The 107th Floor


There aren’t many constants in this world, but one thing you can count on is that every June a squadron of blue-shirted, bright-eyed college students descend upon New York for a summer finance internship. My life in trading began with one of these, an internship at Citigroup in the summer of 2001 (well, it was Salomon Smith Barney, who had just been bought out by Citi).

I got into a generalist program but was randomly placed in the “Fixed Income Index Group” and never really quite figured out what exactly they did. More problematic, for some reason one of the main requirements for this group was a computer programming background. Other than a intro CS class that may have tested my interpretation of “knowledge sharing”, I did not have one.

It was my intro into the absurd possibilities of a large corporation, as my managers and me mutually agreed the placement was a mistake, but HR refused to consider a change. Luckily, the team was made up of genuinely good people and they let me meet different groups across the bank, taught me about markets in general, and assigned me some minor projects. The bad news: I knew I’d never receive, nor even wanted, an offer from them. The good news: I pretty much had no responsibility or deadlines. What does one do when you’re main responsibility is to just show up? Naturally, at 5:30pm you run for the exit to take part in that institution that you only truly understand the value of once you begin your working life: happy hours.

It was convenient that one of my fellow NYC newbies, who would soon be my first NYC roommate in 2002, worked down the street and became an instant partner in crime. We were told by the “cool, older people” about two bars to check out in the area. The first was Moran’s, a bar by the waterfront that featured a cast of decked out gold-diggers being wooed by 80s movie villain-like bankers and traders.

You can always tell who the summer intern is at the bar: they’re the ones who are actually really, really excited to be there. The rest of the people, while flirting, drinking, and slapping fives (this was pre-”fist pounding” days), are still secretly exhausted from work underneath. For an intern, it’s your first time in the mix. It’s your first time wearing grown-up clothes, the first time you pretend you have an “important job”, the first time exposed to a corporation, and most importantly, your first time experiencing the wonder that is New York City. Like certain other things, the first time isn’t necessarily the best..things certainly get better in those subsequent years when you finally learn how the city works. But that combination of innocence, idealism, and complete obliviousness make the first time something different, something unforgettable.

The friend I’d mentioned worked for Lehman Brothers, in the World Trade Center. That second bar we were told to check out was Windows on the World, located on the 107th story of the North Tower.

A bar, a douchebag-in-training, a respite from a desk….it’s not exactly the deepest of things, but it’s just what I remember about the World Trade Center. When you were at the base, the buildings were so large that they ceased to be buildings. You couldn’t clearly see to the tops…it just felt like you were at the bottom of a canyon at dusk. You entered the buildings, and got into the right elevator. I can’t remember exactly, but I think you might’ve had to switch elevators once. Then you arrived. You walked out to the bar area and were surrounded by a panoramic view of New York fucking City in all it’s glory. You were surrounded by people you thought were important. Even if the old guy in the suit next to you was a pissed off, passed over, middle manager, the aura of the place convinced you that “he could totally be a MD” (Managing Director, the holy grail of the banking world). That girl next to him, she must be a model. It’s a phrase said too often, but there is no way to characterize that place other than larger than life. No place captured the intern’s dream that is New York City better than Windows on the World.

I was back at school in Atlanta on 9/11/01. I was at my then-girlfriend’s place and got woken up by her roommate who yelled “they’re attacking New York”. She wasn’t exactly Seinfeldian and I thought this might be some ill-executed joke. I groggily walked out to the living room and just stood there staring at the TV. Only the first plane had hit. I texted one of my friends whose dad worked in the buildings. I actually had a flight scheduled to NYC the next morning for my final interviews with Bank of America and guessed I wouldn’t be flying anywhere.

I had only spent about nine weeks in New York, but I really felt sick. I called up my friend from the Lehman internship and he told me that everyone from his office (which was on the 4th floor) was okay. I got an email from a teacher insisting we still show up to class, but didn’t go. I met up with one of my friend’s who was as obsessed with politics as me and discussed Al Qaeda, the Middle East, and national security (yes, we were both nerdy debaters in high school and love this stuff). Talking in the abstract about something makes it a lot easier to deal with.

I called my parents and my mom told me something I wonder if she ever imagined herself saying when she first immigrated to the US, “be careful, people might react because we look like them” (and I really do look like “them”, probably more than I look traditionally Indian).

I didn’t know people who died and almost had a twisted sense of survivor’s guilt. I got on a plane a week later and flew to NYC. I was out late the night before and running a bit late (surprised?) and I was the last person on the plane. I hadn’t shaved for a few days and the fearful looks I got walking on the plane were genuinely hilarious. My twisted sense of humor had me wanting to yell “boo”. I’m glad I didn’t.

After the interview, I went down to visit the group I interned for to see how they were doing. I smelled the burnt air from the taxi, and found out the Citi folks had seen the planes crash from their windows. I walked around Ground Zero a bit and then got on a plane back to Atlanta. I found out in late September that I achieved every intern’s dream and got an offer with BofA.

I moved back to NYC and worked in midtown and found a whole new world of happy hours. Suddenly downtown seemed so far away. For that first anniversary of 9/11, the trading floor went deathly quiet for the moments of silence, 8:46 and 9:03. Most of my group had come over from Merrill, which was next door to the WTC and saw everything firsthand. Many knew people who died. The guy next to me shed some tears. It was pretty intense.

I think it was the fourth anniversary when I first heard someone still on the phone and yelling about a stop loss during the moment of silence. People looked at him in horror, trading glances and thinking “is he insane?” Each progressive year it became less and less of a moment until it faded into a background CNBC montage while people went about their daily work. I still haven’t resolved if this was a just a trading floor disrespecting the dead because markets “still were moving”, or if this was in fact a realization of the very goal we were supposed to strive for, to move on with our lives.

I know that I was spared the true horrors of having been in the World Trade Center on 9/11 or having lost someone close to me. I’ve also been politely told by friends from other countries that terrorism and tragedy happen all the time, all around the world. Howev er, whether it’s my eternal luck in being “randomly selected” for airport security checks, my first real adult anger towrads the Iraq War, or most of all, the attachment I developed towards New York City over the eight years I’ve lived here, I do think about 9/11.

I had the extremely weird experience of almost crying on a treadmill yesterday while looking up at the TV’s to watch a ESPN documentary about one of the victims (their production quality just gets better every day)…

The girl next to me was.