It was a place we saw every day. The corridors within its concourse were no less familiar than the blocks of our own neighborhood in Brooklyn. My office was across the street; my late wife's was a few blocks away. We not only worked in the area, we played there as well. Lower Manhattan was our "other neighborhood." To those of us whose daily activities were interwoven with the World Trade Center, the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is particularly poignant. Please allow me to share one personal aspect of it with you.
After years of fine-tuning, our schedules had begun to run like clockwork. As with the World Trade Center itself, we took for granted the various elements of our daily routines. Every weekday morning, for roughly a decade, my wife and I ate breakfast at Essex World Coffee Shop on Liberty Street, opposite the southeast entrance to the World Trade Center. During that time, we had grown fond of the restaurant, its owners, and its staff.
Brothers Johnny and Jimmy Costalas, co-owners of Essex World, greeted us warmly every morning and made certain everything was all right. Jimmy's son, Steve, was an ever-friendly presence as well. During the hockey season, nary a day went by without some sort of discussion of the Rangers. His energetic cheerfulness helped brighten our mornings. Eventually, Steve left Essex World to take over the operation of Trinity Deli, one of the family's other businesses, around the corner.
The Costalases employed a loyal staff whom they treated like family members. Benny (recently deceased, upon whose customary salutation, "Good morning, Governor," I'd come to depend), along with Elio, and Mohammed, typically manned the back counter. Since our breakfast orders seldom varied, they were issued tacitly after a while. A simple nod or wave as I approached was enough to invoke the familiar call to the grill: "Let me get a fried egg on whole wheat, down, two times to stay!" It may sound silly, but the convenience of not having to ponder a breakfast menu relieved some of the stress at the start of the day.
And, of course, there were the other regular customers. Though we didn't know most of them by name, we knew them by their habits and mannerisms. There was little interaction with our fellow breakfasters, but their faces and idiosyncrasies were reassuringly familiar somehow.
In 1997, Essex World was closed several months for renovation and reopened as The Food Exchange. The new interior had a softer décor and a homier ambiance than the industrial, fast-food atmosphere that preceded it. Fixed tables and hard bench seats gave way to more comfortable, movable furniture. The gussying up didn't end there—the guys behind the counter now sported dress shirts and ties! The redecoration was welcome, but, more important, our breakfast place was back.
No matter what sort of day lay ahead, this was always our reliable jump-start. Then, on that clear, crisp, sunny morning of September 11, 2001, all that came crashing to a halt. The widespread devastation that resulted from the terrorist attacks left us wondering whether our friends at The Food Exchange had survived. Several months later, my wife's chance meeting with Johnny on the street (as he was helping his staff find work in the area) allayed our fears. Everyone had escaped safely.
"Someone was looking out for us that day," recalls Vivia Costalas Amalfitano, Steve's sister. Those who remember the traffic patterns around the World Trade Center would strain to recall the presence of tractor-trailers on Liberty Street. On that fateful day, however, after the first tower had been hit, one had stopped directly in front of the restaurant. Despite Johnny's entreaties to move it, the driver simply deserted his truck right there. It was a fortunate happenstance, as things turned out. When the debris began to fall, Johnny pulled down the steel security gate at the front entrance. The abandoned truck absorbed much of the impact and the closed gate further reduced the effects of the towers' ultimate collapse, thus allowing everyone to escape safely through the back onto Cedar Street. Sadly, many of the regular customers who were at work in the towers weren't so fortunate.
Vivia describes the area around Ground Zero following 9/11 as, "surreal, like a scene out of a movie." "Debris was at the foot of the [Liberty Plaza] Park. And the smell was horrific." Returning there required presenting exhaustive documentation—passport, driver's license, lease, etc.—at several checkpoints, from Canal Street southward. For roughly a month and a half, the space inside Food Exchange was used for triage. During that time, Johnny was there helping out every day.
Several weeks after my wife's fortuitous meeting, it was my turn. Johnny spotted me on a subway platform, charged over, and threw his arms around me. Amid our joyous reunion, I asked whether he had plans to reopen. His response came with the sad resignation that, since he was well into his 60s, it was probably too late for him to start over. But fortunately, the story doesn't end there.
Innumerable obstacles would have to be overcome before the restaurant could ever reopen. The red tape seemed endless. "Help was nothing," recalls Vivia. Incredibly, it would take more than two years for phone service to be restored. But, as the old saying goes, when the going gets tough …
Fast-forward to October, 2003. Clearly, the tough had got going. After the ashes and rubble had been cleared, a new Essex World Café emerged under the new corporate name, Survivors, Inc. "I had to do it for Uncle Johnny," explains Vivia. Over the course of the four decades leading up to 9/11, her uncle and her father had overseen every iteration of Essex World—11 in all, beginning with the original Essex Coffee Shop at 7 Dey Street. Most of the familiar faces behind the counter had returned as well. For some, however, the memories of 9/11 were too devastating. Vivia's brother, Steve, left for Colorado in November, 2001; he returned home to New York just two months ago.
Ground Zero continues to draw a large number of visitors. "How many tourists really get it?" muses Vivia. "This was our neighborhood. I did everything down here but food shop." "This was my focal point," adds Steve, who reminisces about doing all his Christmas shopping in the World Trade Center concourse.
And so it was for me and my late wife. This was a neighborhood to us as well. The World Trade Center comprised a large part of our daily mosaic. It was a place we knew intimately. Occasionally, my mind's eye still takes me on a virtual tour of the concourse.
Though my life has been altered irrevocably by the terrorist attacks, I often find comfort in revisiting places that hold memories of the halcyon days preceding 9/11. Essex World represents such a place to me. And despite the trauma suffered by the Costalases and their staff—or perhaps in spite of it—the restaurant salutes those more innocent times with their take-out menu. On it appears the skyline—our neighborhood—towers intact. Sadly, the fortitude and determination to repair and reopen is often untold, and taken for granted. The Costalases represent some of the unsung heroes of 9/11.
Essex World Café
112 Liberty Street (near Trinity Place), Financial District, Manhattan
By train: 4,5 (IRT),J,Z (BMT) to Fulton Street; A,C (IND) to Broadway-Nassau
By bus: M1, M6
For more information, as well as additional accounts by members of the Essex World family, please visit the Tribute WTC Visitor Center at 120 Liberty Street.