The Fear This Time

Photo: Thomas Dworzak/Magnum

I read Monday’s Times on the porch of the farmhouse in Vermont where I’m trying to have a vacation. It’s a perfect summer day, sunny and warm, but not too hot. Goldfinches are dive-bombing the bird feeder in the yard. Our neighbor is on his John Deere tractor mowing the lawn. I glance at the obits first—a recently acquired habit. Let’s see: “Lilian Moore, 95, Who Wrote Books for Children, Is Dead.” A good age, Lilian; congratulations. “Irvin Yeaworth Jr., 78, Director of the Camp Classic ‘The Blob.’ ” Then the sports section: No 300th win for Greg Maddux. Finally, I take a deep breath (no matter how far away you are from New York these days, you’re not far enough) and reach for the front page, turning it faceup like the last card in a hand of poker. u.s. warns of high risk of qaeda attack. So it’s here at last: the Event that—without quite admitting it to ourselves—we’ve all been waiting for. Maybe, given the Orwellian disinformation we’ve been fed all summer, it’s simply not true. We must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the president’s leadership in the war against terror,” declared the bipartisan Tom Ridge. In other words, nothing’s happened. But the specificity of the bulletin alarms even a skeptical New Yorker like me. Some of the targets are obvious: the New York Stock Exchange, the World Bank in Washington, D.C. But others are eerily precise. Why Citigroup? Why the Prudential Financial building in Newark? (Newark?) Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft lack the imagination to make up this stuff. (Not even Karl Rove could concoct it.) Remember that scene in The Blob where moviegoers flee screaming from the monster as it overwhelms the screen? Irvin, you didn’t know the half of it.

The people I talk to back in the city are hardly reassuring. Just about everyone I know who isn’t tethered to a desk or whose kids’ obdurate soccer coaches won’t give them a pass on preseason practice has already made plans to leave town during the Republican convention. Now they’re trying to figure out whether to leave today—this minute. “I can’t feel any more nervous than I have since 9/11,” says a friend of mine who has two little kids. “I was already getting more nervous by the day.” He has instructed his family not to go anywhere near midtown. Another friend whose kids are off at camp confides that he is contemplating sending his wife up to Maine for an unscheduled visit. “You know how some couples won’t fly together?” He doesn’t have to finish the thought.

Even before last week, what I’ve come to think of as It was back. There was more talk around dinner tables: I’m glad the kids are away for the summer. Maybe we should sell our apartment now while prices are high—before … The third anniversary of the catastrophe was approaching. Footage of the frightened citizenry in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 gripped my heart—a seizure of PTSD. I read on “Page Six”—a highly reliable source in disclosing the latest escapades of Paris Hilton, so why not on this impending crisis?—that New York Times reporters covering the Democratic convention had been issued “escape hoods,” designed for protection in case of nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks. (What about the rest of their bodies?) Also in my Apocalypse files is a Wall Street Journal “service piece” titled “A New Approach in Terror Readiness.” The Rand Corporation has devised a reference card, “designed to fit in a handbag or pocket,” that offers such useful tips as “take shelter in the closest building,” unless it has been “damaged or threatened by the explosion”; and buy a dust mask with an “N95-rated particulate filter” to protect against radiological dust. And don’t forget the duct tape—read by urban dwellers who have never been to a hardware store in their lives as “duck tape”—to seal off your apartment. Feel safe now?

Until this summer, life had almost begun to seem normal again. The cafés on Columbus Avenue were packed; the gossip columns spoke of late-night doings at Soho House and Bungalow 8. Bold stripes in men’s shirts were back, I read in GQ or somewhere—an assessment that my own field research among the crowded display tables at Thomas Pink and Turnbull & Asser confirmed. Jermyn Street, apparently, continued to find Manhattan alluring.

I stared up at the monumental Columbus Circle towers in astonishment: You’ve gotta be kidding. Who would live up there?

Not that things were the same—not that things would ever be the same. It—that is to say, It—was still on the front page of the Times every day, in some form or another: the findings of various post-9/11 commissions; squabbles among architects down at ground zero; human-interest stories about the families of firemen who died. Little things would leap out at you. Riding in the back of a taxi one day, I noticed that on the Manhattan maps affixed to the seat, the icon of the Twin Towers was gone, in its stead a looped red-white-and-blue ribbon. I was reminded of the photograph of a Communist Party apparatchik described in Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: In the photo, he stands on a balcony in a fur cap, haranguing the crowd in the square below; four years later, having been charged with treason and hanged, he’s airbrushed out of the photograph. All that remains of him is his fur cap.

Living in New York is like a terminal disease: You start awake in panic every morning, your stomach knotted, your heart plunging in your chest. But as the day wears on, you’re not even aware that you’re going about your life. An event that will surely qualify as one of the most astounding in the whole of recorded history has occurred not a mile from you. It’s as if you just happened to be a shepherd tending your flock near Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted, or a seventeenth-century London publican glancing out the window of his establishment in the Strand to glimpse the flames consuming London. That two hijacked, passenger-loaded commercial jetliners should plunge into the World Trade Center and topple it to the ground, reducing almost 3,000 innocent civilians to ash, was beyond imagination—but I still have to drop off the dry cleaning and go to the bank.

It’s this disconnect between the ordinary rituals of daily life and the unpredictable course of history that keeps us here. “Dad, why didn’t the Jews leave Germany when they realized the Nazis wanted to kill them?” I badgered my father when I was 9 years old. “Why did they sit around and wait until it was too late?” Why didn’t the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 tip them off as to Hitler’s intent? Nearly half a century later, after three decades in New York, I have the answer: Because it was home. Even a self-styled “rootless émigré” like the visionary cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose Maus depicts the Holocaust in comic-book form, confesses to a love of his Soho neighborhood. His forthcoming illustrated book, In the Shadow of No Towers, is about the traumatic experience he suffered on the morning of 9/11, when for a terrifying half-hour he was unable to locate his daughter at Stuyvesant High School. Why didn’t he leave after that? “One of my near-death realizations as the dust first settled on Canal Street,” he writes, “was the depth of my affection for the chaotic neighborhood that I can honestly call home.” Me, too: I’ve lived on the same street on the Upper West Side for more than a quarter of a century. I’m supposed to pack up our belongings in a rented Dodge van, furniture lashed to the roof, and flee?

People are doing it. Twice in a week, articles in the Times chronicled the back-to-the-land movement that’s happening upstate, in Columbia and Ulster counties. This is no anecdotal phenomenon: Local real-estate agents can testify to the brisk sales of farms. There are yuppie cafés in the sleepy rural towns, urban dropouts farming arugula. Even as far north as where I am, four hours from Manhattan, I notice a lot more people with New York and Connecticut license plates pulling up in front of Powers Market every morning—and they’re not here for the tractor-pull at the Schaghticoke Fair.

I can’t really blame them; the buzz from the city isn’t good. There’s a lot of what Saul Bellow calls “crisis-chatter” in the air. “I think about it every morning on the subway, especially when the No. 6 stops near Grand Central,” says an editor who works downtown. “On the way home, I’m relieved when I get to the 59th Street stop. They wouldn’t strike this far north.” A trader on Wall Street has started looking at other New Yorkers differently: “If someone’s shirt isn’t tight, or their sweater’s too bulky, I think there might be a bomb beneath it.” It’s the rational paranoia of people trying to control the uncontrollable, based on imperfect information and vague threats. But the anxiety can’t be maintained at a constant level; it comes in waves, cycles. “Sometimes I go for days without thinking about it,” says a friend who works in Times Square. “Other days I can’t shake it for ten minutes.” Richard A. Friedman, associate professor of psychiatry at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center, worries that people have been “desensitized” by the roller-coaster news, shifting between indifference and sudden bouts of panic. “The mood is bottomless apprehension,” he says. “We’ve been notified that terrible things are going to happen, and that we have to trust the people who are telling us these terrible things are happening. But—especially in the context of an election—how do you know it’s true? Who knows what to believe anymore?”

Even with the skepticism engendered by our Machiavellian administration, we all know, deep down, that New York City is a target and that it’s impossible to protect. We beef up security at the Citigroup building; policemen with machine guns patrol in the vicinity of Bloomingdale’s (you never know). Then—fooled ya!—they bomb Chase headquarters on Park Avenue. The uncertainty has made us fatalistic. My friend Ellen, her voice calm over the phone, is defiantly insouciant. “My mother was supposed to fly in from L.A., and now she’s canceled her trip. That’s ridiculous. The whole point is that they’re trying to disrupt our lives.” Also trying to kill us, I think to myself. “Why not treat it the way the British deal with IRA bomb threats in London?” says Jay Parini, a professor of English at Middlebury College with whom I compare notes. “It’s just become part of their lives, like bad weather.” Besides, what choice is there? As Godot says, “I can’t go on. I must go on.”

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Are you sorry you’re away?” one of my colleagues at work asks me during our daily conference call. “It’s like 9/11, when people who weren’t here wanted to come home and felt they’d missed out on the biggest event in our lives.” No, really: I don’t mind at all. The sun is shining, the finches are out in full force. I’m not ready to come home. But I have to admit, I feel defensive. What am I doing up here, on my knees in the garden plucking crabgrass, while everyone else is on the front lines? I’m like a deserter—like Bush evading service in the National Guard, only with shame.

But come Labor Day, I’ll be back at my post, shutting out the din of sirens, disciplining myself not to hyperventilate when the elevator is slow. I could never seriously entertain the notion of fleeing for good—of selling our classic six, giving up my job, enrolling our 16-year-old son in the local high school. It would be cowardly, ignominious. A few weeks ago, before the Big Announcement, I was having lunch with a friend when the subject came up. We were talking about a successful advertising salesman we knew who had pulled up stakes after 9/11 and moved his family to Vermont. “He should be in New York selling ads,” said my friend. “That’s what he does! That’s who he is! That’s the essence of his identity!”

I nodded in affirmation. The essence of my identity is to sit with my feet up on a desk in a midtown high-rise, a phone clapped to my ear, making deals. “It’s not as if I’m going to move up to my farmhouse and tend my sheep,” I said defensively.

He looked down at his sushi. “Actually, I have sheep.” (Just for the record, I don’t.)

“You have sheep?” I was stunned. “Sheep,” he repeated. Robert—I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy—is one of the most urbane and sophisticated people I know. Yet he began to discourse with great authority about sheep pens, informing me that you don’t need to heat them in winter. “Sheep don’t mind the cold.”

Robert would never voluntarily leave the city either—he’s the quintessence of what I love about it: the large population of people with lively minds. His sheep are a weekend thing. But what if we have no choice but to go? My family’s escape backpack has been in the closet for almost three years now—since the day after 9/11. In it is a wallet containing $500 in twenties, two miniature flashlights, batteries, a portable radio, and a canteen—we haven’t worked up the nerve to buy gas masks yet. In the kitchen cabinet below the sink are additional supplies: twenty bottles of Poland Spring, a Frost King Outdoor Window Insulation Kit, cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew. In the basement of our building, locked to the communal bike rack, are four bicycles with pumps—one for Will, one for Molly (off at college now, but what if she’s home on vacation when the bomb goes off?), one for my wife, Annie, and one for me. I check the tires every month. “I need a pair of sneakers at work,” Annie says. “All I’ve got are high heels.” This summer, we brought up to Vermont three of our six family albums. If all else perishes, the photographs will be there to remind us of the lives we led.

If—when—It happens, the consequences won’t be temporary, or localized. I’m haunted by an article I came across by Victor Davis Hanson in The National Review last month: “Another 9/11: The Awful Response That We Dare Not Speak About.” Hanson isn’t just some pundit; a farmer-classicist and the author of several erudite books on ancient Greece, he takes the long view. Another 9/11, he writes, will be “the sure end of civilization as we know it.” I used to gaze up at the monoliths of downtown Manhattan, sky-high versions of the Pueblo caves I once saw in Santa Fe, and think, How is all this going to come down? Global warming, like in the movie The Day After Tomorrow, where a tidal wave of melting icecaps inundates the city? Nowadays I think it will be a “dirty” bomb that spews radiation over the island, rendering it uninhabitable for decades. With the Republican convention less than a month away and the prospect of another stolen election looming, a new scenario occurs to me: civilians fighting the National Guard, barricades in the meatpacking district, the old paving stones pried up and hurled at the police. New York as Paris in 1848.

A few weeks ago, I was strolling the streets on a warm summer afternoon. At dusk, the vista up Fifth Avenue, the sky over Central Park as brilliant as a Turner, the canyon of buildings glinting in the sunset, was stunning in its majesty. I stared up at the monumental Columbus Circle towers in astonishment: You’ve gotta be kidding. Who would live up there? Let me amend Marx’s famous declaration that history occurs the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. No: History occurs the first time as tragedy and the second time as tragedy and also the third time and the fourth. One of humanity’s most pronounced and dangerous traits is that we never learn.

On tuesday, i grab the front page first, before obits and sports. Wait a minute: The information about an imminent attack has been declared obsolete. Reports that led to the terror alert were years old, officials say. You may resume the rhythm of your lives. A day later, It’s back. new qaeda activity is said to be major factor in alert. Day Four: qaeda strategy is called cause for new alarm. Yeah, yeah.

Here are the alternative scripts I play out in my head: It happens, and people stream out of the city, crowding over the bridges like the Cambodians when the Khmer Rouge took over, hospital patients being wheeled out of Phnom Penh in their beds; or Sudanese heading for the borders to escape marauding bands unleashed by the government. We’re spoiled, softened by half a century of peace. History—a chronicle of warfare and pillage—has passed us over. But our good fortune can’t last forever. It never does.

The other possibility is this: It won’t happen, the threat will recede, the focus will shift to Afghanistan instead of Iraq, Al Qaeda will be rooted out. “Page Six” will return its attention to Paris Hilton. I’ll grow old and die in my bed: Is survived by his wife, two children, and four grandchildren. Had homes in Manhattan and Vermont. Was 82 years old.

The Fear This Time