Backstory: The Story Behind the Second Dakota Stevens mystery, The Rich Are Different — Part 1

The novel that became The Rich Are Different was written during the winter of 2001–02, over a year before I even conceived of the Dakota Stevens Mystery Series.

In order to give you a clear understanding of the backstory behind The Rich Are Different, I need to tell you about what I was doing on 9/11 and during the months immediately following that horrible event.

In September 2001, I was working for Merrill Lynch in Communications, quietly hating my job and biding my time until HR offered me a buyout package. The manager who’d hired me—a terrific guy and 20-year veteran of the company—had been callously downsized by his manager (as fate would have it, that woman was herself downsized soon following).

So, no longer having any interest in working in Corporate America, and wanting to write fiction full-time, at my wife’s encouragement I submitted myself for a voluntary severance package.

9/11 in Manhattan: Terrible and Surreal

The WFC South Tower, where I worked, in the days after 9/11. My office was on the 5th floor of the left-hand tower, just to the left of the giant American flag.

My office was on the fifth floor of the World Financial Center South, with a view out the window of the World Trade Center North Tower across the street and, if I craned my head, the South Tower.

Anyone who worked in Manhattan on 9/11 has a story about their experiences that day; suffice it to say, on that day I had begun a new work schedule, where I would start and end my day an hour later, so on the morning of 9/11, when the planes struck the towers, I was on my way into the office. (By the way, a word about the sky that morning: it was the deepest blue I’ve ever seen, before or since.)

I reached Grand Central Terminal and stumbled over to Fifth Avenue, where I glimpsed the rising smoke. Pedestrians stood in the middle of the street, gaping at the nightmare, while hundreds of sirens scorched the air all around us. Swarms of fire trucks sped past us, blasting their horns, and raced down Fifth Avenue. Even then I knew the worst was still to come, and I wept for those firefighters because I knew that many of them wouldn’t make it back.

This post-9/11 photo is the closest I’ve found to what that firefighter looked like.

I’ll never forget seeing this one firefighter, riding on the back of a long ladder truck. He had all of his gear on, including his helmet, but I could see his face, which was strong and resolute, and then some women standing in the crowd shouted with broken voices for him to be careful, and I’ll never forget what he did: he held on to the truck with one hand and saluted the long line of pedestrians as the truck sped downtown. The women around me started to sob. For me, that man will forever epitomize a true hero.

This was the scene on one of the bridges, but hiking out of Manhattan through Harlem was eerily similar.

I spent the rest of the day getting to my wife’s office in the Fashion District, contacting friends and family by email to let them know I was still alive (the phone lines were jammed), watching the North Tower collapse from the roof of my wife’s office building, hiking up Broadway at the head of a mass exodus (looking back over my shoulder at the smoke plumes from Ground Zero and the continuous stream of people rolling over the hills of Upper Harlem, I knew on some small level how Moses had felt), hiking miles ever northward up the island of Manhattan, buying bottled water at a bodega and calling my former manager, who picked us up at a McDonald’s, just over the northernmost bridge off the island, in the Bronx.

In the months after that horrible day, I began “working” with Lou, a programmer and systems administrator out of a formerly little-used Merrill field office in White Plains, NY, about 25 miles north of Manhattan. When we first got there, the office had the feel of the Cold War-era government bomb shelter in the third Terminator movie. Lou and I were charged with modernizing the office, getting it ready to accommodate what executive management incorrectly foresaw as hundreds of displaced WFC workers wanting to telecommute from the suburbs.

“Mr. Orcutt…some executives are needing concierging!”

While Lou installed desktop computers and made sure the network was working properly, I ordered and oversaw the installation of what I considered important modern office amenities, including free coffee and soda machines, a pool table and a foosball table.

Basically, I morphed my job into that of a concierge, greeting skeptical executives from Scarsdale and Greenwich who were “going to give this telecommuting thing a try.”

To aid me in my mission, I recruited a gorgeous blonde receptionist, a Dutch girl named Hanna Van Hastings. Plucking her out of obscurity in Purchasing, I gave her her dream job, which was doing nothing but freshen her makeup every two hours, answer the phone 5 or 6 times a day, photocopy pages of the novel I was writing, and bring executives coffee if they asked for it.

A year or so later, after I’d left Merrill, I heard through the grapevine that she had married one of the executives who worked for a time at the White Plains office. She moved to Greenwich and had two children. It pleases me to know that, in a small way, I had something to do with her happiness.

For my part, once the executives heard I was good at writing, they asked me to write things for them, including short speeches they had to give. I would make them practice in front of me, in a closed conference room, and give them notes. This work, which came at the tail end of my Merrill tenure, just before I finally received my severance package, served me well five years later, when I began doing corporate speechwriting in earnest.

But until then, there was that long winter of 2001–02 in White Plains. After less than a week of my “concierge” work in the updated facility, I realized I had about seven hours of free time every work day, so I started writing a new novel, right there in the office.

Merrill Lynch never knew it, but for about nine months in 2001–02, they had a novelist on the payroll to the tune of $150,000/year. Suckerzzzz!

This wasn’t the first book I’d written during my Merrill tenure. A year earlier, I revised and published my first book of short stories (I Hope You Boys Know What You’re Doing!) during downtime in my office.

While at the White Plains office, I hired a company Town Car to drive me to my apartment and pick up my IBM Selectric typewriter, which I installed in an unused office, and there I worked all day long, unless Hanna called on the intercom and said, “Mr. Orcutt, some executives are needing concierging!”

Miss Van Hastings was gorgeous, but English was positively her second language.

And next week I’ll get into the novel itself, The Rich Are Different.

 

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By Chris Orcutt

Writer — The Dakota Stevens Mystery Series, Short fiction, Plays — Editor & Speechwriter for Hire — Avid Golfer, Chess Player & Awesome Wood-Splitter — Twitter: @chrisorcutt

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