During the year leading up to what we now solemnly refer to as “9/11”, I was a constant fixture at a downtown Manhattan restaurant that was at the time, the center of my social universe.
Given the proximity of the place near my East Village apartment, I spent many nights there meeting friends for dinner, or ending a late night of New York carousing at its bar for one last drink. The people who worked there were my friends. And as most who toil in the behind-the-scenes world of NYC restaurants, many of these friends were undocumented.
As is the case everywhere, New York City was a different place back then. I was 26 years old, living out my dream of calling the City my home; complete with a career in publishing I was passionate about, and a social circle filled with the most interesting people I’d ever known. As most young people in New York during those golden years, I surfed a life I now recall with a deep sigh, as a truly wondrous time.
My world seemed bound only by the limit of my dreams, and my enthusiasm to make them real.
Of Mexican descent, I often found I had much more in common with the undocumented workers in that restaurant than I did with the cool customers they served and cooked for. At the end of the night, it was not uncommon to find myself hanging out with them in the kitchen, joking around in Spanish, talking about what brought us to New York in the first place.
Each had a story. Some sent all they earned back home to Mexico. Others found love in NYC and started families. We celebrated the births of their American-born children. All of them agreed they most likely would never move back.
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Much of the crew at the restaurant also worked the morning breakfast shift at Windows on the World, the famed restaurant atop the North Tower. Up before dawn, these guys were at work cooking and serving breakfast before most of the city even stirred. Along with their late night shifts at the restaurant where I had met them, they often remarked that they never slept. Compared to the rest of us, they didn’t.
After the Twin Towers fell, the restaurant I frequented never reopened. Besides the obvious business deterrent of the tragedy, the kitchen staff never again showed up for work. We all knew where most of them were that morning—at the very top of the North Tower. We also knew they mostly likely never made it out alive.
The immediate days after 9/11 were a blur of confusion and disbelief. Not knowing what else to do, I helped the restaurant deliver all their remaining food to local first responders, the firehouses and police stations.
During that week and the following, the restaurant manager told me that the wives and girlfriends of the kitchen crew would call in, asking whether they had heard any news about their husbands and boyfriends. There was nothing to tell them. No one had checked in.
The following week I happened by the restaurant and helped a young woman who didn’t speak English talk with the manager. She didn’t have a phone and so she stopped by in person to inquire about her husband. After telling her that no one had seen or heard from him, I remember watching her walk away. It is an image I still can’t get out of my mind. She was slightly hunched over, and she held on to her baby as though it was all she had left. Maybe it was.
During the yearly televised ceremony, when it comes time to reading the names of those lost that day, I can’t help but think of the kitchen staff—my friends—and how their names are not read aloud, or publicly honored.
But they are far from forgotten.
Each year I honor their lives in my own small way. Every 9/11 I say a quiet prayer and repeat, “I remember you. I remember you.”
Over and over again.
Rene Alegria is the Founding CEO of Mamiverse. You can follow him on Twitter @ReneAlegriaNYC.