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Weekly Features
Letter from New York
Mathew Tombers is the President of Intermat, Inc., a consulting practice that specializes in the intersection of media, technology and marketing. For two years, he produced the Emmys on the Web and supervised web related activities for the Academy, including for the 50th Anniversary year of the Emmy Awards. In addition to its consulting engagements, Intermat recently sold METEOR’S TALE, an unpublished novel by Michael O’Rourke, to Animal Planet for development as a television movie. Visit his web site at

Strange Days

As I sat down tonight to write this column, the phrase I was thinking was: strange days. The person who I recall first introducing me to that phrase was an Aussie friend of mine who happened to have been in New York last week and with whom I had lunch last Saturday.

I had thought he was going to stay until Sunday or Monday but at lunch he told me he had moved his flight up to that night. The upgrade of the national terrorist alert level to orange caused him to decide to move on out, early. Just in case.

How was Sydney, I asked.

Getting armed. Harbor full of patrols. Bali changed everything. Rightly or wrongly.

Sunday for us was a peaceful kind of day. Reading the New York Times, watching the news a little, doing a bit of work, a short afternoon map after hanging pictures in the new apartment.

Monday morning came and with it came what I'm now thinking of as the "strange days" storm of emotion.

We woke to brilliantly cold weather and all the news services, from local and national, taking us through all the steps we should be taking to safeguard ourselves in the event of a terrorist attack. Most vividly, I remember watching one of the morning news programs, TODAY I think, having all the survival materials lined up, laid out, and pointed out.

At physical therapy that day for the shoulder I injured in a fall on ice, there was an announcement on the radio about subway safety. The lady next to me, who looked like she probably had done her share of marches for a variety of causes, shook her head and said: it makes me so angry! It's all marketing! He's marketing his war to us, trying to scare us into being happy he'll kill all those people!

I'm assuming that he and his referred to Bush. But she articulated a feeling that is not rare among some New Yorkers, that we are having terror pushed upon us for a reason beyond a desire to keep us safe.

The city was a little off on Monday but by Monday evening it was palpably on edge. Taking the subway home, the train stopped outside of the Union Square station. The electronic voice apologized a dozen times for the unavoidable delay before a conductor announced that we were being held because of signal problems. We were there for an hour and ten minutes. Somewhere around thirty minutes, I noticed that half the people in my car were sniffing the air, as unobtrusively as possible, to smell if there was anything, ANYTHING, strange in the air. At about forty-five minutes there was a woman's voice in the car in front of mine that could be heard screaming. It started pretty low and grew from there. Right about then a man in his thirties began to pace our car. The sniffing went on.

Everyone bolted from the train at Union Square, once we got into the station. While waiting for the next train, the announcements were apologies about all the delays due to an incident outside Union Square station. Everyone off my train looked around and went: incident? Good thing the conductor hadn't said that or that lady in front of us would REALLY have been screaming.

Tuesday was more of the same; may be a little worse. It was sinking in that day and people were out buying water and supplies. It was the plastic sheets and the duct tape that captured the attention on Tuesday. Making lunch plans with a friend, he blithely announced that he was leaving the city on Thursday and wouldn't be back for ten days. If something was going to happen, that was the window and he was just going to sit it out in his country home. He could work from there. He'd been remodeling the place at the time of 9/11 and made sure that he could once that happened.

By Wednesday we were deep into gallows humor.

I was on a shoot and the talent and the crew was making so many bad jokes about the state of things that suddenly the set got very, very, very heavy. The next take went very, very, very badly. I clapped my hands and said, loudly: okay, so we're facing the end of the world but ladies and gentlemen, let's remember we're shooting a pilot here!

Laughter, relief, and we finished.

But this is the way we are and I'm watching the news as I write this.

Trucks are being searched and there are police everywhere, not to mention the troops at entry points into Manhattan.

Speaking to a client in D.C. we drifted into conversation about the state of the nation. He confirmed what I had heard earlier. There were anti-aircraft missiles at the Washington Monument among a lot of other places.

The first half of the news tonight was devoted to story after story about disaster preparedness. Seminars are being held all over the city to help us get ready for…whatever.

But the city still ticks on. We went to a birthday party tonight. People are planning their lives, thinking about jobs and moves and what we're going to do to celebrate Valentine's Day.

But riding down the elevator from the office today, I shared the car with two other men, both making gallows humor jokes. As we started to exit the car, one of the men held back, shaking his head. He looked up at me and said: two years I would have told you that you were crazy if you'd told me I'd be making these kinds of jokes. He pulled on his stocking cap and exited into the deep freeze that embraces the city.

Watching him go, I thought: strange days.