Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering the details

A few days after 9/11, I was staring at a blank computer screen, my fingers on the keyboard, wondering what the hell I could say. I had a column due for Restaurant Business magazine, and of course the matter on every reader’s mind would be the terrorist attack. But, even having seen the events at close range, how could I adequately address the pain and uncertainty restaurateurs were feeling along with everyone else?

We decided as a staff that the only suitable commentary would be a head bowed to the industry’s victims. I don’t know how she did it, and was advised that it might be best if I never find out, but the indomitable Andrea Cohen, now a well-known food writer, secured a list of the 74 industry employees who were known as of that point to have perished.

I skipped a recollection of 9/11 in 2001, but I vowed never to let the date pass in the years afterward without remembering it in a column or blog. So I hope you’ll indulge me a break from covering restaurants for a recount of how my business reacted to those terrible days.

I was editor of Restaurant Business at the time, working with a gifted staff unmatched in its professionalism. Indeed, that was one of our dilemmas at the time. We were smack against a deadline for our next issue, yet here was the biggest story of our time. How could we go to print with articles about Dollar Menus and new pumpkin pie recipes when the restaurant industry had just had a hole punched through it?

We begged and pleaded with our parent company, a $5-billion-a-year publicly owned bureaucracy, for the dollars needed to buy time from our printer. Astoundingly, maybe because the accountants didn’t find a yea on their lengthy list of no-no’s, we got it.

But our offices were so close to the World Trade Center that officials shut our building for several days. We actually had a staff member, now-publicist photographer Katherine Bryant, sneak into the building so we could send out our daily e-mail newsletter on Sept. 14, explaining that we’d be out of commission for a few days. (“For God’s sake, don’t worry. Just be safe,” responded a subscriber in Australia whom we hadn’t known we had.)

That didn’t stop us from pursuing several ambitious feature articles. But the stories that stick with me, and presumably always will, are the ones that were brought to our attention by restaurateurs and other journalists who learned what we were doing and knew of a situation that deserved a spotlight.

Former New York Times reviewer Bryan Miller sent me an e-mail about one of his successors, Ruth Reichl, showing up near Ground Zero in a white Land Rover, the back packed with vats of soup, to help feed the relief efforts.

Our former food editor, Paula Disbrowe, provided first-person details of those MASH-like feeding operations, where she was volunteering with then-boyfriend and Bouley Bakery chief David Norman. Famed chefs were cooking whatever they could whip together from limited supplies. We had a lot of heroes in uniform those days. A lot of them wore foodservice whites.

Most of us had stories of our own to recount. Knowing Michael Lomonaco was executive chef at Windows of the World, I had glumly presumed he’d perished, a profound sadness for me. I didn’t know Michael well, but, learning that my wife and I were hunting for homes outside of New York, he’d graciously invited us to come visit the place he’d purchased in the Hudson Valley. We’d also shared some great conversation dinner during a Culinary Institute of America event, and I of course had enjoyed his cooking a bunch of times.

Days after 9/11, I was reading my New York Times when I literally had to sit down. There, in passing, was a quote from Lomonaco. The story explained that he’d stopped by an optometrist that morning to pick up a pair of glasses. The first plane hit while he was walking toward the World Trade elevator.

The staff was walloped with sadness to see that Heather Ho, Window’s pastry chef, was also among the victims. We’d featured her in the magazine just a few issues beforehand, and she was generally acknowledged among the staff as someone whose career we needed to follow, since we was going to be a big star.

Being New Yorkers, we also had our non-industry connections to the tragedy. One of our senior staff members remarked for several days that he’d not heard from one of his friends. He presumed the guy was safe because his office was uptown. Finally, the editor checked the last e-mail he’d gotten from his friend, who worked as a computer consultant. It’d been sent from the guest account of a company headquartered in the towers during the week of the attack.

Another staffer wasn’t able to contact her sister-in-law, who lived blocks from World Trade. She was eventually tracked down to a hospital, where she’d been taken after debris from the North Tower struck her as she’d been walking the dog.

Late on the night of 9/11, I’d walked up to the center of my town where a blood drive was being held. The organizers were stockpiling supplies in the belief hundreds of injured people would be pulled the next morning from the rubble. On the way I passed the train station, where thousands of people left every morning for jobs in Manhattan. Despite the hour, there were about 20 cars still in the parking lot. I was trying to figure out why when it struck me: Those owners weren’t coming back for their vehicles.

For weeks and months afterward, we’d be jolted out of our routines by the New York Times, which had admirably decided to profile every person killed in the New York attacks. You’d be drinking your coffee and come across a mention of someone you knew from high school, a person on your floor at college, or someone you’d routinely see on your train line.

There are so many details emblazoned in my memory: Seeing the ash-covered people streaming past Restaurant Business’ offices, which were about 30 blocks from World Trade. Going to my wife’s office, which hadn’t been able to contact a satellite office across the street from the towers. Employees of that location were staggering up to the midtown skyscraper where my wife worked. Eight people never showed.

Seeing fighter planes in the skies over Manhattan. The downtown area suddenly swamped with military vehicles and personnel. Restaurants turning us away because they were hoarding supplies until distribution trucks would be allowed into the city again. The dozens and dozens of people buttonholing you in the week afterward, shoving a picture in your face and asking if you’d happened to see their loved one, who’d been missing since 9/11. Veteran newscasters breaking down on the air and crying.

As painful as those memories are, I hope I never lose them. More important, I hope the world forever remembers the tragedies, so it continuously strives to avert a repeat.

Thanks for letting me do my small part to keep those recollections.

No comments: