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My Day in NYC on 9/11

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This picture of my sister was taken a in August, just a few weeks before the tragedy. I’ve never written a word about 9-11, a single word.

So I did.

Virginia Willis

I remember that morning very plainly, that crisp, clear September morning. I was living in Jersey City and would take the PATH train into the city for work. Our street was clean and tidy, but the walk along the main street was cluttered and trashy. We didn’t live in a bad neighborhood; it was simply urban living. Sadly, somehow I have always constantly, somewhat obsessively wondered about the socio-economics of garbage. It used to drive me absolute mad, how much sheer waste people used to carelessly throw on the ground.

So, I walked that morning, not looking at the cotton-white clouds strewn across the brilliant blue sky, but at the litter on the sidewalk, the empty cans and bottles, the plastic bags whirling in the wind across the cement, the crumpled, greasy sacks of fast food, and the oily, iridescent psychedelic rainbows in the jagged potholes at every corner and crosswalk.

I remember walking mad.

Can you imagine? Walking mad? Letting filth, garbage, other peoples refuse distress me so? Why do I remember this?

It turns out that my irritation saved me from watching the first plane hit the first tower. I know this. I walked this walk every day most often looking skyward at those twin towers across the river directly in my sight. The papers, the news, the sources on the internet proclaimed the timing second by second, minute by minute in the days and weeks to come.

I didn’t see one of the most horrific things in history because I was looking down at garbage.

Often I would take the PATH to the WTC and then change twice to go uptown, but even though I was running late, I waited for the train to take me to 33rd street so I’d only have to make one change.

I’ve thought about that more than once in these past years, not taking the train to the WTC.

By the time I changed to the subway and exited the station the streets were buzzing with rumors, that a plane had hit the tower. I assumed it was a small plane, maybe a private jet. Once in the office it was clear something else was going on. Cell phones weren’t working and internet access was spotty. Someone said the mall was under attack in DC, then it was declared the pentagon was hit, the White House. I was the producer for Epicurious on the Discovery Channel hosted my chef Michael Lomonaco. We didn’t know where he was. I called my now-frantic family to let them know I was okay.

But, I was in Times Square and which didn’t feel very okay at all. If the US was under attack, Time Square could be next. We walked down the winding darkened stairwell, it wasn’t far and it wasn’t because we were in imminent danger. It somehow seemed like the sensible thing to do. I had no desire to be caught in an elevator.

The bridges and tunnels were closed. The subway wasn’t running. I had called a friend and she said to meet her at her apartment on the Lower East Side. Manhattan was under lock-down.

I knew I couldn’t get home.

So, I started walking southeast. People were huddled at cars with doors and windows open at street corners listening to the radio. The sound of sirens and the gnawing pull of fear were omnipresent. I saw only one act of vandalism, someone breaking into a pay phone. The concept of being in a lawless New York City was terrifying in and of itself.

At one point I could see the towers smoldering and smoking against the cerulean blue sky, and then at the next corner, when they would have been in sight again, they were gone. Just gone.

Soon I saw people walking covered in grey dust and soot. I kept walking south, then east. I finally arrived at Claire’s apartment on the Lower East Side. She wasn’t home, yet, so I waited. My cell couldn’t call out, but somehow my friend Faye was able to call me. She was my mouthpiece. She called my Mama to tell her I was okay.

Claire arrived. We watched the news all day, weeping, trying to keep the children occupied in the other room. We were in shock and disbelief.

Finally, at the end of the very long day, the news reported the PATH was reopened at 14th. I wanted to go home, I wanted to feel safe. Claire didn’t want me to leave.

I wanted to go home.

I started walking. I walked alone. The lack of sound was astonishing. It was like a movie set. New York City, but without the people.

No more sirens. No more noise. No one driving. No one honking. No one on the streets. The avenues were empty and desolate. The occasional car would pass armed with a bullhorn encouraging people to go give blood.

I walked North through Union Square where 2 candles already flickered, the beginning of the massive combination of shrine and wall of missing person posters that eventually established itself on that spot.

14th was closed, so I walked further to 23rd, also closed, so onward to 33rd.

Finally, success.

The cavernous station was packed. People were elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, but you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was muted in fear. We crossed under the river to Hoboken because my regular station was destroyed and closed. Standing on the platform as we pulled into the station, I saw evacuees from lower Manhattan, covered in soot and ash, now clothed in garbage bags.

Garbage bags.

Please note that this post may contain affiliate links. (That means I make a commission if you use my affiliate link to buy the product.)

Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has made chocolate chip cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, foraged for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and beguiled celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Bill Clinton, and Julie Chrisley with her cooking -- but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Virginia is a chef instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen and author of Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South, Lighten Up, Y’all, Bon Appétit, Y’all, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, Okra, and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Food Network's Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. She’s been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. The Chicago Tribune praised her as one of "Seven Food Writers You Need to Know." Her legion of fans loves her down-to-earth attitude and approachable spirit. Learn more about Virginia and follow her traveling exploits at www.virginiawillis.com.

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