Inez Ribustello is a writer and entrepreneur whose new memoir Life After Windows became a national Amazon bestseller within the first week of its launch. In 1998 she graduated from the Univ of N.C. at Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism and mass communications, then left for NYC to pursue a career in the culinary arts. It was where her love for good wine and good food was born, and she knew deep within herself that working at Windows on the World—on the top floor of the Twin Towers—was where she was meant to be. For over two incredible dream-come-true years, Inez lived in New York City, directed America’s largest beverage program at Windows on the World, and drank wine every day and every night. She also learned how to catalog and recognize thousands of wines and how to run and manage people, and a business, to succeed. Then on September 11th, 2001, while she was back in Tarboro for her sister’s wedding, Inez’s dream job evaporated into shattering, thick, black clouds of smoke. The life she’d always dreamed of disappeared in the blink of an eye.
Listen to the podcast here
Inez Ribustello: What Happens When The Life You’ve Always Dreamed Of Disappears In The Blink Of An Eye?
I hope this finds each of you very well. I’m speaking to you from my studio in West Orange, New Jersey. I’m delighted to welcome a writer and entrepreneur, Inez Ribustello, whose new memoir titled Life After Windows became a national Amazon bestseller within the first week of its launch. Inez will be speaking to us from Tarboro, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband Stephen, and their two children.
Inez graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1998 with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communications. She left for New York City to pursue a career in the culinary arts. It was there that her love for good wine and good food was born. She knew deep within herself that working at Windows on the World on the top floor of the Twin Towers was where she was meant to be.
Inez eventually got her dream job. For over two incredible dream-come-true years, she lived in New York City. She directed America’s largest beverage program at Windows on the World. She drank wine every day and night. She learned how to catalog and recognized thousands of wines. She also learned how to run and manage people and a business to success.
On September 11th, 2001, while she was back in Tarboro for her sister’s wedding, Inez’s dream job evaporated into shattering thick black clouds of smoke. The life she always dreamed of disappeared in the blink of an eye. In the spirit of full disclosure, my 50th birthday celebration took place at Windows on the World. It was fabulous. It was filled with love, music, great food, and wine. It has become an unforgettable cherished memory for me and my guests.
I am looking forward to talking with Inez about her love affair with wine, food, and Windows on the World, the way she was affected by 9/11, how she healed from her all-encompassing grief, and her at times downright, funny, poignant, and riveting memoir, Life After Windows, that shares both the realities of her devastating loss and her inspiring journey to healing and rebirth for what is surely going to be a captivating interview. Just off the cuff, I have to tell you that it is funny. Even though Inez’s book addresses such a tragic event, it is downright funny in parts. I found myself laughing out loud. Inez, a warm welcome to the show.
Thank you so much, Irene, for having me. I’m truly honored to be here.
Thank you. It’s such a pleasure. Let’s start with you describing your life leading up to winning your dream job at Windows on the World.
I look back on it and I was almost like a teenybopper cheerleader type of personality. I was in love with life and all of it. I was in love with people. I was never that excited or into making good grades in college. I did that in high school and middle school so that I could get into Carolina. Once I got there, I lived a pretty carefree life. I call it growing up as a country club Christian. I never doubted faith or God because I didn’t have a reason to. My parents divorced when I was quite young. They were both alive. I’d never lost a sibling.
Your parents got divorced. I have to say, I couldn’t get over how well everyone got along in your family. You didn’t even have the typical trauma that a lot of kids find with that. Everybody was kumbaya.
They did a great job at being kumbaya. There was probably a lot that we didn’t see. Kudos to my parents for being super mature, and the stepparents. I was happy and carefree, almost walking along in blinders, and very unaware. I didn’t seem to get affected by much. Cruising into New York City, I was dating this man I thought I was going to marry. I was living with four other women in an apartment.
The whole goal was I was going to go to culinary school. Maybe use my Journalism degree to write about food. Even better yet, get a show on the Food Network. To talk about how naive I was, I thought I could get a show on the Food Network. I was excited about the possibilities. I was ambitious but not overly ambitious. I was never going to give up a night out on the town to get up early the next day for something that might be competitive.
The first time I went North of the Mason-Dixon line was when I moved to New York. I had no problems getting into the city and taking it by the horns. I loved the anonymity of it. All of a sudden, people couldn’t get in touch with me as easily as they had. They weren’t telling me what to do. I don’t want to use the word manipulate, but they didn’t have a heavy hand in directing my path.
You were playing around. You were a big girl growing up.
While culinary school was the plan, within days of being there, wine inserted itself with the opportunity to work at bestsellers. It wasn’t long before I realized that I like to drink more than I like to cook. All of a sudden, I’m seeing that there are careers in wine.
Reading your book, besides making you laugh, it’s also a wonderful education about wine. Tell us about your love affair with wine, food, and Windows on the World. Describe some of those amazing people you bonded with there who passed during 9/11.
Probably within nine months of being in the city, I got the job offer to become an assistant seller master at Windows on the World. It was an instant immediate connection with all of it. It was like being on top of the world where you see planes fly beneath you. You can see all three of the bridges on the East River across New Jersey on the Westside. The people had different nationalities represented and staff.
I was in love with the learning of all these different cultures. The Muslim population would be in the corridor between the 106th and 107th floors during Ramadan praying in the direction. People brought food that they had made at home and shared it. Windows was this great big family. Whereas wine had a little bit of pretension to it at the time, especially in New York.
I was talking about it to anyone, from the president of the company to the uniform woman. All of a sudden, these people who weren’t identified as wine drinkers were coming up to me and saying, “I need to take wine to a party. Could you recommend one?” They felt so comfortable with me. Part of it was because I was learning also. Another part is when you love something, you want everyone else to love it. You don’t try to hide it from people.
Your passion was infectious.
It was neat. I would meet young kids and older people downtown on my day off in a wine shop and help them shop for their wines. I was very much in love with the people. The building was amazing. Once I got promoted, when I worked at night, I was able to order off the menu. I don’t think I’d ever had duck confit until moving to New York, or semi-foie gras and all the things that were not readily available in Eastern North Carolina. It was beautifully and exquisitely prepared. How could you not love that?
Besides food and wine though there were certain people who made their way into your heart, and you lost them. That was part of your tremendous grief when 9/11 happened. Do you want to tell us about 1, 2, or 3 of those special people?
They were all special to me. It’s a little intimidating to mention three.
If you’d rather not, it’s okay too. You spoke about one woman in your book. Was she your manager or something?
I spoke about Heather Ho, who was the pastry chef. This was tragic. She just started. She was from Hawaii but she maybe moved from San Francisco. She was unhappy. Windows was a production. You weren’t going in and making 50 desserts a night. You were making 500. It was more corporate than she had anticipated.
The general manager and the owner had asked me to take her out for lunch because nobody loves that place more than I did. They were like, “If there’s anybody who can make her fall in love with it, it’s you.” She and I had gone to eat lunch. She was pretty new but she said, “I’m not happy here. This is not the job for me.” She’d given notice so she was leaving. I think about that. Had she started a little earlier, she would not have been there.
There were two gentlemen who worked with me. One is Jeff Cole whose girlfriend is one of my very best friends and I dedicated a chapter to him. He was a finance guy who had fallen in love with wine and was giving up a previous career. He and I were quite close. Steve Adams was an older gentleman who had said he had never been appreciated at any job until this one. We promoted him to Beverage Manager right underneath. Both of those men were there because I wasn’t. That’s why they were there that early.
You could see why you’d be grieving so much. First of all, you’re a people lover. You are deeply in love with these people. After 9/11, you felt so broken. Your dream job is gone and the people you care deeply about are gone. They all vanished in the blink of an eye. Would you like to tell us about your unbelievable grief and how that expressed itself every day?
It was so foreign, Irene.
All of a sudden, this bubble you had grown up with was gone.
Nothing felt the same. It felt like it was sucking the life out of me every day or whatever it was. I could not find something to be joyful about. Historically, I had not been an angry person. The anger was so foreign to me. When I would feel that anger at such a high intensity, then I would become incredibly sad. I was talking to my friend who said, “I had no idea you cried that much. You talk about crying.” I am a crier, but this was waking up in the morning and I was crying when my eyes opened. I have this exhaustion. All I wanted to do was sleep because if I was asleep, at least I wouldn’t feel it.
It’s amazing that you could even fall asleep.
There was an unhealthy amount of drinking so that I could sleep. I’ve never been a pill person and gratefully, I didn’t have that. My mother took all the pills that the doctor prescribed for me. Somebody asked me about being fearful one time. I do remember seeing planes flying low and I would dock. If I was down the street, I would get behind a bench or something. Fear of death was not what I had. There were many days where I was like, “This would be so much better if I was dead. If I had been up there and lost my life, I would not be experiencing this hell on earth.” That’s my reality.
As you’re describing how you were crying and what you went through, one of the things that helped you get through was your relationship with your husband Stephen. Would you like to tell us how you met him and the incredible ways he was there for you? He gets five stars for how he was there for you while you were grieving.
He was the sommelier at Windows, which is how I met him.
You learn in the book. That’s a very big deal, everyone. That’s something I learned. I had no idea how arduous it is to become a sommelier. That fascinating.
He is one of the best tasters I’ve ever met. I’ve met quite a few. Stephen and I were polar opposites. He identified as an atheist and I think he would now say he’s agnostic. He’s pretty pessimistic or cynical in general. When we first met and started hanging out, he was like, “I don’t think I’ll be alive past 30.” He lived on the edge and wasn’t always careful in everything he did, and then 9/11 happened.
The way we dealt with it was he was such a rock. I’m sure he was dealing with his own feelings in his way but they were very internal. He would hold me and let me cry. He never said, “I can’t do this anymore.” I had to have been the most depressing person to live with and to be with, and he never looked away. I don’t know how he did that.
You begin to heal your grief and move towards rebirth, which is a process. Do you want to talk to us about how love was reborn through your children who provided you with renewed insights into life? It’s your favorite topic, I’m sure.
The irony is not lost on me that the universe handed Cynthia to us on September 12th.
How much after the original 9/11 did she arrive?
Three years and one day. All of a sudden, this treasure is handed to us. Part of it is surviving as new parents. We were forced to think about other things. Part of it was that, and then the other is I started feeling hopeful again. I had not felt that feeling for three years. Hope is big.
You have a little boy too.
He was born in 2007. He’s the definition of joy. He’s wide open and very happy. He’s a cuddler. It was almost like they knew when they came into the world that I needed their love and affection as much as they needed it.
I can relate because I have three grandchildren who I adore. You have some wonderful stories about growing exciting new businesses with Stephen as you’re starting to heal and move on. Your businesses would focus on good food and good wine and provide you with a new sense of purpose. Would you like to share that with us?
We opened On the Square in October 2002. Stephen and I call that our first child.
That was your restaurant, On the Square. That’s where it was located.
On the courthouse square. Stephen gave my dad an eighteen-month commitment. He did not think that our town would support it, but it’s been incredibly supported by the people all over Eastern North Carolina. My dad was right when he said, “If you build it, they will come.” People were looking for something that was different.
Great food and wine shouldn’t be pretentious. If people weren’t buying wine in Tarboro, North Carolina before 2002, either it was because they were afraid of it or there wasn’t a place that educated them about it. We’ve been super intentional about both of those. We want you to know as much if not more about the wine. We want to make sure that there’s no pretense involved. That’s been very fun.
We opened Tarboro Brewing Company six years ago. To be honest, there were plenty of people in our community who didn’t come to On the Square because wine and food aren’t their thing. Beer seemed like another way to grow a business and engage in the community. That has been unbelievable watching people that we’ve never seen in the restaurant come to the brewery.
You’ve got everything covered there. To everyone on YouTube who’s watching this, I’m looking at Inez with her earrings. At first, I thought TBC was to be continued but I realized it’s for Tarboro Brewing Company. Well done, Inez.
Good eye, Irene.
Let me go back. I want to ask this question. It eventually became clear to you that timing is everything and the universe is always working in ways we can never truly understand. How did this new insight play out when you and Stephen found your forever home? That’s a great story.
We were coming back from a wine trip in Oregon and we had a layover in Texas. I called my dad. He was keeping the kids. He said, “There’s a woman who’s moved here from Michigan and she wants to buy your house.” I said, “Our house isn’t for sale.” He said, “Make her an offer that she won’t take.” Stephen and I made this offer and she took it. All of a sudden, we don’t have a house.
We had passed this house ever since we moved to Tarboro. We called it the ugliest house in Tarboro. It’s flat. It looks like one story from the street view. It was not flattering. It was not a pretty house. We would always talk about who was going to buy that ugly house. It had been on the market for three years when we sold ours.
One morning, Stephen and I got up and I said, “Do you know what house I keep thinking about?” We’ve been looking at houses. He said, “The one on South Howard?” I said, “Yes.” He goes, “I’ve got it in my mind too.” It was wild. We called my dad who’s a realtor and said, “Can you take us?” We opened the doors and there were floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked this hill and creek. All of a sudden, I started panicking like, “We have to get it. Somebody’s going to get it before us.”
The gentleman, Mr. Raskin, was the first Jewish person to build in Tarboro. He and his wife had moved to a patio home in a retirement community. He loved this house. It was his baby. I said, “We can’t afford what he’s asking for it.” This is after it had been reduced over three years. We put in what we could afford and he accepted it. He died a month later. A few weeks after he died, a bird got in the house and I knew it was Mr. Raskin.
You got your beautiful dream home. Everything is working out, but you turn 40 and you go into a personal crisis, which eventually led you and Stephen into therapy. What would you like to tell us about that time in your life? How did being in therapy improve your marriage? I tell people all the time, “Don’t suffer. Go into counseling. Talk about it.”
We should have gone into therapy the moment that we moved back to Tarboro. We had wonderful counselors. I saw one by myself and then we saw one together. Stephen ended up seeing the one we saw together by himself. There was so much baggage rooted in our parents’ divorce. 9/11 was some of it but in terms of how we related to one another, it went back to the scripts that we were handed by our parents.
Both of you and Stephen had parents who had divorced.
My mother has been divorced twice and so has his. We didn’t have the tools in our toolbox to be healthy partners and parents. He had resisted it for a long time. Often, I hear that’s what happens. It comes too late because somebody says, “I’m not going to do it.” When all the shit hits the fan, then a lot of times it’s too late. When we went into therapy, it was for co-parenting. The therapist said, “Just so you know, I used the same therapy for co-parenting as I do for reconciling.” We did a lot of work.
What do you call the work?
We had to listen to one another. The therapist coached us through the whole thing. When this happens and you respond in this way, it makes me feel this way. One thing that Stephen would say to me is, “You’re so busy all the time that I don’t even feel like I count.” I had to sit with that. I’m a workaholic. At 6:00, the phone was no more. I didn’t look at it again until 7:00.
No one is perfect so I can’t go in and say something. Part of it was me hearing him and being empathetic that these are his feelings. I can’t tell him what he is feeling. If he feels it, he feels it, and vice versa. What was so beautiful about it is that we came out of it stronger than ever. I became a very different person who I’m so much more prouder of.
You’re conscious now. That’s what I would liken it to because I’ve been in therapy also. You become much more conscious about the consequences of what you’re saying and your behaviors. You have some choices in there. I loved your memoir. It’s remarkable and well-written. It’s funny and interesting. What inspired you to write it? It’s so great how it describes both your heartbreak and healing process. Tell us about that.
I get great therapy out of writing.
You majored in Journalism. In the beginning, you’re a writer.
I had a blog for a long time that focused on the master sommelier path. People became very engaged with the blog. Part of it was I need to write this for myself and my children. I want to have this journey out there so I can look back on it and say that you can get through anything. The bigger part was if there’s one person that can read this and see a little light at the end of whatever darkness they are experiencing, it would be selfish not to write and put that out there. I love what you’re doing with your show. The only thing that we are created to be is to be helpers and lovers of our neighbors.
Your book gives people hope, and this show is to give people hope.
No matter how dark or deep or how much despair you are experiencing, there is a way out. It looks different for every single person. You’re not alone.
Inez, I loved your story about Tarboro Brewing Company exemplified by your earrings. I see you’re also talking to me from your car.
I’ve been selling beer all day, Irene.
What would you like to tell us? You’re very involved civically. That’s part of your personal growth. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
Not everybody likes this part.
You’re talking to a Northerner so I do.
Here’s the thing. Building businesses is great. I’m not going to take anything away from people who build successful businesses. I didn’t move back to the town where I was born and raised for that small of a thing. I want to change systems and break down barriers. I want to be very much a part of the growth of everyone. A business often gives you a platform, and I’m grateful for that platform. At the end of the day, my joy comes in seeing others who have not been given the same opportunities or privileges that I’ve been given rise.
This was a little bit of me living with blinders on. The majority of my Black friends who grew up in Tarboro with me don’t feel this love of Tarboro as I do. When I talked to them about that, they were like, “Our experience growing up was very different from yours.” I don’t want that to be the case for future generations.
You’re enlightening people through your company. You have events and different people coming together. That’s so wonderful. That might be part of your soul’s purpose.
You need to come to visit.
I would love to do that. When you come to New York again, we’ll have a glass of wine right outside the city. Tell us about healing. I love this comment that you made in your book. It says, “Change can be scary. It can be sad. It can even overwhelm but it can also be very good.” In your opinion, why does the healing process, which encourages and enlightens people about making a change in their lives, make a person stronger and wiser? What would you like to say about that?
I think about that all the time. I start with my uncle who said in a sermon, “You can’t experience God’s grace until you experience true pain.” That’s true. I didn’t understand the grace of the world, universe, and God until coming out on the other side of 9/11. Wisdom directly relates to empathy. It’s very difficult to be empathetic if nothing has ever knocked you off your balance in whatever way. Maybe you lose something.
You lose the job that you loved or lose the boyfriend to someone else, whatever that is. It doesn’t necessarily have to be death, although I do think when you lose people, you have this breaking of spirit that once it heals or comes back to life. You see the world and people very differently. Wisdom is when that person may be slamming on the horn, flipping me off, and acting like a complete jerk. I have the option to lay on the horn right back and flip him off or I can smile and say, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cut you off.’” It’s that simple. If you want to heal, you have to see bigger.
It gives you a different perspective. You give some more of an overview as opposed to taking things so bitterly and personally. Would you agree with that?
Everybody’s in love with Inez. Tell us all the ways for the audience to connect with you and your book, which is a terrific story. What’s your website? How do they find you, Inez?
Instagram is my preferred method of posting and reading. It’s very creative. It’s @InezRibustello. My profile has links to Tarboro Brewing Company, On the Square, and our satellite brewery, TBC West.
What is Inez’s tip for finding joy in life?
Whenever you were down, do something nice for someone else and you will be joyful every single time. It doesn’t have to be purchasing a gift. It could be taking in your neighbor’s trash can from the side of the road. When you are doing something nice for someone else, joy is there to follow for sure.
Inez, Life After Windows leaves its readers feeling positive and hopeful about lessons learned and memories cherished. It is a captivating memoir. You are an inspiring role model. Thank you from my heart for sharing your moving journey from a devastating loss to healing and rebirth, and also for enlightening all of us about good food and good wine. Everyone, read the book. You’ll learn a lot.
Here’s a loving reminder. Make sure to follow and like us on social @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and especially on YouTube. Like, subscribe, and hit notify to make sure you’ll get inspiring new interviews like this one with Inez coming your way. Thank you so much. As I like to say, to be continued. There’s also Tarboro Brewing Company and there’s to be continued. Many blessings. Bye for now.
- Irene Weinberg on Instagram
- Irene Weinberg on Facebook
- Irene Weinberg on Twitter
- Irene Weinberg – Grief, Rebirth + Healing Podcast on YouTube