Last week I went out for a coffee break. I am a registered dietitian, and my office is located in downtown Manhattan, close to One World Trade Center. It’s on days like this, when the weather is warm and I generally feel well despite this city’s extremes, that I love living here. I bought my iced Americano topped off with touch of skim milk to go, and, at last chance, I couldn’t help but purchase one of the impossible to avoid, delectable looking chocolate chip cookies that was perfectly plated in the display case.
I immediately felt guilty for doing so. With edible pleasure in hand, I powerwalked back to work, and the heated discussion between my higher self and my ego began. My higher self said that I don’t have a weight problem or any health issues so why not indulge in something I love even though it isn’t “good” for me, and then ego bantered back, mocking me for being “bad”. Next came talk of portion size, where I decided to eat only half because this one big cookie is really two normal sized cookies when calories are considered. And, I didn’t add any sugar to my coffee and chose skim milk so the coffee’s nutritionally negligible and therefore rationalizes my decision. Yet I’m a nutritionist who instructs people not to do this sort of thing all the time- to not surrender to cravings, ignore the marketing ploys, and don’t eat out of boredom. My chocolate chip cookie made me feel like a hypocrite.
As I approached my building, I noticed a tall, fifty-ish, African American man dressed in cargo shorts and a t-shirt standing very still amidst a sea of business attire rushing past him, asking for help. Then, he spotted me.
Honestly, I tried to ignore him like everyone else seemingly was. He’s probably an annoying tourist here to take pictures, and I had to get back to work.
He said to me, “Can you help me? I need to find the quickest way to get uptown. I have to get out of here.”
His eyes welled up with tears, and pressing his hand against his forehead, he said, “I’m so sorry for bothering you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He was sweating and his eyes rapidly moved back and forth as he batted away tears. He was in the middle of a full blown panic attack.
I asked him if he wanted to take a cab or the subway, or if he needed to sit down and rest, and reminded him that everything was fine, it’s just like any other day, and to breathe. As I walked him to the subway station he politely requested, he told me this:
“I was here on 9/11. I was in tower one when the building collapsed. I was stuck here for three days. Now I have to wear a brace on my leg, part of my lung is missing, and I will be on medication for the rest of my life. I lost 113 friends. I thought today would be the day I could handle coming back here, but I can’t. I just can’t be here.”
When he finished, I was crying, and without thinking, I handed him my cookie.
The stranger graciously refused it. He was still too upset to eat it or even consider how especially comforting it would be to take pleasure in something as simple as a chocolate chip cookie once he calmed down. He said I had already done plenty, and he gave me a big hug and kiss on the cheek goodbye when we reached the subway.
“You have to go back to work now?” he asked. I nodded.
He descended down into the station and as we parted ways, he truthfully acknowledged, “Now, you have a friend for life.”
Later, I ate the whole cookie and I felt okay.