Somewhere in my house, I have a bunch of things I put in a box about 10 years ago. Emails. Lists. Names. Hospital numbers. I have not opened the box in nearly a decade. I thought maybe I would need it one day to remind me of the events of September 11, 2001. I couldn't anticipate that ten years later, everything would remain so vivid and clear in my mind.
My most haunting memory comes not from one of those horrific moments caught on television that day. Instead, it was a few days later when I had to inform distraught family members to collect combs and toothbrushes to bring to the New York Armory Building to assist with identification. I remember trying to be professional and calm at the time, as though it was all so normal and matter-of-fact. I was an ass. I think I was trying to not let it in. Too much work to do. Keep it together. Cry later. The families were kind and understanding, because back then, hope was still very strong.
On September 11, 2001, I worked for Aon's Chicago office in the communications department. Aon occupied a number of floors at Two World Trade Center. When I was first hired 6 years prior to that day, my co-workers teased me mercilessly when I asked what "2WTC" meant on all the interoffice envelopes. I didn't even know what a World Trade Center was. I was as green as they come, appearing out of nowhere with an impractical English degree and a resume that included working at Old Country Buffet and Eastern Illinois' food service. I'm still surprised I wasn't laughed out of the interview given most of my previous jobs included hair nets.
I began in licensing and worked with brokers in dozens of offices. My job was to make sure all the brokers throughout the country had up-to-date licenses in all the states they conducted business. It was a lot of phone work and I built relationships with many of them over time.
Yet as a 23-year-old Midwesterner, the New York office used to scare the living crap out of me. The brokers were brash, impatient, demanding, and brilliant. I never understood what "moxie" meant until I started talking with the New York staff. I always received the dramatic brush-off: "Marianne, I'm in the deal of my life here and I just got no time for this bullshit today...I'll call you next week *click*."
Nobody would call me back and my New York charges started falling hopelessly behind with their renewals and new licenses. I was in over my head, feeling certain I'd be fired at any moment.
And then someone told me about Denise Benedetto. The woman who would rescue my fledgling new career. She could move mountains, I was told. And if she liked you, she'd even toss a mountain your way now and then. Boy, could I use a mountain.
Our very first conversation revolved around what I needed. Denise was quick, concise, and friendly. I didn't even know New Yorkers could be friendly back then. By the next morning, she secured all the signatures and certifications I had requested before her first morning cup of coffee. Denise always arrived early. At a company where most New York employees showed up around 9 am, Denise typically arrived closer to 8 am.
Only one time did she hesitate helping me - it was when I rattled off a name of a certain broker whose notarized signature I needed. He was notoriously hard to deal with. Could Super Woman actually be afraid of this guy?
"Marianne, this is the World Trade Center. This guy you need...he's like a block away on this floor and I've got a busy morning. He couldn't be further from me. Do you know how long it would take me to get over there? Next time they send you to New York, come by and I'll show you. You'll need a mule. Send a fax. I'll make sure he follows through."
And she did. And I wouldn't find out until years later that she had a serious spinal condition requiring surgery and had spent time in a body cast. Denise wasn't one to complain.
After a while, I learned to imitate Denise's tactics and was able to charm, bully, and coerce my way into getting the cooperation needed to renew licenses for even the most resistant of New Yorkers. She had carefully taught me which names to drop and what days and times to bother certain people. I had my own insider.
A year or so later, Denise and I had both progressed at Aon. A friend of mine recommended me to a new senior executive who needed an assistant. Apparently typing 85 wpm was my big selling point. Yet more appropriately, Denise earned an impressive and well-deserved promotion. She arrived in Chicago for some kind of training, and made her way to my floor for our first face-to-face meeting.
Over the phone, Denise seemed larger than life. I thought for sure she would be tall and old. Authoritative. Imposing even. Yet when I met her in person, I was shocked. She was this tiny little person. As I hugged her, I thought she would break. She was so much younger than I had envisioned, right around my age now, but still very much her own woman.
I remember she couldn't get over how big Lake Michigan was:
"Oh my God, Mar...I thought like..you know...Lake Michigan. I imagined a big pond. Look at it - it's like looking at an ocean."
She somehow convinced me to take her for a peek of the CEO's office and I figured we'd both be fired as she spun around in his chair. Yet how could I refuse? I understood that if it hadn't been for her encouragement and help, I would have never lasted a month at Aon. I would have never become friends with Milwaukee-Friend who worked there. Milwaukee-Friend would introduce me to Doctor-Friend. Doctor-Friend was the one who dragged me out that night I met my husband. And my husband gave me the three most wonderful boys to make everything worthwhile. Too often, one person makes such a difference in your life without even knowing it. For me, Denise was that person.
Denise died on September 11, 2001. The little, confident New Yorker who somehow took a naive greenhorn and turned her into a gal with moxie will always be on my mind this day.
And many other days.