I poured myself a bourbon last night. Got into the good stuff, even - a 15-year-old Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve I'd been doling out in small drams for the past few years. After slogging through the flood of Osama bin Laden news from television and Twitter and shouts from the street, it seemed right to stop and mark the moment.
There are many ways to acknowledge a momentous occasion, and some have the benefit of ritual. Weddings have a Champagne toast, birthdays a cake, funerals have casseroles borne by well-meaning neighbors who may not have sufficient words, but can offer comfort by way of a turkey tettrazini.
On my third day of training at a new job in an office park in a suburb just north of New York City, I was still trying to find the restrooms and coffee pot without assistance. I spent the morning determining friends' whereabouts and e-mailing with the man I was dating as he watched people hurl themselves out the windows of the World Trade Center tower across the street. Having to figure out how to get myself back to Brooklyn when trains were suspended was simply rubbing salt into a rather grievous wound, but there was no way I wasn't going to try. Not only did I desperately need the comfort and normalcy of friends - my neighbors John and Anna Liza had reached out to say, "Get here, and we'll feed you."
That may seem trivial, but it was all that sustained me as I sprinted to the first available southbound Metro North train, through the empty, echoing subway stations and over the Manhattan Bridge, where I caught my first glimpse of the wrecked and smoking skyline. The few commuters still, like me, struggling homeward, craned in shock toward the familiar cityscape that now looked for all the world as if it had gotten its front teeth punched out. Once in my neighborhood, I hurled myself off the train, up the hill and up the stairs to their apartment.
We hugged, and Anna Liza went back to the work of making rigatoni with sauce and thick, spicy Italian sausage. It was dark outside, and stunk of ash and smoke and horror, and every once in a while, a piece of paper would waft to the street - all the way from someone's desk in one of the towers. John, our friend Chuck and I made our way to the bulletproof liquor store - seemingly the only business open - and purchased what we grimly referred to as the "tragedy-sized" bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey. We drained the entire thing as we stuffed our faces with Anna Liza's soulful dish and strained to hear news updates from any station that hadn't lost its antenna.
In the wee, small hours, when there were no new updates, simply endless loops of crash and fall and plumes of smoke, Chuck and I left our friends to attempt a fitful sleep, hugged drunkenly on the street and went our separate ways. Upon arriving home, I climbed up the six flights to my black tar roof, stared across the river at the decimation and for the first time all day, burst into sobs that lasted for a long, long time.
Like a good-sized chunk of my fellow citizens, I awoke the next day with my head throbbing and the TV droning in the background. The body count had begun to climb, and seeing Lower Manhattan again in the daylight from my rooftop did nothing to help. Chuck phoned. "Let's eat."
With no word yet of volunteer opportunities, we had nothing else to do and we headed to one of the few restaurants that was open - a Mexican rotisserie chicken joint - and I got what was to be the first of many plates of nachos I'd eat over the next few months.
Nachos are uncomplicated and pleasing - salty and crispy and laden with cheese and a kiss of spice. They're all I could wrap my head around, and since I had no one to cook for at home, nacho dates with similarly shell-shocked friends became a regular part of my social schedule. Volunteer, then nachos. Movies, then nachos. Drinks - with nachos.
Plenty of friends were more than willing to fall into the nacho swing - unless they'd developed a food tic of their own. One friend could only choke down grilled cheese and another couple subsisted entirely on breakfast foods. Anything more elaborate than that was a shock to the system - except for drinking. Everyone did plenty of that as well as sleeping (both alone and...not) and for a while, with this, we swaddled our souls and tried to adjust to a New York with a hole shot through its heart.
That state of half-being can only go on for so long. Some friends moved away. The rest of us mourned the dead and talked to strangers on the train and learned not to panic at every bang and thunderclap. It wasn't our old New York, but we built one that worked for us, and we never stopped craning our heads toward the place where the towers once stood.
Last night, when the whispers of the death of the man who'd orchestrated this carnage built to a roar and a howl online, on television and then through the mouth of our President, I did the only thing I could think to do. I walked over to the liquor cabinet, poured myself a glass of whiskey, woke up my husband, and raised a glass toward Los Angeles, where John, Anna Liza, their young daughter Simone and our friend Chuck now live, and then toward the silent Manhattan skyline.
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