That Sunny September Day …

Some people deal with stress, tragedy, heart-aches, loss of loved ones, job misery, etc. by not eating.

Not me. Food has always been on my mind. My dad even says, “Lis, you were born hungry!”

September 11, 2001 was probably the only day in my entire life I did not have food on the brain.

At all.

No, I didn’t lose anyone that I knew that day, but 9/11 hit me personally on several accounts. That morning, I was on a 6:00 a.m. N.Y.C.-bound Amtrak train from D.C. for a work event so I ended up in New York that day.

(I was a a grad student who has just begun an internship at the National Education Association two weeks prior, and our Read Across America kick-off and photo shoot with Garth Brooks was set for September 11 in NYC).

I fell asleep reading Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six (ironically about terrorism) in about Delaware or so, so I’d been asleep a while.

A little before 9 a.m. the conductor woke me (and others) up by yelling, “Oh my god, the World Trade Center is on fire!” I looked to my right and sure enough, there was the New York skyline I, being a Jersey girl, grew up with … but something was definitely wrong.

From our vantage point, the north tower looked as though a giant, gaping hole had been carved our of one side … or like a huge hunk of metal was hanging. We couldn’t tell from that far away.

On the train, it was chaos as people were craning their necks to get a look, saying they thought it was a small charter plane that had crashed (But why not into the river, I’d wondered). No one knew anything.

By the time we got to Penn Station, the second tower had been hit and America was officially under attack.

It’s a blur to me now, but my co-intern, Lian, and I somehow got in a cab and, not knowing what to do or where to go (all the streets were jammed with people and cars and taxis — sheer confusion, even in Midtown).

In the end, we headed to the First Amendment Center, where our event was to be held. We found our boss there, who was panicking (we were her brand-new interns and she felt responsible for us) and gave us the biggest hugs imaginable.

After we found our other co-workers (who were also headed to the same place), we managed to make phone calls to our families to tell them we were ok. As one would expect, cell reception was not good that day, if at all, and I got through a couple times.

My mom would fill me in on what her newscast was saying at the moment in each brief call before I lost service, “The first tower collapsed … Now a plane hit the Pentagon! There’s a loose plane flying over Pennsylvania … it’s been shot down!” (Which turned out not to be the case, depending on whose conspiracy theories you believe).

Then, with only the Internet and TV news telling us what was happening just a couple blocks away, we were all forced into the basement with the other First Amendment staff while the world around us — literally and figuratively — collapsed.

My friends in DC knew I was in NYC that day … and my friends at home in NJ thought I was in DC, since that’s where I lived. They didn’t know I was coming up for a work event, so there were many concerned voice mails and e-mails I got later that day. And my husband (then-boyfriend) was living in El Salvador, and couldn’t get through to my phone. Fortunately, my mom was able to e-mail him to tell him I was ok.

We stayed there in the basement for about five or six hours, I guess … just huddled together, watching, waiting, checking e-mail and assuring those who were concerned that we were indeed “ok” — shaken up, but as “ok” as we could be.

No one knew what was next, or what to expect. Then, because NYC was on city-wide lockdown and no one could come or go, when it was deemed “safe” the whole group moved to the hotel we’d been planning on staying at, the Kimberly.

We sat around, each just lost in his or her own thoughts, talking on occasion but mostly silent. How could anyone really make small talk?

Around eight o’clock, the then-president of the NEA, Bob Chase (whom I adore –we actually met that day for the first time), suggested we go try to find food, if anything was open. No one wanted to eat, none of us were hungry and it felt wrong to even be at a restaurant … but we couldn’t stay holed up in the hotel forever.

The guiltier we felt, the more we talked, trying to come to grips with the grim reality before us. We ate at a cute little Italian place which was (no surprise) empty, and we sat outside, café-style. Rounds of drinks were ordered, and glasses were emptied-emptied only to be refilled.

Alcohol and nibbles of pasta filled our bellies, seeking (unsuccessfully) to numb us even more. Dessert was followed by cognac.

Conversation flowed, and halted—halted as we realized our surroundings, and continued as we realized once again, how lucky we all were to be ok, and realizing just how many weren’t so lucky — who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. No one knew the exact death toll estimates than, but it looked grim even then.

Yes, we “ate” but I don’t know if I truly swallowed anything but fear and sadness that night.

When we got back to the hotel, I needed to write, and needed to do it badly. Writing has always been my form of therapy, and it helps me come to decisions on my own, something not easily done.

Having only anticipated a quick day-trip to NYC for this event, I had dismissed Lian’s idea of bringing a change of clothes, and therefore had nothing, much less my journal, which typically accompanies me everywhere.

I grabbed a pen and paper from the hotel nightstand and got to work—scribbled for nearly an hour until my hand hurt and my eyes were blurring together.

After I was done, I desperately needed air. So I stepped out to the balcony, joining the others, and noticed how deserted the streets of New York were. Occasionally, an emergency vehicle would pass, alarming all of us as to what its mission might be, but there were no people, and no taxis.

I’ve only seen New York empty one other time: Christmas Eve 1998, two a.m., Times Square. A friend and I went for drinks atop the View (at the Marriott) and decided to wander around Times Square, and were shocked to discover we were the only two people there.

On September 11, it was downright eerie.

The next day, we were able to leave the city on a train (with nary a security check, which freaked most of us out), only to head back to Washington: another hellpit of destruction and devastation, another victim of the terrorists’ sickening plot.

As the train made its way from Manhattan to New Jersey, the New York skyline that had been so familiar to me all my life was swathed in a thick, smoky haze that would last for days, if not weeks.

Staring at the eerie black cloud over Lower Manhattan, I knew then that things as we knew them would never be the same.

I don’t think anyone will ever forget that sunny September day in New York. Or Washington. Or Pennsylvania. Or anywhere, really.

Whether you were there or not, it left a collective, indelible mark on America as a whole. And seven years later, I can’t watch a program about 9/11 or read a story about it without my eyes welling up.

Today, like that chilly, bright blue-skied September day … food issues are the very least of my concerns. I just want to sit with it, remember it, feel it.

And remember how lucky and blessed I truly am.

How about you? How did 9/11 change you? Do you have a story you’d like to share today? And when it comes to stress and food, do you react usually by eating or not eating?


19 thoughts on “That Sunny September Day …

  1. I remember wishing I could keep my son inside and protect him forever. I was 8 1/2 months pregnant and was suddenly afraid to bring him into such a uncertain and scary world. I don’t remember thinking of food that day other than the fact we went grocery shopping out of fear that food wood be scarce if more tradgedy was on the brink or power outages, etc. I didn’t have baby formula, diapers, etc.

    Each time I’m stressed I think I handle it differently. Sometimes I drink, sometimes I eat something to comfort me and sometimes I starve. I have yet to determine why I handle stress in different ways.

    God Bless America and all the family still healing from this tradgedy.

  2. Wow….it gave me goosebumps to read your account of that day. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    I watched it all unravel on a television screen that day from Indiana (I was in college, but classes were cancelled), and I cannot imagine having been there to witness it all first hand. I will never forget the fear, the sheer terror of that day. Never. And I guess I hope we never do. I, like so many people, realized that day how incredibly blessed and fortunate I was. And it also opened my eyes to see that, unfortunately, we aren’t as safe as we often think.

    My eating is definitely affected by stress. I’ve found that when I’m incredibly stressed about something significant and major (like 9/11, a break-up, a death, a fight, etc.), I cannot physically eat. However, with day-to-day stresses (work, getting things done, etc.) I eat a LOT more. I wish I could change it, but old habits die hard. 🙂

  3. Wow-your story is amazing. I can’t even imagine being in NYC that day. I was in 8th grade-and sitting in social studies class when the news first hit. I remember sports being cancelled and everyone was told to go home right after school was out.

    I don’t remember my thoughts about food from that day. But now as an adult I know I eat out of stress far too often. Sometimes I don’t even quite realize that stress or anxiety (thank you genetics!) is the reason I’m eating. The smallest stressor can make me want to eat…but it’s something I’m working on!

    Old Habits do die hard!

  4. Thank you for your touching recount of that day and how it affected you… I sit here with tears pouring down my face, remembering the horror I felt that day as I received a call from my bf and heard the words, “America is under attack”. I stumbled to the tv in my sleepy stupor and turned it on…. to see the horror that it was…. it was an awful day, a horrible day…. a horrible week… month…. year….. it seemed to last for forever, didn’t it? It seemed to take so long to find people…. it truly was a horror and I remember it today and remember those who were lost and how unfair it was that they lost their lives…. and I remember those who lost people and my heart breaks for them, for what they’ve gone through and for what they go through every day and every year when this day comes.

  5. Thanks for sharing, simillar to Bonnie, I was not pregnant but my husband I am were trying to have a baby. I was telling my friend who lived in NY a couple weeks later that I wasn’t sure I wanted to have a child and bring them into this world. She told me if I could see the kindness unfolding, the true spririt of people helping people in NY that I would think differently. It really changed everyone and I think made people more compassionate. My daughter will be 6 years old.

  6. I usually deal with stress by reaching for chocolate (if I’m home) or a dirty martini (if I’m out)…but after reading your account of 9/11 and watching it today on the news, that suddenly seems so trivial…actually any of my food/body image issues seem totally insignificant and rather self-absorbed.
    Thanks so much for sharing…

  7. Of course, that in such situations, we have better things to think of than body issues or food…
    Even if we’re stressed, food won’t solve this anxiety and we know it. The question is why in some other stressful situations, food becomes the solution ? :S

  8. Thanks, everyone, for your insightful posts. No matter how we handle stress, a day like today is certainly one for remembrance and compassion.

    I think you’re so right, Ginette … it did make people more compassionate.

    Nikita, so true. Food doesn’t solve anxiety, but sometimes it’s easier to cope with than others.

  9. I remember watching in horror the story unfold on GMA, as the realization hit me that you were on your way to New York. I remember praying that you were on a later train and would know by then NOT to go into the city. Then the sheer joy of hearing that you were alright, but the utter frustration of not being able to get you because of the lock down. Your friends calling me to find out if you were safe in DC and me telling them that you weren’t there, but in New York……..

  10. Thanks, “Sue” (MOM!) I know … I remember those phone calls and the sheer terror in everyone’s voices, and I remember Dad wanting me to walk Jersey before he realized we were all on lockdown! That was quite the experience.

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