An OLD YORKSHIREMAN IN NEW YORK. (8) 911 Disbelief and hope at Life Cafe

It’s a stormy day outside, today Friday September 11, 2009, the clock minute hand has just passed through 8:46 am.

Eight years now have passed since the world stood still in horror and disbelief at what hatred could do.
We heard on the radio early this morning how people are gathering once again at Ground Zero, only this time they cannot get down into the pit- where the foundations of the two great towers stood, because the space is filled in now with construction as the new towers emerge from the tainted yet sanctified ground.
The rain is pouring and the wind is roaring in from the sea, it feels as though the sky is sharing the tears for those who died that day, leaving a legacy of sadness that won’t go away.

Eight years ago, Kathy, my wife to be, was in bed in Brooklyn over the East River. She’d been working yet another late night shift at Life Café, her place in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her radio alarm buzzed and turned on the radio, the morning news was, the time was 8:45. The first plane hit one minute later.

She and others from her building stood on top of their building, where they like tens of thousands all over the city, watched unbelieving as the Lower Manhattan sky filled with white smoke. And then all hell broke loose. Manhattan was virtually sealed off from the outside world.

Next day she was determined that the café should open, even though she wasn’t sure if there would be any customers or if she’d would be able to get there.
What follows is her account of those two days, (taken from her forthcoming book ‘How Life Began’);

-My radio alarm went off at 8:45 am and CBS News came on. I always check the weather at the beginning of each day because weather has an impact on business. Good weather means good business for the day. Before the weather came the Traffic Report.
“Things are moving well at the Holland Tunnel, only a 15 minutes way. At the Lincoln, there’s . . . . hold on, there seems to be, I’m getting a report that there’s smoke coming from one of the World Trade Towers, I can’t tell yet, seems it was hit by a small passenger plane but ….”
There was something in his voice that alarmed me. You don’t hear things like that on the news, never, ever. I ran into the living room and turned on the TV, something I never do during the day. It was true. They were showing scenes live from the World Trade Center and it was unbelievable. From that moment on I couldn’t take my eyes from the TV. And as the world knows, the news got worse and worse.
My neighbors, David, a young architect and his beautiful girlfriend, excitedly knocked on my door. She was frantic. We went up on the roof where we could clearly see the Towers in the magnificent clear early September sky. I’d run down to my apartment every 15 minutes or so to get an update on the TV news. We were watching stunned when we saw a lot of white smoke. We waited a moment. “The building’s disappeared,” I told David. “No, can’t be.” “Look, see where there’s a gap in the smoke, there’s nothing there now.” It was a horrible day, a nightmare for the city.
I kept trying to call the café but the line was busy. I tried calling my family and couldn’t get through to anybody. My cell service was constantly busy. I was getting angry that no one was calling to see if I was OK. Then I finally got a call on the land-line from my nephew in New Hampshire.
“Kathy, this is Chip. Are you alright?”
“Alright? Yes, I’m alright, I guess. I’m shook up. Yes, I’m home, I’ve been watching it all unfold on TV and on the roof. Why hasn’t anyone called me?! I was frantic…..”
“No one could get through. The phones are overloaded. But I finally got through just now. I’ll call everyone and tell them you’re OK. I’m really glad. We were all so worried.” He said.

It was a relief to hear from him. I could always count on Chip. I continued trying to get through to anyone, my staff, family and friends. Finally, my manager, David, got through to my land line.
“Kathy, you OK? All the phones are down, or impossible to get through.”
“Yes, yes. What’s going on at the café?”
“No one can get into the city. All the subways have been suspended. The police and military are setting up blockades everywhere. They’re watching out for more attacks. The café’s closed right now. What do you want to do?”
“We must open tomorrow.” I said,” I can’t get through to anyone on my landline or cell. See who you can get in to cook and work the floor. I’ll get there somehow.”
“OK, I’ll get to work on it.”

I don’t remember how exaactly I made it in, but I must have taken the L train. It runs east and west from 8th Avenue in Manhattan to Canarsie on the south end of Brooklyn. There wouldn’t be any need to shut down that route since it didn’t go through downtown Manhattan. And the rescue workers had to have some means of transportation open for help and supplies.

It was strange sitting on the subway, everyone was dumb-struck and numb. There was a sense, in such an everyday setting of a sub-way car, of unreality, like we’d all had the same bad dream, but it was just a dream and it would clear from our heads when we went up to the street, it had to be a nightmare it couldn’t be real.
But it didn’t disappear when we reached the surface. I walked up out of the 1st Avenue station at 14th Street into another brilliant, clear day like the one before and was shocked by what I witnessed.So much was the same but somehow everything had changed and there was a strange smell in the air.

Armed men dressed in uniforms guarded every street that ran into 14th Street. No one was allowed south of 14th Street unless you could show you belonged there. I stared at their weapons, they were so real, it brought it all home we had been attacked, might still be. I felt the strangeness of this happening in my neighborhood, the place where I’d lived and worked for so many years.
Our world had been assaulted and was shaken to the quick. There was shock, confusion, disbelief and dismay on the faces of everyone in the streets. Made all the more weird because the City, like the huge living organism it is, wanted to wake up and get on with its’ irrepressible daily life.

Our neighborhood and all the others in the City had been turned upside down by an event that had worldwide impact. Only this time we were the victims of an attack, that was so much of the shock, the unbelievable had happened. We’d thought we were impregnable but discovered through this gross and shocking act that we weren’t, and could never would be again.

The monstrosity of the scene overcame me and I began to cry as I walked with numb legs, it was like we’d all been raped.

I got my composure back, and focused. I had a mission to get to Life Café and see to things there, get the place open. We had to be there for our own traumatized community.
To get South of 14th I had to show the soldiers my driver’s license. They let me through. As I walked I was thinking how would I get my supplies delivered if they weren’t letting any vehicle past 14th? How were the vendors servicing the thousands of businesses going to get badly needed supplies to their customers and thus to New York City residents?

I walked the 4 blocks to 10th Street and Avenue B, relieved to find a skeleton crew who had managed to make it in. They were motivated and ready to work. Most others on my staff couldn’t get in due to transportation disruptions; many of them lived way up in the Bronx and upper Queens. They tried to make it in, but their usual 1-1/2 hour commute was going to take four hours.

Never mind we’d manage somehow, I hopped behind the bar and began setting up for service as quickly as I could; I didn’t usually work the bar, so I didn’t have a rhythm or system to set up, but I did my best, which was fine. Richard was the only server who was able to make it; he lived just a couple of blocks away. He had a tendency to see the negative side of things. And he was as stunned as everyone else over the attack.
“Kathy, I, ah, I just don’t know if this is the right thing to do. I mean, do you think we should be conducting business when this horrible thing is going on?”
“Richard, that’s exactly why we must be open. We all have to help, and by being open we’ll be ready to be of service in any way we can. I don’t know how that’ll be or what’s going to happen. I don’t know what people will need from us. But we have to be here and we have to be ready and available to help in any way we can.”
With a doubtful nod of his head, Richard glumly accepted my explanation and went about his normal opening duties and set up the dining room for service.
I envisioned passing out coffee and sandwiches to emergency workers or injured people, or . . . I didn’t know but I felt we had to be there for the neighborhood. It was silly to think there’d be emergency workers that far north in as much as the World Trade Center was about 2-1/2 miles away.
But seeing we were open, then it began.

People started coming in, more and more, all day long in a steady stream, and they all had the same look on their faces. They sat, ordered food, drink, made phone call after phone call and met others coming in. The place was packed and filled with a great intensity.

It was all Richard and I could do to keep up. We just focused and ran and ran. People came up to me throughout the day, so many of them had the same thing to say, “Thank you, thank you so much for opening today, for being here. I just couldn’t sit alone in my apartment when I’m so worried about my friend. We couldn’t reach one another and she knew to come here to look for me.”

I hadn’t expected that. Most of the normal lines of communication were down so people were instinctively drawn to the café, in hope of connecting with friends and family or just to talk to someone. I was so happy that we were able after all, to do our part in this horrid episode of our City’s history.
“See, Richard. It was worth it after all, wasn’t it?” I said to him later in the day, He just smiled and nodded. He was a good server and found his rhythm and his distraction in service that day. Being front and center in it he experienced first-hand how important a workday this was for all of us. We didn’t have any time to worry about ourselves, or how we were going to make it through.

For the next week we walked a hand truck up Avenue B to 14th Street where our vendors patiently waited for us to haul cases and sacks of food back and forth to the Café.
For the next two weeks, as I walked the streets I watched in astonishment how strangers treated one another with open kindness and empathy. We New Yorkers dropped the usual armor we wore on the street. For once people looked into one another’s eyes and found communion there.

I watched tough young street savvy Lower East Side Puerto Rican men become soft as they discovered opportunities to do a good deed. I saw it in the crowds of people waiting at bus stops, getting on and off the busses. Men and women alike assisted one another, offered seats and help and said “please and thank you” with honest gratitude in their eyes and voices.

We all felt a great need to be kind to one another, each and every one of us so injured. It was spontaneous thing and it was viral. I felt I was floating in a bubble of love. A deep sense of our common humanity wove us together. New Yorkers became one for a brief time.

I shall never forget those days and wished it could last forever in this city which can be so unforgiving and brutal. The response of New Yorkers was an amazing silver lining in a vile act of violence against all humanity.

An OLD YORKSHIREMAN IN NEW YORK. (8) 911 Disbelief and hope at Life Cafe

John Sunderland

New York, United States

  • Artist

Artist's Description

A brief account of 9/11 and 9/12 seen through the eyes of the owner of
Life Cafe, New York.

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