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Response to Terror

Feeding the Masses--and Souls--in N.Y.

Aftermath: Nino's is a comfort zone for the workers at the trade center site. Volunteers compete for shifts.


NEW YORK — If Nino's Restaurant ever inspires a sitcom--and somebody's probably pitching the idea right now--it already has the perfect cast.

There's Chris Craven, the New York City fireman with the wind-reddened cheeks and wise-guy smirk.

"Hey captain, wanna save your hair?" he yelled to a balding comrade. "Get a shoe box!"

And Debbie Mendel, the advertising executive who almost fell for a cop.

"I would have never gone out with a stranger before," she said. "But I met him at Nino's and thought: 'Why not?' "

There's Sister Michele Dougherty, a Roman Catholic nun from Pennsylvania who beamed beatifically, blue eyes blazing under a black habit, as she scooped fruit salad onto paper plates.

And little Faith Stephens, from Fredericksburg, Texas, who sings heart-stirring songs with white-feathered wings on her back.

"I always wanted to change the world," said the 8-year-old, whose mother dressed her as an angel. "Now I get my chance."

If there's any place in New York where people act just like they should, it's Nino's, an Italian restaurant converted into a cheery soup kitchen for workers from the World Trade Center site.

The pizza and spaghetti joint has become a refuge, a reprieve, a comfort zone to digest the magnitude of Sept. 11--and some great food--at a safe distance from the site (about a mile away).

"It's funny here," explained National Guardsman Tim Elnahas, who patrols the nearby Brooklyn Bridge. "There's no edge. Everybody's so nice."

Antonio Nino Vendome, a 49-year-old Italian immigrant, closed his doors to the public Sept. 12 and began serving free meals to firefighters, police officers, soldiers, Red Cross workers and anyone else working at the site.

Three and a half months later, the grim recovery work continues--and so does Nino's, which has dished out 500,000 meals and counting.

The volunteers begin lining up as early as 9:30 a.m., huddled along Canal Street, hands in their pockets, backs to the icy wind that blasts through lower Manhattan. Helping out at Nino's has become such the "in" thing that weekend shifts are booked weeks in advance.

They come from all over--Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, even Paris and Tokyo-- some dressed in crisp new Yankees caps and "United we stand" T-shirts with creases still in them.

Paul Chakmakjian, who lives in nearby Westchester, signed up his family for a double shift because "it's good for us to connect, in a real way, to what happened."

He got put in the kitchen, chopping rock-hard squash, while his 19-year-old son mopped the floors and his wife ran the cocoa machine.

Each day the restaurant is staffed by 30 paid workers, funded by donations, and a squad of 120 volunteers who do everything from cooking, cleaning and serving to soliciting donations on the sidewalk and counseling exhausted rescue workers.

The World Trade Center workers, who have some of the toughest jobs in America right now, spend 12-hour shifts in freezing weather combing the rubble of the towers for charred bones or other human remains. They often drift into the restaurant in quiet packs, their faces fixed in some sort of "automatic" mode, their jackets smelling of smoke.

"I found a watch the other day--still ticking," Bronx firefighter Paul DeLeo said. "It was weird."

By lunchtime, Nino's, with 1,100 square feet of eating space, begins to get crowded as officers, firefighters, soldiers and relief workers sit elbow to elbow at long tables covered in white vinyl. Almost every inch of wall space is papered with well-wishing cards, including one that read "Sorry about what happened" taped on the bathroom wall.

But Nino's is not like a hospital ward where the cheeriness seems forced or depressing. It's a social place, boisterous, busy, noisy and fun. It has even developed a reputation as a singles' spot, where volunteers, many of them young women, have the opportunity to mingle with police officers and firefighters. There's a mix of melancholy and flirtation in the air, and at a time like this, a lot of people are looking to connect.

"I see people getting numbers all the time," said Mike Coulston, a New York lawyer. "I tell my wife, 'Whoa, honey, make sure those guys see that ring.' "

There's a little lull after lunch, filled by banging pots and sizzling pans as dinner is prepared.

Some of the volunteers in the kitchen are quite talented, like one chef from Carmel who flew in with his own set of knives.

Though the place is run like a soup kitchen, don't picture steaming bowls of chili or blocks of government cheese. Nino's has gone upscale. Recent meals included seafood lasagna and venison. "A lot of guys had never seen that before," manager Gerald Postigilione said.

After dinner, it quiets down, though the place never closes. It's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And Vendome plans to keep it that way as long as it's needed.

Late at night, the vibe is more solemn. The mix tends to be fewer cops and more rescue workers who arrive straight from the site, shivering cold.

A bright spot is when the angels come. The Stephens family, seven children ages 2 to 18 and two beaming parents, traveled 1,800 miles from Texas to spend the holidays in New York singing carols at Nino's and several firehouses. They sold reindeer pins to pay for their travel expenses and winged costumes.

The nasty weather and the bleak recovery work swirls out of focus for a moment when the children shuffle to the front of the clattering restaurant.

Everyone stops: the soldier guarding the Brooklyn Bridge, the police officer at ground zero, the firefighter who's been sifting through debris all day, every day.

"Come on, sing us a good one!" someone yells.

And then little Faith Stephens steps upon a chair, brushes her hair from her face and belts out one more.

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