The sign outside said the sandwich shop was closed, but people kept coming in anyway, eager for their lunchtime hoagie.
Inside the tiny restaurant in downtown Washington, Arlene Wagner nervously wiped tables and laid out trays of food. Bub and Pop’s wasn’t open for business on Wednesday, but it wouldn’t be empty.
“Sorry, guys, we’re closed,” she told a couple of regulars, turning them away and locking the door behind them. “We’re having a remembrance for my son.”
It had been exactly a year since Staff Sgt. Peter Taub and five other U.S. airmen were killed by a suicide bomber while on patrol in Afghanistan.
Now the survivors of the attack were coming here to eat, along with Taub’s commander and more than a dozen other airmen. As Arlene, a wiry 65-year-old in glasses, wondered how they would all fit, a tub of French onion dip fell off a table and exploded on the floor. Arlene jumped.
“I’m just trying to get through the day,” she said.
Arlene had just closed Bub and Pop’s on Dec. 21, 2015, when her older son, Jonathan Taub, the restaurant’s chef, came tearing through the kitchen.
“Pete was killed,” he said. Wagner checked her phone, saw the missed calls and knew it was true. Her son, a 30-year-old father with a second baby on the way, was gone. That night, three officers in crisp blue uniforms arrived to officially deliver the news.
Now airmen were again at her door.
Brig. Gen. Keith M. Givens, head of the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, stepped into the restaurant and hugged Arlene. Next to arrive was Peter’s OSI partner, who had nearly been killed in the blast.
“Hey, honey,” Arlene said, embracing the man, who asked not be identified.
She hugged each person who came through the door, all 17 of them.
“I’m going to take a breath now,” she said, pausing to compose herself. “Thank you for all being here. Now eat.”
They filled their plates with hoagies and salad, chips and dip, and sat in near-silence, unsure how to begin, which stories to tell.
There was Peter’s partner, who had spotted his buddy’s body through the lingering smoke as he made his way to the medevac helicopter. There were the two other surviving airmen, who had been knocked back 10 feet by the blast and were now, like Peter’s partner, dealing with traumatic brain injury. And there was the Marine who had rushed through exposed territory to try to help.
“This is really quiet,” Arlene said. “Should I put on some Christmas music?”
One person missing from the table was Peter’s older brother. They’d been close growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Jonathan was tall and burly. Peter was so skinny and sweet that his parents worried about him.
After Arlene and Joel Taub split, the siblings struggled. Jonathan was shot in the back during a fight shortly after graduating from high school. He recovered, went to chef’s school and worked in some of Philadelphia’s best restaurants before moving to the District, where he opened Bub and Pop’s with his Mom and stepdad in 2013.
Peter partied too much and dropped out of community college. His solution was to enlist. His father, who’d grown up during the Vietnam War, was wary. American troops were dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Joel told his son that the Army and Marine Corps were too dangerous. Instead he suggested the Air Force.
Peter had served for eight years before being deployed to Afghanistan. Hours before Peter shipped out in 2015, Jonathan made him his favorite hoagie to take to the airport.
On Wednesday, the 33-year-old chef was in the back office of Bub and Pop’s, sitting at a computer underneath two photos of his brother. He couldn’t bring himself to attend the luncheon. Instead, he tried to distract himself with YouTube videos of famous chefs.
“I’m not even sure why they are here,” he said, glancing at security cameras showing the airmen eating lunch. “Is that wrong for me to say?”
They were there, Givens said, to honor and remember Peter, one of 2,383 service members who have died in the longest war in U.S. history.
“If Pete could have chosen to switch places with anyone here, he wouldn’t have,” he told Arlene. “But you know that. You raised him.”
Arlene brought up the polka-dot socks Peter used to wear, even as an Air Force investigator, and the mood inside the restaurant began to lift.
Peter hid the fact that he was being sent to Afghanistan, telling his family he was on his way to Qatar, Arlene recounted. She found out only while helping him pack when his wife, Christina, accidentally let the secret slip. Her ex-husband, Joel, thought their son was in Qatar, out of harm’s way, until the day Peter died in a war many Americans have all but forgotten.
“He told me he was going to get a mug with ‘Afghanistan’ on it and, when he was back, give it to his father,” she said of her son. “That’s how he was going to let him know.”
Special Agent Heather Garver, sitting across the table from Arlene, nodded her head.
“I went to the bazaar with him one morning, and we went and picked it out,” Garver said. “He wanted a certain marble so he could have it engraved.”
Soon, stories about Peter were coming fast and thick. There was the time he broke his partner’s glasses during a Silly String fight, the day he mysteriously procured a Christmas tree in Afghanistan just before the holidays, and the tale of how he left rotting food in his desk before heading overseas.
In the middle of the stories, Arlene’s phone rang. It was Christina, Peter’s widow.
She had learned she was pregnant with their second child a few weeks after Peter left for Afghanistan. Now the baby girl Peter never met was on FaceTime, staring out at the men who were with her father when he died.
“This is Petra,” Arlene said.
“She has Pete’s smile, his eyes,” said Garver.
Arlene spoke to her son for the last time a week before he died. With Christina pregnant and Arlene’s sister battling cancer, life and death loomed over the conversation.
“It was great to be with you for so long yesterday,” Arlene texted him afterward. She texted again later that week to say she loved him.
“Love U too,” he texted back.
The day he died, Peter and a half-dozen other OSI agents climbed into their armored vehicles and headed toward the village of Bajawri, a tiny town six miles from Bagram, to meet with the village elder.
Afterward, as they walked back to their vehicles, an Afghan approached on a motorcycle. When he reached the Americans, a bomb hidden underneath the motorcycle’s seat exploded, sending shrapnel that scythed through the airmen. Among those killed were a New York City police detective serving in the U.S. National Air Guard and an openly gay Air Force major who’d pushed to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
A cold, hard rain fell on Dec. 23 as airmen carried the six flag-draped caskets off the back of a C-17 at New Castle Air Base in Delaware. Peter’s casket was last, his family recalled. “I was shivering but I was also crying so hard,” Jonathan said. “It was unreal, seeing my brother pulled off that plane in a f------ box.”
The holidays were agony. They’d closed Bub and Pop’s, posting a sign announcing Peter’s death to their customers.
“We sat around and went through a lot of scotch,” Joel said. “We didn’t celebrate the holidays, and we probably never will again.”
There was a funeral, complete with 21-gun salute, in Christina’s home town of Easton, Pa. And another ceremony at a firehall in Lansdale, Pa., near where Peter grew up.
Then began the procession of terrible reminders of what they’d lost: The day in April when Peter would have returned home. Memorial Day. The birth of Petra, named after her father. Nov. 2, which would have been Peter’s 31st birthday. Veterans Day. And Thanksgiving, which Arlene spent with Christina and the girls.
Arlene, once described by a Washington Post food writer as Bub and Pop’s “official anti-depressant,” struggled to keep it together.
“I spend a lot of time cutting off my emotions because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning,” she said. “I’d be a basket case.”
Jonathan began snapping when food deliveries came up short, when drivers cut him off, when his mother got on his nerves. He began drinking and smoking more, too.
“I don’t know how I didn’t go off the deep end,” he said. “I wake up and I feel like I have 1,000 pounds on my back and there is a hole in my heart.”
In the end, it was the restaurant that helped save them. Jonathan began serving fancy dinners on Saturday nights, pouring his energy into elaborate creations such as deconstructed cheesesteak in bone marrow, and Burgundy snails with creme fraiche.
For Arlene, it wasn’t the food but the customers. It started with the flowers and stuffed animals they left outside Bub and Pop’s after Peter’s death. Then a regular who owns a framing shop brought in a large sign honoring Peter. Arlene hung it in the front of the shop, took it down when it became too much, and then hung it back up again.
One man sent a card saying he, too, had lost his son in Afghanistan. A woman wrote to say Peter had given her son half of his hoagie at BWI before shipping out.
And then there were the service members and veterans who stopped by to pay their respects. Some had served with Peter. But many were strangers. Arlene could often spot them as soon as they walked in: Their posture gave them away. She walked around the counter and embraced them.
On Wednesday, when the food was gone and the stories were told, the airmen stood up to leave. Arlene hugged them all again and showed them to the door, turning away a customer who tried to sneak through the open door.
“Sorry, we’re closed,” she said, locking the door and heading back into the restaurant to clean up.