Cooking by the Book is located at 13 Worth Street in Lower Manhattan, between West Broadway and Hudson. We are eight blocks north of the World Trade Center.
Ten years ago we were there on that remorseful Tuesday morning. Suzen was actually standing on West Broadway when the second plane hit the South Tower. Our son called from Austin and asked if we had seen it. “What plane?” Suzen answered in disbelief. Standing on the north side, she saw only the fireball.
I was on Wall Street and, to get home, walked up Broadway, one block east of the two burning towers. I stopped to assist people standing in shock, trying to use cell phones that would not work. When I was a couple of blocks from home back on West Broadway, the South Tower fell and I saw the dust cloud and people streaking my way. Then I ran.
We began helping people that day. For wondrous reasons, we never lost power, water, cable, or internet. Friends, neighbors, and former neighbors called us to see if we could help them with children stranded at school or shelter a spouse until they could find their way home. We were a triage center, helping the shaken and getting them safely on their journeys home.
On day two, we went out onto the streets. There was harsh silence: no people sounds, just burst of helicopter humming and siren shrieks. Surprisingly, the streets were jammed with parked cars, so many that some had parked diagonally onto the sidewalks. As we walked past, we saw license plates from many states. And men sleeping in the cars with their local fire fighters suits on. These were the fire fighters from around the country who had come to search “The Pile.”
One fire fighter was asleep. Standing up against a brick wall. We asked him, and some others, if they would like a bed, a shower, food, a phone, and email. No one turned us down. For three weeks, we were home to two contingents of men, one from Buffalo and one from Providence.
One of the fire fighters from Buffalo, Ken Drodsowski, a veteran of two wars and Special Forces has been an important friend for all these years. When he was married last year, he chose NYC as the place to wed and us as his witnesses.
All these men had come on their own dime and at their own risk: they had all been told that their health insurance would not cover them. “Hero” does not even scratch the surface.
Staying at our place, the men would come and go at all hours. Many worked double shifts as they kept praying to find someone. Anyone. If they got the word that there was a hope, an indication, out they would run back to The Pile to search. They would return and joke about how quickly their latest set of boots had melted as they walked over The Pile. It burned for months, you know, glowing orange in the night. A preview of Hell.
The whole fire fighter contingent used a primary school four blocks away to stage and to eat. The food was donated, some was good, and some was not. After a few days, the Red Cross limited the donations to people with culinary experience including restaurants and people with their food handler’s license.
Some years later we heard Matilda Como on NPR talk about some particular housewife in Tribeca who made food and brought it to people. Suzi and I looked at each other and smiled.. That person was Suzen. She is the woman of the myth.
[Actually, I cooked too, but my brownie contribution is a myth lost in the fog of war.]
We were in the mandatory evacuation zone. We stayed and we wanted to do something beyond housing the fire fighters. We could cook.
There are wonderful restaurants and food stores in Tribeca who supplied us with ingredients for our month of cooking. The now gone Bazinni was especially generous. Every morning, we would go somewhere, get ingredients, cook, let it cool just enough, then take the food to the school.
Getting to the school was a major effort. The school was on the other side of three lines of fences erected on Chambers Street to keep the World Trade Center apart from the thousands who thronged to just be there, to just see it all. Suzen would carry three catering size aluminum pans of pasta and chili. I three of brownies. We would nudge our way to the first fence, the first gate. Each time we had to explain, again, what we were doing. Then gates two and three.
At each gate we picked up an escort. By the time we got to the school, there was Suzen, me, two New York City policemen, two New York State policemen, and two National Guard troops. They carried their guns, we carried the food.
The cafeteria was always filled with men between shifts on The Pile. A standard routine developed. We walked with our escorts to the back of the room. The conversations would abate, eyes would turn towards us. We’d deliver our food to the tables, nod to the Red Cross people, turn, and be escorted out.
There would be some smiles and visual gratitude, and a queue would form in front of the table where we had left the food. We don’t know which was eaten first, lasagna or brownies. No one ever complained. Just thankful faces, and that was plenty for us.
On that first morning of 9/12, we went out to see the damage. Dust and debris had stopped one block from us. I picked up two concrete blocks that had come from probably the fallen North Tower. I have them now, on a bookshelf, alone.
In that first week, we talked about how in five years we would go to the reopening of a rebuilt Trade Center. We were sure of the time scale. We knew this great city would not stand for this constant reminder of pain. It is now ten years. One highrise went up quickly. Everything else trails. While there has been progress in the last year, while they will open the memorial, things will never be, never could be, the same. And to “finish” that construction will take at least another decade. Frankly, we wanted the towers rebuilt, taller, stronger. Suzen wanted a slightly different location. I wanted them resurging right out of the pits of fallen souls.
There are some people who worry about the ability of this country to get things done. Done with grace and style. Done in a reasonable amount of time. If you come to Lower Manhattan, you might concur.
The world changed ten years ago. For those of us living there, that destruction of our neighborhood and the loss of all those people is something that we will never get over. The fears and memories have percolated into our DNA.
Sometimes when it’s a bit overbearing, we go for a walk, but never south on West Broadway because it is much too painful to see the site. Sometimes we go to the gym to try to sweat it out. Most often, we head into the kitchen and cook together. Suzen does pasta, and I do brownies. Suzen adds a green salad, and I open a bottle of red. We think about our good fortune and remember those whom Fate sent on a different journey.
We turn the lights down and eat quietly. We are serenaded by an orchestra of the city: cars and trucks whistling down West Broadway and rattling the steel plates on a pavement still under repair, the earthquake-like rumble of the subways a half block away, and the continual construction cacophony of as the World Trade Center is reborn too slowly.
What is there to do? We sit, sip our wine, and wait for the rest of the world to catch up.