I never felt more American than I did during the weeks after 9/11.
It wasn't uncommon for someone to just start crying on the subway (ok that person was often me) but rather than look away, a lady next would gently squeeze a shoulder and the gentleman seated nearby would nod his head in solidarity.
Living through 9/11 in New York City so shortly after I moved there was like being at a friend's house during a family crisis. I was horrified, felt completely out of place and wanted to do anything I could possibly do to help the many grieving people in the city and the tri-state area.
I had no idea how to provide comfort to the many people in mourning and in shock. I still didn't know how to order a bagel on a Sunday morning without irritating the entire line behind me. I was still a rookie west coaster installing my first air conditioner from PC Richards. I was still so new I got Penn Station and Port Authority mixed up.
All I could think about was how many people didn't come home. I was haunted by that. Imagining them getting ready for their work day, deciding what to wear, taking the train or driving in, thinking it was a regular day. Saying hello to a friend on the elevator and riding all the way up to their office never once thinking that day would be different than any other.
And never going home.
Early on Sept 12, I started calling as many organizations and agencies as I could to find so that I could volunteer. I'd worked a couple of culinary gigs that summer but didn't have anything lined up for that month.
I schlepped to an office to fill out an application, hoping that would set me apart from the callers. They reached out the next day because I wrote down "cooking experience."
They sent me to a restaurant on Varick Street which was close to Ground Zero. They needed help in the kitchen to feed the rescue workers.
Relieved to be of service, I headed into the chaotic restaurant, filled with so many people, a lot of cops, Red Cross volunteers, some firemen. I couldn't tell who was in charge in the kitchen so I just grabbed a box of potatoes and started peeling.
Kitchens always need peeled potatoes.
By the end of my shift, I had organized the volunteers into different stations (I know, I know, my gift is being a bossy pants) and made plans to come back the next day. I came back again. And again. Probably because of my organizational skills, I got talked into starting my shift at 4am (maybe my friends remember this better than me) so that I could accept the truck deliveries and help sort the donated goods. Soon after that, I ended up in the office helping run the organization.
So much food. People from all over the country wanting to help.
Tyson chicken donated so much. Just days after the tragedy, there were rumors of southerners driving their large smokers and barbecue (like *real* barbecues) up from Texas. The rumors ended up being true and there were Southern Style Barbecued Ribs being devoured on Canal Street in New York City.
Raw ingredients, Girl Scout cookies, tons of Boar's Head meat and cheese, gd how do I remember this.
The city and country were in mourning.
Together. When someone is hurting, we want to feed them.
The man who owned the restaurant was named Nino. He was...let's say temperamental!? He was first generation Italian. He was the kind of guy that could gently usher his elderly Italian Mother out of his town car while screaming at a tenant on the phone at the same time.
I could tell all kinds of stories about Nino but in the end, he did something that nobody else would do. He stuck it out for months.
He kept his restaurant open for ten months feeding anyone involved with Ground Zero for free.
I worked with this amazing group of mostly women - there was the GM who was also always screaming but I'm spacing on his name. In a matter of weeks, we established a not-for-profit which would go on to raise two million in cash and product over those ten months.
Nino ended up on Rosie O'Donnell's show, O'Reilly Factor, and local news. We got $5.00 checks from little old ladies in Florida and kids sending Captain Underpants drawings. If we'd had smartphones then and I had footage of us opening these letters, and packages, and gifts to the rescue workers to share with everyone now....
It was one of the most intense experiences of my life. And I rarely talk about it.
I always feel weird about sharing anything related to 9/11 because I never wanted to do anything that isn't honoring the memory of the thousands of people that lost their lives. And the loved ones they left behind. In so many ways, it's not my story to tell.
But somehow I ended up being in the position to help with the aftermath and bear witness to the outpouring of love from all over the country. All over the world! I got to work with these extraordinary people under extraordinary circumstances during a moment in history that has and always will be unforgettable.
We've seen the worst of humanity in our country these past months.
After 9/11, we witnessed the best of humanity. The art that people left around the city downtown. The people that drove for days to bring home-cooked meals. The hugs. The camaraderie.
This great nation. That is capable of so much good. If only we weren't watching all the ugliness being shared on the Internet. If only the mainstream media chose to share the beautiful stories happening around the country too.
Nino's story resonated with people all over America because they needed him and his restaurant to believe. To believe we could make a difference for a city in mourning.
To believe that we would make it through the worst tragedy of our times.
And we did. The city took a long time to heal. And it wouldn't ever be the same for so many families and so many companies and too many people.
The scars will always be there, faded and rough underneath the paved sidewalks.
But they'd be there.
We went through hell. And we made it through.
I've been through hell. And I've made it through.
Our country is going through hell. And we will make it through.
If there is one thing I can share from all my crazy experiences after 9/11 and through my cancer stuff, it's this:
Healing is always possible.
Healing is always possible.
Healing is always possible.
Even when it feels impossible.
WE CAN FIX THIS MESS, my friends.
I know we can.
I believe in us.
I really do.
RIP Debbie Fink Green 1972-2015 We miss you
PHOTO #15. This post is part of a series celebrating my life before I lost four organs to three cancers in 2014. It is an “online memorial” honoring the person I was, in the hopes that I can make peace with the disabled person I’ve become. Every day for 30 days until my birthday, I will challenge myself to write a post inspired by the photo I’m sharing. I will not plan the topic or write ahead of time. I will merely look at the photo and write whatever it inspires. Thanks for reading! #julesfor30 #happyrebirth