Elaine D’Arrigo – “Firing” Myself

September 11, 2001 was the day that I began the process of “firing” myself. We all know where we were that morning. I was getting ready to head to my job in Jericho, Long Island at an insurance adjusting company where I had worked for 8 years. It was only my third job since graduating high school in 1977. For some context, 1977 was the year that “Saturday Night Fever” came out in movie theaters, the Son of Sam was terrorizing the city and on a hot steamy night in July, a blackout plunged New York City into chaotic darkness.  In 1977 I did what most of my friends did after graduation. I got a job. A few of my classmates went on to college, but most of us found jobs and looked forward to getting married and settling down. Being an Italian American woman born in 1959, I knew that my life would revolve around home and family.

Fast forward to September 11, 2001, when I, along with the rest of the world, became transfixed by the unfathomable events unfolding before us. As the World Trade Center towers collapsed in a cloud of dust and despair, I knew at that moment everyone inside was gone. Their lives snuffed out, disintegrated in an instant. Ordinary lives, just like mine. As the dust settled, both figuratively and literally, stories of heroism, bravery, resolution, and sacrifice came to light. The realization seeped into my soul that life, at least my life, had to mean more, be more, than my 25-minute daily commute and my monthly work routine, a routine from which I never deviated.  It suddenly felt like I was riding on a sad merry-go-round consisting of transcribing reports and billing clients, over and over, month after month, year after year.

I spoke to a dear friend who was a court officer in the Bronx. She was working 12-hour shifts after the terrorist attack, protecting the courthouse. A year earlier she jumped off her own “merry-go-round”. You see, she was a pediatric nurse at a children’s hospital. When she told me that she was taking a job in law enforcement to become a court officer, I was shocked. I remember asking her, “Why? What about nursing?” Her answer was simple. She said she just could not watch another child die. I told her I wished I could do something different, something more meaningful. A few days later she called to tell me that the civil service exam for New York State Court Officer was coming up again and she encouraged me to take it. I said that I was too old for a job in law enforcement, however, she informed me that there was no age limit. With no excuses left, in December 2001, I took the exam and did well. Over the next few years, I went through the extensive and exhausting background checks, physical ability and psychological testing and finally received my appointment to the New York State Court Officer Academy.  The day I received the call I did not hesitate to “fire” myself. I said my goodbyes after what now was 13 years in insurance and left the safety of my routine for a totally new and unknown world. I was 47 years old. Before I knew it, I was reporting for duty at the New York State Court Officer Academy in lower Manhattan, wearing my mandated “business attire.” I was standing in line with 109 other “recruits,” one-third of whom were women. As we stood in line, at attention, waiting to get into the facility I could hear loud voices, which I now know was by design. My trepidation increased, and when I finally made it further up the line I could see that the voices were those of four sergeants who were yelling simultaneously at the recruits ahead of me. I could make out something about facial hair, ties or no ties, shoes, sneakers, and various other infractions, the details of which escape me now. When it was my turn I got the once over and was directed forward. Thank God, no yelling about my appearance. I made it into the room and was handed or rather, tossed a huge bagful of things including workout clothes, a book on defensive tactics, handcuffs, and a strange little black stick. That’s when I realized what I had actually signed up for…IT WAS BOOT CAMP! It was also too late to run.

That first day was a blur of paperwork, medical forms, locker assignments, and rules and regulations that were barked at us. It seemed that the sergeants’ voices only had one volume—LOUD.  At some point in the day, I found myself on a smelly carpet, belly-down, doing what seemed like hundreds of push-ups to a cadence counted out by the sergeants. Then sit-ups, then something called mountain climbers.  My once crisp and snappy black suit was drenched in sweat and whatever was on the carpet. Through the din of the sergeants counting and yelling about how pathetic we all were, I could hear the grunting and vomiting of other recruits. I just kept doing push-ups. Out of 110 recruits, only 99 made it to graduation. Some never came back after the first day, others quit at various times during the four months of grueling training and one was terminated the day before graduation. At the end of my first day I crawled up the stairs to my bedroom and told my husband that I didn’t think I could do it, but he said that I could and I would and I did.

After graduating I was assigned to Bronx Supreme Court Criminal Division and have been there ever since. I have seen evidence of every depraved thing that one human being can do to another. I have seen the truly horrific, I’ve seen the good, the bad, the ugly, the crazy, the greedy, the funny and all aspects of crime and criminal behavior. No two days are ever the same, there is no routine in the routine. I work with people from all different backgrounds, levels of education, races, religions, cultures, and walks of life. I have seen first-hand how our system of justice works.  I’ve seen its flaws and its amazing ability to balance justice with fairness. I’ve seen its limitations and its latitude and I believe in it. I have forged friendships with people I would have otherwise never met and I have found understanding and compassion for those in society who commit crimes of varying severity for a variety of reasons, for their families and their victims. I have felt anger, rage, pity, and sorrow all at once and I would not trade it for any other career.

When I decided to make such a profound change in my life all those years ago I really worried about what my mother would think of my unconventional choice. However, of all the reactions my decision invoked the most surprising were those of my mother and her friends. They encouraged me and were curious about the job and my experiences.  They gave me that “You Go, Girl!” kind of praise. I realized by their reactions that they, too, must have, at some point in their lives wished to break free from the shackles of their traditional roles and get off their personal merry-go-rounds to take a leap of faith onto that daunting roller coaster ride.

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