Being a 9/11 First Responder Made Me a Fat Vegetarian
When you’re a Port Authority NY/NJ cop working the night shift, the most important decision you’ll make is what to have for dinner. Being “on the job” is, in large part, boring as fuck. Exhausted from never getting enough sleep during the day, you often find yourself in a dark patrol car, fighting time until you can go home. Dinner is the one thing you can look forward to. (Unless you really enjoy arresting people and filling out paperwork.) In 2001, you’re the new guy, so you get stuck doing the meal runs—one night, pernil over rice and beans from the Dominican spot; the next, chicken parm heroes from the local pizza joint. You drive to Chinatown to pick up duck noodle soup. On cheat days, the Colombian place in Jackson Heights charges only $5 for an obscene mountain of meat with a fried egg on top.
Then, on September 11, shit gets really, really not boring. Emergency responders aren’t allowed to be scared during a frightening situation. You’re the ones running towards the massive white dust cloud against a stream of choking, panicked people trying to escape it. You keep running, because you know there are hidden people who froze in fear, or were injured or badly burned, or overcome by smoke, or pinned under debris. You have to find them. This is not a movie.
Gasping and covered in dust, a cop you work with every day stumbles out of the cloud. Yesterday he was bitching about a bad date and now his skin is caked with pale gray powder that used to be the Twin Towers. You puzzle over the wet tracks streaking his face. Is he crying? It hits you. Three of your buddies on duty with him that morning went into the World Trade Center. They didn’t follow him out of the cloud. They didn’t make it out at all. EMS washes his eyes out in the back of an ambulance and takes him to be treated for shock.
You keep moving forward as fighter jets roar overhead. Your boss orders you to the New Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel, where you escort FEMA trucks carrying 20,000 body bags to the command center. Twenty thousand. It’s incomprehensible.
You’re wrong, of course. The real mindfuck comes with a shovel and a new police detail on the WTC rescue/recovery team. You work 12-hour shifts from September 11, 2001 until the site closes on May, 30, 2002. What’s for dinner doesn’t come up much anymore.
Your team digs and sifts through concrete and rubble, the heat melting the rubber soles of your boots. We search for friends, co-workers, high school classmates, and thousands of other people who just showed up to the office that morning. We do this work with the most dignity and care possible; whatever we find was somebody, somebody’s somebody. In nine months, we never make a single rescue, but we make dozens of recoveries and thousands of partial ones. You learn not to check the wallet for ID, because you might find a picture of a smiling, happy-looking family. You won’t forget that image, long after you bag the remains and note the GPS coordinates.
When an ESU cop uses an acetylene torch to cut a body out of a spiderweb of rebar, the seared flesh smells like pork chops cooking. That scent gets trapped in your sinuses and you can taste it. You have to drink that away for a long time, and you will never go back to eating meat again.
One freezing winter night, you get lucky. While smoking a cigarette with a fireman and watching the Pile, a backhoe unearths something with a cloud of colored smoke. The fireman suggests we drop our cancer sticks and put our respirator masks back on, and you do. A few seconds later, the backhoe tugs on a chunk of debris. Everything goes dark, then red.
You feel great! It’s like you have a right-before-last-call buzz going, only blood is spurting from the bridge of your nose and flowing from your nostrils. Your sergeant tells you that a piece of flying rebar broke your face. Hanging out the passenger side of a police car, you throw up blood on the way to St. Vincent’s. Your nose is shattered and you have a concussion. This is better than the time you got Nintendo for Christmas. A brain injury and a nose on the wrong side of your face earns you a month off. The other guys say, Why couldn’t it have hit me? You’re pretty sure they’re not joking.
Most vegetarians are healthier and slimmer than carnivores, but not you. You’re happy to make up the calories with carbs: pizza, mashed potatoes, French fries, any old garbage you can shove in your mouth that didn’t once have a face.
Now you’re home alone all day while your wife is at work, with plenty of time to relive the last few months: no sleep, distressing gore, endless funerals, crying family members at Ground Zero, and keeping a stiff upper lip. In that uniform, you can’t look weak; any emotions other than anger are a sign of weakness. Then the panics start. When they come, you feel like you’re having a heart attack and nervous breakdown at the same time. Are you dying? Are you going crazy?
You’re doped up on Vicodin and drinking meal replacement shakes because your nose is crammed full of gauze and you can’t taste anything. Your wife brings you a pint of ice cream and lets it melt. You’ve never been a dessert guy, but you can at least taste the sweetness, and it’s fucking life-changing. Ben, Jerry, and Jack Daniels are your best friends through the sleepless nights. Pints of whiskey and pints of Chubby Hubby keep you numb.
Most vegetarians are healthier and slimmer than carnivores, but not you. You’re happy to make up the calories with carbs: pizza, mashed potatoes, French fries, any old garbage you can shove in your mouth that didn’t once have a face. Washed down with alcohol, which you and everyone else drink to forget so you can shut off your brain and get some relief.
You look in the mirror and don’t recognize yourself. You were a physically-fit 6’2, 205-pound man at 24, doing that Body For Life shit (remember that fad?). Now your reflection shows a puffy, rapidly-aging man with giant bags under his eyes.
Back to the Pit, where the panics are crushing you. You look around and wish you had your shit together like the other guys you work with. (Spoiler alert: They don’t. They just hide it better.) When you tell the job about the panics, they take away your gun and send you to the department shrink. She’s kind and understanding. A different psychiatrist gives you a diagnosis: PTSD, acute panic disorder, depression, and agoraphobia. You supplement the alcohol with Lexapro and Xanax and visit a behavioral therapist. Though you’re sure you’ll be better and back to work in 12 weeks, it never happens.
The letter they send says, “unfit to perform the duties of a police officer”. You’re retired before you’re 30. You’re crushed. You can’t leave your apartment. You sell your car because you’re too afraid to drive. You can’t ride the subway without suffocating. Crossing a two-way street is the same as being chased by lions. You hide out in your apartment, watch the Food Network and ignore the world. You gain 70 pounds. In a ploy to get you out of the house, your wife signs you up for basic cooking classes. You get through them in a Xanax haze, and like them enough to give culinary school a try. If you’re going to be vegetarian, might as well learn how to cook properly. You enroll in the Natural Gourmet Institute, which is six terrifying blocks from your Manhattan apartment. Sometimes you take a cab.
On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, you have an agoraphobic chef’s dream job: recipe testing and development for some women’s magazines. You work from your own kitchen.
Nightmares jolt you out of bed at 4 AM, so you have time to write your own recipes before most people are awake. You make a Tumblr page with a stupid name, but your dishes are serious enough for a real cookbook. You never had the chance to save somebody’s life as a cop. Maybe you can save one now by writing the only vegetarian cookbook that won’t bore them to death.
Sometimes, you run errands and take a yoga class, even travel on planes. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you remember who you used to be and think, "How did I get here?" It was that motherfucker Osama Bin Laden.
Eddie McNamara is the author of Toss Your Own Salad: The Meatless Cookbook (St. Martin’s Press).