate Barbecue, used record stores, the Civil Rights Museum. Memphis stayed on our mind and bringing a little taste to our friends was to be our pleasure.
Monday the 1oth started the week off well. I remember the night vividly. I was watching Marat/Sade, marveling at a young Glenda Jackson, when Karen called me up from the basement.
"Jeff, Tracey's here." And he was. I'd helped Tracey, an old OEX trader, as he made the transition from floor trader to off-floor position manager. We talked all day about volatility and skew, things that now are part of an almost-forgotten past (although when I talk to traders on the CBOE it comes back like auto-pilot). Tracey was a generous guy and he was holding a large package.
"Hi, Happy Birthday and thanks for all you've done for me," he said as he handed over a gift.
It was beyond belief: a framed Elvis for Everyone album, signed by the King. That it was signed "For Sue," only made it better. Inscriptions tend to be real. A great present, and a wonderful beginning to a whole week off.
The next morning, I slept in a bit. Karen came into our room with the phone. "It's work," she said as she handed over the portable.
Norm was on the line.
"Do you know what's going on? The exchange is closed and we're all going home." I don't remember the rest. Next thing Karen and I were in front of the big screen Sony in the basement watching the smoke and the horrific chaos.
It's too trite to say we were stunned, that it was an unreal experience. I used to work in that area by the World Trade Center and it had a homey feel to it, but that means shit. I wasn't there.
Gale was. Our best friend called Karen and told her she couldn't get home. She was incommunicado and Karen filled her in as best she could. Gale said she could rent a car and drive back. "Did that make sense?" Karen told her get the car and head out. It was unknown when flights would leave New York.
My parents were living by the river in Chicago and, after less than a year there, our relationship had begun to dissolve, the path being paved for the lack of contact we have today. But in the face of the WTC attacks, and the realization that: 1) my parents used to live in the shadow of the towers and 2) that maybe all big cities were on notice, even Chicago, we had to put our negative feelings aside and get them to the suburbs. We did.
I can't remember if the traders got together the next day, but there were meetings to discuss positions and what would happen to the firm whenever the markets reopened. I remember driving into the city and looking up at the Sears Tower with dread. In Murnau's silent classic, The Last Laugh, Emil Jannings is a hotel doorman who loses his job and all the haughtiness and prestige that came with it. As he unravels, he dreams that the buildings are falling on him. That's what I saw as I drove through the canyons of the Loop.
The Friday birthday party was now both anti-climactic and troublesome. One friend lost a good pal in the attack and was in no mood to come. Others were set to be out of town but couldn't fly out.
And the Memphis barbecue? It was cancelled as the boxes of ribs and brisket couldn't fly north to Illinois. Karen luckily turned to Hecky's in Evanston who, on short notice, could fill our order.
When Friday night came, all our friends showed up. Surrounded by delicious food, the sound of blues and Chuck Berry in the air, and the comfort of good people, the birthday party morphed into hours of therapy through love and laughter. It didn't make everything all right, but it helped.
The week that started joyfully ended bittersweet, to put it mildly. And it set into motion the life changes we were to start one year later, buying a house in Cooperstown, moving full time, resetting our priorities and putting our family first. At work, I talked to a lot a guys at Cantor Fitzgerald, traders who I never met but interacted with every day. They were all dead, just like that. If I was going to go tomorrow, I wasn't going to leave this Earth after my daily commute, worried about my options position. I was going to go after a day with my wife and kids. I've lived every day with that as my goal. No regrets.
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