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
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
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
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
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.