November 18, 2018

Bagels and Lox and September 11

As an American chef in a foreign service post, I feel that part of my job description is to make fellow expats feel as if, albeit briefly, they are at home. I do this by paying special attention to the times of the year people might feel nostalgic for a food they miss when they’re not in the United States, such as Halloween or Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or Valentine’s Day. I even pretend it’s fall by whipping out the pumpkin spice lattes and honeyed apple cakes, even though in East Africa, the seasons alternate only between wet and dry.

In spite of this, somehow, September always manages to sneak up on me. I suspect it sneaks up on many people for various reasons — the beginning of the school year, cooking for the Jewish holidays and, for me, I can’t help but think about what I was doing in New York City, on an infamous Sept. 11.

Truth be told, I never much liked New York’s twin skyscrapers. I would jog past them in the mornings a few times a week and they were always my cue to turn around and go home, shower, go to work. But not that morning. That morning I had overslept.

I was cursing my laziness and lamenting my dried-up tube of mascara when a sonic boom-like noise shook my 11th-floor apartment. Whoa! I turned on Howard Stern and made coffee. “What was that?” Stern asked. “We are getting reports that a small prop plane flew into one of the towers,” said his sidekick Robin Givens. 

As an only child, my ingrained responsibility kicks in. My parents — they’re vacationing in Italy. They will flip out if they see something happened here. Dial the number, calm as can be. It’s only a prop plane, no big deal, but that was a really loud boom. Do I smell smoke? Dial the phone, wait for the Italian ringtone. Smile. Think of Italy. “Mom?” “Hi, baby, you won’t believe where we are. We are in Ravello. Here talk to your aunt; we are in the most beautiful place. …”

“Mom! Listen to me!” I’m yelling. “Something has happened here. I don’t know what it is, and they say it was a small prop plane but my whole building shook. I think something bad is happening. Anyway, I’m fine. Just don’t worry. I’m OK.”

I’m babbling. Phone goes dead. Uh oh. Good thing I called. Call my friends, one after another. Phone dies again. Forgot about my cellphone. Dial out, no tone, nothing but a dead phone line. Breathe, don’t panic.

Stern and Givens are still chatting calmly. Wait, another report has come in: a plane hijacked in Pennsylvania? Biochemical weapons a possibility?

Warrior mode kicks in. Go, go, go, get out of the building. See what is happening. Is this a joke? The building shook. Something must have happened.

Go downstairs, out onto Fifth Avenue. It’s such a beautiful day. The sky is so blue. The Washington Square Arch looms over me. Ask the doormen, “Do you know what happened? Where is everyone? Do you smell smoke?” No reply, just panic-stricken looks on shell-shocked faces. 

“Warrior mode kicks in. Go, go, go, get out of the building. See what is happening. Is this a joke? The building shook. Something must have happened.”

Don’t have time for this. Need information. Run back to the elevator, press the “Penthouse” button. There are windows in the hallways on that floor. Meet some neighbors. “Do you guys know what happened? Wow, this view is something from up here.” They are silent. Watching the towers through the big windows. Smoke is coming out of one of the towers.

“Hey, don’t you work at The New York Times?” a guy asks. “Yes, I do,” I tell him as I remember I’m supposed to be at work right now. I borrow a cellphone and dial one of my co-workers. “What is going on?” I hear frantic newsroom activity on the other end, then the call drops. “The call dropped.” I dial again and the phone rings and rings. “May I use your phone to call a friend?” I ask.

Before I can make the call, I see a plane on the horizon. It looks like a jet. “Isn’t that plane flying too low?” I ask my neighbors. “It’s so close, why is it flying so low?” Silence. More neighbors gather. “Why is that plane flying so low?” No panic, just wondering. The plane looks like a little toy plane.

Gasps come from shocked mouths including mine. Plane flies into the second tower in a burst of flames. Clouds of flames. Gasps. It’s like a disaster film. “Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod!” I hear my neighbors say. “This can’t be happening. This isn’t happening. Tower crumbles like a set of dominoes.

Now I smell smoke. It’s so close. Tears start flowing from neighbors. I’m calm. “I think we should all figure out what to do and stop watching this,” I say finally. Silence, tears, gasps, curses. I say, “Goodbye and be safe” to my neighbors, and run down ro my apartment, which is foggy with smoke. 

Involuntary trembling as I grab my cellphone, I call my friend. I get through on the first try. “Come down here. I don’t want you to be alone.” “But why?” she asks, “You are right there.” It’s illogical but I want her to come downtown, perhaps to confirm that what I am seeing is real. “Please come. Come fast, take a taxi and just come, OK?” “OK,” she says finally. “I’ll come down.”

Run down the 11 flights of stairs to the lobby. Wait outside. Smoke, ashes, people running. So much smoke. I’m choking. Where are the towers? They are usually right there. You watched one fall remember? 

“So, how do I mark Sept. 11 for my fellow ex-pats? What else — the quintessential New York homage: a bagel with lox and a schmear. It reminds me of that beautiful morning right before our city changed forever.”

Finally, through the smoke and thick snowy ash, I see my friend. It’s her birthday, I remember. She looks like an athletic soldier running in a war film. “Happy birthday,” I say to her, feeling her heart pound in her chest against mine. “Are you OK? You picked some day to be born.” Her heart is beating so fast I think she may faint and take me down into the ashes with her.

I often think that perhaps if more people had seen what I saw that day, and the days and the months and year that followed, that there would be not a shred of a doubt in anyone’s mind what this country is made of — because in spite of the fact that our nation was attacked in an unforeseeable, unprecedented and unimaginable way, what is most permanently etched onto my consciousness from that time is the caring, the generosity, the pulling together and the sacrifices that were made by so many Americans. 

So, how do I mark Sept. 11 for my fellow ex-pats?

What else — the quintessential New York homage: a bagel with lox and a schmear. It reminds me of that beautiful morning right before our city changed forever, when the sky was crystal blue, sharp and clean. I didn’t much like those buildings back then — not until I watched them collapse out of the clear sky and then watched the city somehow regroup and our nation rebuild.

That’s New York and that’s America. Let’s not forget it for a moment.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda.