On that Tuesday morning 11 years ago, everything changed for Janelle Harris. Her usual tardiness worked in her favor this time and ultimately saved her life.
Chasing a dream — that’s what I was doing in New York City in 2001, fresh out of college, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about putting my brand spankin’ new degree in English to use on somebody’s magazine staff. I’d had my daughter in the first semester of my sophomore year, so I kind of shot myself in the foot when it came to being a candidate for the high-velocity internships that other aspiring journalists were getting at Essence and Vibe. Being fast had, in essence, slowed me down.
Still, my mom and grandmother cheerleaded me to head to the City of Dreams to stay with family while I looked for an entry-level gig at a local rag, circular, church newsletter, anywhere that would let me write and build my credentials. I could leave my baby girl with them for a week or two so I could make some much-needed contacts, they said. I smothered them with kisses, packed an arsenal of stilettos and respectable interview clothes, and sailed up the New Jersey Turnpike in my trusty Civic.
I ended up having to go to Plan J: hitting up a temp agency. I was deflated — rarely does registering at any of those places indicate that your career is on track — but any paying assignment would’ve helped my poverty-stricken pockets. Chasing the dream in NYC was exciting but man, was it ever expensive. A few days later, I got a call: they wanted me to hand out flyers for Election Day outside the World Trade Center bright and early on September 11, then meet with someone for an editorial assistant position after I was finished. It was like belly flopping through fungus to get to a field of poppies, but it was something.
That night I stayed with a college friend and fellow adventuress in unemployment, convincing her to come with me in the morning. Misery loves company on that kind of mission and I figured it was a way for her to make a few bucks, too. We spent more of the night than we should’ve hanging out on her stoop, talking to cute guys coming back from the basketball courts. I don’t know if flirting made me so tired that I slept through the alarm. Maybe it didn’t go off or I just set it wrong. What I do know is Janelle the Socialite didn’t wake up when she was supposed to. I ended up almost an hour later than I intended to get up.
My friend, the slacker, rolled over and mumbled something that amounted to “not going,” but I was in full pants-on-fire mode. I hopped in the Civic and tore through the streets to get from her house in Queens to my apartment in Brooklyn. It was just another day of me running late —a perfectly normal Tuesday morning. I barely put my car in park before I ran in to change and haul tail to Manhattan. Even the elevator got the business as I mentally willed it to hurry up. When you’re behind schedule, not man, woman nor machine can move fast enough to make you happy.
“Where you rushing off to?” my neighbor lady asked me. She was chatterbox and child, I didn’t have time for her chatterboxing on that day. The elevator smelled like fresh pee, the buttons kept getting stuck, but I appeased her conversation during the ride.
“I have a job interview at the World Trade Center and I’m running sooo late,” I smiled sheepishly, fully expecting her to lay into me like the mother figure she was.
Instead, her eyes got wide. “Girl, you didn’t hear?” she gasped. “Somebody just flew a plane into them buildings! You better thank the Lord you was running late.” I spent the time thereafter, doing just that.
The rest of that week was shrouded in chaos. The news was one heartbreaking story after another, and my heart still goes out to every extended family affected and every person whose lives ended that day. Folks were crying, screaming, desperately looking for loved ones who worked at or near the towers. Dust was everywhere, hanging heavy like a gray canopy. Shoes and bags were scattered in the streets. Everyone was walking around, high on emotion but still fogged in a zombie-like disbelief.
Cell phone lines went haywire so people couldn’t make or receive calls, and my mom and grandmother were sick with worry because I’d told them about the interview but they couldn’t get through to see about me. Mommy usually scolds me for running late, but my most aggravating habit — the one she has nagged and lectured me about — might’ve just saved me that day.