Monday, October 19, 2009

Remembering September 11

Commemorations and sorrow engulfed our nation once again this past September 11, now known as Patriot Day. In newsprint, on the airwaves, and even on Facebook, people recalled where they were, what they were doing, and their reaction to the horrendous events that September morning in 2001.

I was living in a suburb of Dayton, OH and had just pulled into a nearly deserted parking lot at the shopping mall. Something was obviously amiss because, in those days, the mall was always a hub of activity. I remember shaking my head briefly, trying to pull into focus some random bit of information floating around my brain that would clue me in as to why the mall was empty. But nothing came to mind.

Six weeks earlier I’d received a biopsy-confirmed diagnosis of celiac disease, and was stumbling along the steeply pitched learning curve of my new and overwhelming gluten-free lifestyle. Being one of those people who experienced the condition known as “brain fog” in addition to a few choice gastrointestinal issues when I ingested gluten, it was completely possible I had known at one point, but now couldn’t remember, why the mall parking lot was vacant. So, I turned on the radio, hoping for some local news to jostle my memory, only to hear that two airplanes had flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Jarred out of any lingering stupor, I scurried home to park myself in front of the television set. There, I viewed the video footage of a plane smashing into the South Tower, and then watched in shock as the Pentagon burned, a plane went down in rural Pennsylvania, and the Twin Towers collapsed.

In the days and weeks that followed, many of us walked around in a fog. We were equally beset by the heartbreaking stories of people searching for missing family members and friends, and the uplifting tales of heroic acts by emergency workers, military personnel, and everyday citizens. We sought desperately to understand why and how such an act of terrorism could’ve happened on our soil. Our world had changed, seemingly overnight. It no longer appeared so friendly, so familiar. We no longer had the same sense of freedom.

Several months later, my family traveled from Ohio to New York to visit my husband’s relations. Mercifully, none of them had been directly in harms way on 9/11, although some had been personally impacted. One cousin had serendipitously not gone to an office at the World Trade Center that morning, instead traveling to offices in New Jersey. From there he stared helplessly across the Hudson River as the burning buildings collapsed, wondering if any of his co-workers were trapped inside. Another cousin was on an overnight flight from Paris, France to New York when the plane got redirected and all the passengers were indefinitely deposited in Nova Scotia.

During that trip to New York, I, like many Americans, felt compelled to visit Ground Zero. In some vain attempt to make sense of the carnage, I needed to see the surrounding buildings covered with ghostly gray dust, listen to the eternally silenced voices, and smell the smoky debris. I needed to mourn collectively with the nation. So the healing could begin. So I could move on with this new way of living.

I also needed to mourn for myself. As insignificant as my celiac problem was compared with the immensity of the loss and grief that surrounded me, it was something I had to face. That trip to New York was my first attempt at traveling away from the safety of my gluten-free kitchen; it was my first crack at carrying on despite the odds stacked against living gluten-free in a gluten-filled world.

It was scary. Could I eat New York’s famous Nathan brand hot dogs for lunch? No! They contain wheat gluten. Could I make my needs known at a restaurant in Chinatown? Barely anyone had even heard of celiac disease in 2001, much less come up with the idea of laminated gluten-free dining cards. The world was not a friendly and familiar place for someone like me with celiac disease. I felt a loss of personal freedom.

Fast forward to 2009. Much has changed in the world, both at large and for those of us with celiac disease. While I have no intention of commenting on the “larger” issues, it is easy to see that time has brought mostly positive change to the gluten-free world. Celiac disease is no longer considered a rare disease that affects only children, blood tests are more accurate, and the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act that requires manufacturers to identify whether products contain the top eight food allergens, including wheat, has been in affect since 2006. Likewise, the gluten-free food industry has expanded beyond belief, and restaurants are increasingly happy to serve celiac customers.

No where were these changes more appreciated than on a recent trip to Manhattan - my first time back in the city since 2001. As usual, we were in the area visiting relatives, but we booked a downtown hotel instead of staying with family. The Best Western Hospitality House, located on 49th Street between 3rd and Lexington Avenues, is a three-star hotel that offers apartment-style accommodations, complete with a full kitchen, at a price reasonable only by city standards. Not that I needed the kitchen, other than to store my gluten-free breakfast items (no gluten-free items at the included continental breakfast) and a few snacks. This was a mini-holiday; I had no intention of cooking.

As with any vacation with a limited time frame (and aren’t they all?), we first carefully selected the sights we would see, and then I consulted the GIG’s Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program website. Mapping out the location of these restaurants helped me select which ones were closest to our hotel and sightseeing priorities. Naturally, I wanted to revisit the World Trade Center Site, yet also wanted to take our three teenage boys to typical tourist haunts such as the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, Greenwich Village, the Empire State Building, and Times Square. Along the way we would pass iconic landmarks such as Wall Street, City Hall, the New York Public Library, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Grand Central Station, the Trump Building, FAO Schwartz, and Central Park. Our big splurge would be tickets to “Mary Poppins - Broadway’s Perfectly Magical Musical.”

With near perfect summer weather, sturdy walking shoes, a good map, and subway passes, we accomplished nearly everything on our “must see” list. What made the entire experience even more wonderful, though, was the ease with which I found gluten-free meals. At Bloom’s Delicatessen, on the corner of 40th Street and Lexington Avenue, I gobbled down an open face Reuben Sandwich with cole slaw on the side. Lilli and Loo, at 792 Lexington Avenue, offered over 30 gluten-free items on its Asian cuisine, Chinese, and sushi bar menu. On weekdays they even have gluten-free lunch specials! Our favorite restaurant, however, was Risotteria, in Greenwich Village. Serving gluten-free breadsticks and pizza, fresh salads, made-to-order risotto from three different kinds of rice, and gluten-free desserts, it was my personal perfectly magical moment!

GIG’s Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program lists 17 dining establishments for Manhattan. Yet there are also numerous restaurants that independently serve gluten-free food. Our 19-year old son discovered this when he visited the city with friends two weeks after our family trip. Intending to “eat across the city” by day before attending a music concert at night, he unknowingly walked into a place for pizza (he does not have celiac disease) where he was confronted by a wall of gluten-free bakery items and the option to order gluten-free pizza. The restaurant is Mozzarelli’s. The next time I visit NYC I will check it out. In fact, I think the next time I should also try to “eat across the city,” gluten-free of course. I would just walk from restaurant to restaurant, bypassing all the tourist sites, save one.

The World Trade Center site today is alive with activity and rebuilding. Anyone wishing to connect with people from the September 11th community - through walking tours, exhibits, and programs - should visit the Tribute WTC Visitor Center. It’s a non-profit corporation that serves as a central place for information pertaining to 9/11 at the WTC, and seeks to unite and support victims of terrorism. Other places to learn more about September 11 include: 9/11 Memorial Preview Site, WTC Visitor Information Kiosk, Battery Park in Lower Manhattan to view the Sphere (large metallic sculpture that once stood between the WTC towers), New York City Fire Museum, the bronze 56-foot FDNY Memorial Wall, the American Express Memorial, “Eleven Tears,” and the exhibit, “Unwavering Spirit,” at St. Paul’s Chapel, the home base for the volunteer relief effort.

According to the 1st century Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, “Time heals what reason cannot.” Not that any of the pain and loss is diminished for the families directly affected by 9/11, but certainly there is an understanding that time continues to move forward. Really, it’s the only direction to go.

Helpful Information

GIG Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program, http://www.glutenfreerestaurants.org/.

Tribute WTC Visitor Center, 120 Liberty Street, NY, NY 10006. Tel: 1-866-737-1184. Admission is $10.00. http://www.tributewtc.org/.

To learn more about visitor resources regarding 9/11, see http://www.national911memorial.org/.