This is probably a more difficult post to right than usual, today. It’s not that I don’t ever write from the heart, but this hits a bit closer and is not as light of a subject matter as that about which I general opine. You see, tomorrow is going to be a long day, but then, it usually is. The first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it wreaked across the Gulf Coast has passed. Right on its heels is the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the United States. In both cases, destruction was instantaneous, deadly and earth-shattering (in the literal sense of that word). Whole neighborhoods were torn apart and lives were changed forever or lost in the blink of an eye.
For the past five years, it has really been a matter of getting through this anniversary, of trying hard not to remember too much. Not to remember the way it used to be, what was lost, what still hasn’t come back. Not to think about it all too much. Despite the plethora of events taking place this weekend and next week to commemorate the terrorist attacks of 2001, I decided this time to reflect on my Lower Manhattan life from 09/10/01 and before. To try to remember.
Many of my memories of working in that area have to do with food and drink (some may be more of the latter than the former). Sense of direction? Well, mine has never been that great, which is a handicap in a city in which everyone generally refers to “south-east corner of something” or “north-west side of the street.” The two main Manhattan navigational landmarks were always the towers and the ESB (Empire State Building). On more than one night out downtown, a comment was made by someone in our group, “Well, the towers are that way, so that must be South,” with a slightly inebriated wave of the hand. After the attacks, the high-powered lights that illuminated the 24/7 recovery efforts took their place for a time. Now, it’s almost as though their absence fills that role, but that void isn’t always a reliable directional device, trust me.
After 09/11, there was quite a bit of press about Downtown businesses and how they were trying to survive and rebuild in the aftermath of the attacks. I even volunteered for a time with a non-profit that was trying to assist them with relief funds. What struck me at the time, and some of what I still remember, is how many of these establishments were related to the food industry. Money may move Wall Street but its belly does need to be fed as well. From hotdog carts to drinks at Windows on the World, from the food kiosks in the Plaza of the World Trade Center, to the restaurants on Greenwich Street just north of the tower complex, the variety of choices was widespread in terms of price and cuisine.
Even the vast mall underneath the plaza contained many places from which to dine during that lunchtime quest to feed one’s body. Company cafeterias can get old pretty fast, even if they are really easy to dash to for a quick midday meal. I can pretty much still remember the list of options for errands and refueling stops that existed for workers in the area. I sometimes met friends at Gemelli (the Italian place off the Plaza), grabbed a quick bite at Hale & Hearty Soups, stood on line to get sandwiches at Au Bon Pain, nibbled on sushi at the place near the Sbarro, and on occasion, made a mad, mid-afternoon sugar run to the Ben and Jerry’s at the complete opposite side of the complex from where I worked, always trying to beat my previous record for being away from my desk without my absence being noticed.
Some of my happier memories of that area are of trying to find a seat at lunchtime on one of the benches that ringed the fountain in the Plaza, the golden statue gleaming in the bright summertime sunshine. Competition for these seats was fierce, like much of life in financial services. Stock Exchange traders in their color-coded jackets and large badges stood out there just as much as the sunray-grabbing fresh-faced interns and newly-minted analysts that flood the halls of financial institutions each summer with the same regularity as the arrival of seasonal produce.
Così had recently opened up a shop at one of the entrances to the complex and had also placed a small stand there selling limited numbers of sandwich and salad choices. This was great for me because it was closer to my office and meant that I could grab one of those coveted seats a bit earlier, taking time to listen to one of many bands that played during the sponsored lunchtime concerts. On a daily basis, the Plaza was a great, big melting pot of languages, cultures and peoples all snatching a brief, fresh-air break during their long, intense workdays. It was great people-watching.
Krispy Kreme had a store at the Church Street entrance to the Plaza, as well. Every morning, coffee in hand, I would pass by those large windows that seductively showed glossy, fresh, hot donuts rolling by on the conveyor belts. I have to say, I never succumbed to this cheap, sweet advertising ploy, having already consumed far too many of these in my lifetime prior to the company’s nationwide expansion (they come from the South). For that, I am sorry. I’d give anything to have another chance to grab a donut from a white and green box on the conference room table of my former office.
In the evening, there were lots of places off the surrounding streets to gather with friends. I think I may have been back to a couple of them once or twice since then. Downtown is no longer the place to consider for a night out, despite the fact that there are still plenty of places to go. I sort of feel as though there’s a cordon that stops about Chambers Street. Prior to that, life was very different. It was just too sad to be down there, too difficult to party nearby where so many had died, only due to the fact that they worked in a certain place and were there on a specific, tragic day.
I’ve never been to New Orleans so I can’t speak to what happened there and how that city has changed. However, I did live in New York prior to 09/11 and have lived here since. One interesting facet of life in both cities is that eating and good cooking are treated as one’s birthright, hands down. The industries hardest hit after their respective tragedies were tourism and restaurants/food. Places were closed, some never to open again or whose re-openings remain in serious doubt. Residents and visitors to these establishments were gone or displaced. In both cases, as well, the culinary community rallied round to help those who were affected by these events. Jobs were found, scholarships set up, and new attention was given to the importance of eating out as an integral part of these cities’ cultural landscape. Some places will never return. Some have found homes in other cities.New York has picked up some more Southern accents.
As we enter another year moving away from both of these tragic events, continuing to remember what was lost and hanging on to the good parts of what existed, creating new memories of food shared with friends is the best healing that we can have. Anytime I’m dragged down to view the pit, I insist that we grab a bite to eat down there. I’ve located a place for a great slice, found a favorite brunch place, and had amazing artisanal ice cream across the Brooklyn Bridge. With these tastes in mind, holding onto my more pleasant memories of what the World Trade Center area was like prior to that Tuesday morning, and ignoring all the press rehash of what happened on that crystal-clear fall day, I think I can safely make it through this anniversary relatively unscathed.