I had a wedding to cater in October of 2001.
I assumed like most celebrations planned in the early fall of 2001 in New York City, they might cancel or postpone.
Who wanted to celebrate anything after that terrible morning on September 11th?
The wedding I was supposed to cater at The Seaman’s Church in South Street Seaport in September was canceled. There was no running water or electricity, and 50 firefighters were sleeping on the dance floor every night.
Billy and Dominic, the tough but sweet security guards at Seaman’s whom I’d come to adore over the many weddings I’d catered there, had helped to start a ragtag relief effort at the Seaman’s Church and at St. Paul’s Church at Ground Zero.
Officials were apprehensive about letting in more civilians, but once Dom told them I was a chef, they handed me an ID and a bright yellow hard hat and had me hop a pick-up truck to Ground Zero. This was September 16th, 2001. I quickly lost my identity as Rossi the caterer and became the hamburger mama of Ground Zero.
These days, I walk by construction sites all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. It seems like all the little pre-war buildings are being torn down to make room for glass skyscrapers. Soon New York City will be all glass, a million mirrors and no soul. The really big sites, like the Hudson Yards, take me back 14 years in one instant. All the dug out earth transports me to the collapsed towers at Ground Zero.
It was only recently that I brought myself to open the chest I keep by my bed, dig under my mother’s college graduation cap and the pajama top that I swear still smelled like her 6 years after she died on, yes, a September night. Underneath Mom’s protective shield, I have my 9/11 box. It is filled with photos I took from my roof of the towers burning, then collapsed, then the huge smoke clouds that lingered like death for days and left their smell for weeks. That strange construction smell, with a hint of something oddly sweet and burned. I’ve always thought the sweet was from the souls who were taken that terrible morning.
I think of the scream, not the jubilant screams from my roof less a year before on midnight of New Year’s Eve 2000, when we all got to move into a new century, but the scream that started when the impossible happened. When the first tower simply collapsed in front of us into a sea of silver cards and smoke. Everyone was screaming from the roofs, from the fire escapes, from the streets, from our televisions. Some sort of strange noise came out of my throat, a vibration … the word NO inside a tunnel that I have never felt before or after. NOOOOOOOOOO. NOOOOO!
I realize now that after the first tower collapsed, wide-eyed and talking like I was on helium, I was in shock. We all were. It doesn’t seem as though anything shocked me after the first tower collapsed – not the second tower collapsing, not the strange, sweet smell, not the fighter jets buzzing overhead, not the mothers pushing their babies around wearing ventilation masks in my neighborhood. Even when I pushed a wheelbarrow filled with ice and Gatorade to the firefighter tent, so close to “The Pile” (the steaming shards of metal and wreckage that were all that was left of the towers) that I could feel the heat on my face from the still smoldering ruin, even watching those firefighters crawl into the wreckage risking burns and death to look for survivors, even then, nothing else shocked me.
I am not sure when the shock of the first tower collapsing wore off. I am not sure it ever did.
I wasn’t shocked but I was surprised when the bride and groom of the wedding I was to cater in October 2001 called to say their wedding would go on. The groom, a talented Jewish artist with a zest for life, had consulted the Talmud and looked up this ancient rule: “When a funeral procession and a wedding procession meet at an intersection, the wedding procession has the right of way.”
He decided to embrace life, love and new beginnings.
Their wedding, just a month or so after that terrible day, was filled with people so happy to have something to celebrate. The air was electric. Never have I seen so much joyful abandon on a dance floor.
Every year on September 11th, I stop and listen to the names on the television and wait for the eerie twin lights at night. And every year, I wonder when will we reclaim this date. Should we reclaim this date?
There are people walking around me every day, young people who were not born when 9/11 happened. There are thousands and thousands of people living in New York City who came here after 9/11. There is a Freedom Tower in the skyline where the towers used to be.
The wound is no longer fresh, the scars have turned from pink to gray, and the world is climbing up all around that terrible morning.
I have allowed myself to say things again like, “What a beautiful day,” on mornings in September without fear of jinxing us.
I’m a nervous driver, and living in Manhattan, I’m always out of practice. My girlfriend tries to be supportive, but sometimes has to let loose.
“Go! GO! You have the right of way!”
“When a funeral procession and a wedding procession meet at an intersection, the wedding procession has the right of way.”
Sometimes, having the right of way isn’t enough, but I’m getting there. Little by little.