We know it’s coming. There was that apocalyptic but apparently far-fetched JFK plot, what almost happened this summer in London with the car bombs. Last Wednesday, when everybody thought it was 9/11 Part Two—at last—it was, at least to some New Yorkers, something of a relief. We could deal with it and move on.
At 6:01 p.m., like thousands of end-of-the-day office workers, I was walking down Park Avenue toward Grand Central, when a young brunette rushed past me. “A building collapsed! It’s a bomb!” she shouted into her phone pressed hard against her cheek. A thick tower of smoke was rising from behind the MetLife building. Here we go, I thought. We all thought. Sarah Perskie, who works on 42nd and Madison, was leaving work early when she saw the billowing black smoke. “I thought, Why are all the men’s suits freckled? until I realized they were covered in dust, and I was, too,” she says. “It’s funny, because I’m so scared of an attack that I don’t even take the subway,” she says. “But once I was in the midst of it, I thought, Now there’s nothing I can do about it, great!”
People streamed out of Grand Central, some crying, most making futile attempts to place calls. Dust-covered dresses and sunglasses. People ran downtown, grabbing others on their way. Some abandoned their shoes. At 6:15, a cluster of people on a corner of Lexington were engaged in a spirited discussion. “They say something exploded in the Empire State Building,” one man said. “They think it might just be a transformer, but I’m sure Al Qaeda’s behind it,” said a young woman. For the most part, people were calm. This time was different—this time we were expecting it, weren’t we? And now it was over and done with. Hooray!
How resigned we must all be to this sense of inevitable disaster; it’s the sort of thing we all end up discussing with our shrinks, one more anxiety. “Your relief was part of the underlying post-traumatic-stress disorder that most New Yorkers have,” says Manhattan psychotherapist Jean Malpas. “We don’t even know that we’re walking around with this unconscious anticipation of another attack. Only when something happens, like it did on Wednesday, do we realize we live our lives with this fear.” Which we do. So what to make of our wise Mayor Bloomberg’s advice after the JFK plot came out? “There are lots of threats to you in the world. There’s the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can’t sit there and worry about everything. Get a life,” he said. Or just add it to the list of popular fears: falling through the subway grate. Electrified manhole covers. Untreatable TB on the loose.
At 6:18, on Second Avenue, a jacketless businessman said, “It’s not terrorists,” frowning. “They say it’s a pipe, and that it’s steam, not smoke.” He sounded disappointed. You could think, If they’re really smart, they’ll attack us right now, when all the police and firemen are occupied elsewhere. It was perverse, the idea of wishing this; what happened was terrible enough. Meanwhile, we wait.