The First Thing I Ate After 9/11

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On September 12, 2001, I had a BLT. I traveled to the Upper East Side, on foot, to reunite with my city family — my best friend from high school and some people with whom I’ve since lost touch, for brunch at a diner. The sidewalks were filled with people wandering aimlessly, not knowing what to do. We’d exchange hugs as we ran into friends, ex-boyfriends, former college classmates, people we'd gone on one blind date with, and even strangers. It was good to learn they were safe. There was no Facebook or Twitter to alert your followers that you had been a good distance from the destruction — or that you had not been flying to L.A., as I often did for my job in television. I had, however, just flown. It was a return trip from France, a trip I had gifted myself for my 30th birthday — cycling and wine tasting through Provence sandwiched by a few days of eating my way around Paris, where I tasted my first-ever macaron at Ladurée. Little did I know that the high from my vacation would be washed away in a matter of 36 hours.

I landed at JFK late on Sunday the 9th, and the next couple of days, I woke up early due to jet lag. On Tuesday, September 11, rather than get to the office an hour early as I had done the day before, I decided to finish unpacking and get my life organized. At about 8:40 a.m., I shut off the TV after my morning ritual of coffee and “weather on the ones” and brought some clothes to the cleaners on my way to the subway. When I crossed back over 3rd Avenue, smoke formed an arch blocking the skyline of lower Manhattan. My first thought was, Something is on fire down there, but I didn’t think much more of it.

By the time I got to my subway station, I could see people crowded on each corner, craning their necks. The smoke was growing. I got to the top of the stairs before I decided that whatever was happening, I didn’t want to get stuck underground. I went back out and hailed a cab.

There was no touch-screen Taxi TV like today, and my mobile phone screen showed one color — black. There were no notifications from the Associated Press or New York Times, no apps, no one to text. We had barely heard of SMS. I asked the cabbie to turn on the AM radio, but it was just some news on the upcoming mayoral election. We sat in silence and as he turned a corner, I saw the billowing smoke from the buildings burning downtown. By then, the second plane had struck.

The endless number of TVs that lined our work hallways were usually tuned to our morning block of children’s programming; that morning, instead, they showed live coverage of the attack. Helicopter shots from above and reporters with their sleeves rolled up headed closer to the World Trade Center. Yet still, no one knew exactly was happening. I ran to the conference room to get a glimpse of the towers. When I saw them, my breath was immediately taken away by one thought: These buildings will not hold.

I went back to my cube and called my parents, who tried to calm me down, but then my coworker’s mother called from D.C. She worked at the Pentagon; they had been hit. Gasps and cries broke out, and the news confirmed the third plane’s fall in Washington. I marched to my boss’s office and insisted we go somewhere, as a unit, far from Times Square. We spent the rest of the day wondering and wandering. Cell phone networks were jammed, it was almost impossible to reach anyone. As I walked around aimlessly, I saw a few tourists who appeared to be completely oblivious to what was happening, entering the pathways of Central Park on a perfect September day in New York. I wanted to be a part of their bubble.

My feet hurt from walking, and I waited on a long line to catch the next bus back home. No Metrocard required — passengers were given free rides. I rode shoulder-to-shoulder with the other passengers, all of us staring blankly, surely trying to process the horrifying events that had occurred that day. No one spoke. That night, I went to a bar with friends and we watched George W. Bush address the country from the White House. When he signed off, the bar-goers chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A!” I went home without an appetite.

It was a day when I needed comfort the most.

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A diner BLT the next day, September 12, was the first thing I had eaten in 24 hours. The knots in my stomach subsided, and the craving for comfort food kicked in. As I ate my BLT, I wondered about the craving. I realized that this sandwich was the Saturday special in my household when I was growing up. It was the sandwich that my mother served alongside a frothy, thick milkshake made with Schraft’s chocolate ice cream. I’d wait in front of a woven placemat at the sunny kitchen table overlooking the backyard, with my terrier patiently sitting beside my foot. Eating a BLT made me feel safe and protected, like I was in my childhood home — all feelings I desperately wanted to feel again after 9/11.

The diner provided an unadulterated, homemade version I craved. It was nothing fancy — just simple bacon, iceberg lettuce, and tomato on Pepperidge Farm white bread, toasted until golden on both sides, the bacon glistening with bubbles from being hot off the grill. I took a bite. And another. Then, I downed a milkshake. If I conversed at all with the other diner patrons, I don’t remember it. After the BLT, I felt a little more like myself.

That day added new meaning to this sandwich. It was a day when I needed comfort the most. That same sandwich used to help distract me after a scrape or bruise. This time, I called upon the BLT to help with a much deeper wound: to help mend my broken heart for the city I loved, to cope with the fact that life as we knew it would be permanently changed, and to make sense of it all. Today, I’ll have a BLT and be reminded of the day that changed all of our lives forever. I'll remember those who suffered great loss and remind myself of the fact that sometimes, there is nothing to do but be sad, mourn, and turn to comfort food to remind you of a simpler time.
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