Special Reports

Keeping the food warm, and providing a ready ear

Making sure the cafeteria food is warm and in good supply isn't the kind of job that usually brings a deep, lasting satisfaction.

But at ground zero, disaster brought nobility to even the most seemingly mundane tasks.

And so it was for Stephen Brown, a happy, golf-playing Boeing retiree from Federal Way who found himself in lower Manhattan two weeks after the terrorist attacks.

As an American Red Cross volunteer, Brown, 68, oversaw the delivery of some 18,000 meals and snacks daily to - among others - the hungry, exhausted and often demoralized workers digging through the World Trade Center rubble.

The men and women from the work site clustered around dinner tables about one block from ground zero.

Often, a Red Cross volunteer would join the workers for lunch. And just as often, talk turned to the attacks.

"They were very, very free about talking," Brown said.

And always, the workers were respectful and grateful to Brown and the other Red Cross volunteers who came from all over America to help out.

"I felt like my presence made a difference, and I felt like they were better off for me being there," Brown said this summer, just weeks after returning from a relief mission in flood-ravaged San Antonio, Texas.

In New York, Brown arrived with no experience in running a cafeteria. What he learned, he learned on the job.

"My wife thinks what I'm best at is making fish sticks and stuff like that," he said.

His chief job was to make sure the food arrived in time to feed all of the hungry mouths. Salmon fillets, seasoned roasts and stuffed peppers came from a nearby kitchen in plastic containers the size of suitcases.

One of the keys was making sure it stayed warm enough. Health inspectors were never far away, and always ready to insist food be thrown out if it got cold, Brown recalled.

Brown, who had never spent more than a few layover hours in Manhattan before last year, took the subway daily from his hotel in another part of the city to the work site.

Before he left his Federal Way home, his wife, Paula, told him she was a bit apprehensive about the Big Apple's notorious underground.

"But when people saw the Red Cross (logo on his clothes), there would always be one or two people who would come up to you and thank you for coming," Brown recalled of his daily commute. "But no big speeches or anything."

And the experience changed Brown in ways he didn't expect.

"I was always a macho guy who believed men don't cry," said the former U.S. Marine. "Back there, I hugged and cried with more people than I had ever done in my life."

Brown also said he's begun to see America in more global terms.

"Before, I thought, 'That's their problem, not ours,'" he said, referring to terrorist attacks in countries such at Northern Ireland and Israel. "But now we can relate to those things in other countries. I think this globalizes our thinking a little bit."

Stefano Esposito: 253-597-8644