Fear Factor NYC

Just as Christina, a musician who’s traveled to Israel many times, was about to step on the 14th Street crosstown last week, it dawned on her that a public bus might not be the safest place. At the same moment, she noticed a police officer was also on line. She relaxed and dipped her MetroCard in the slot. When she took a seat beside him, they got to talking about terrorism—because what else is there to talk about? “I told him I feel like something terrible is going to happen. I said, ‘I feel like I’m waiting for the bus to be blown up,’ kind of jokingly. And then he goes, ‘Yeah, so am I! You know, you really wouldn’t even need to have a suicide bomber, just someone to go by on a bicycle with a plastic explosive, stick it on the back, and ride away.’ I got off at the next stop,” she says. “I hadnÂ’t even thought of that!”

At the premiere of Matthew Broderic’s The Music Man at the Lincoln Center movie theater last week, a young mother spent most of the evening trying to corner not Nathan Lane or Sarah Jessica Parker but Lou Palumbo, director of the Elite Group Limited, a private security firm hired by individuals and events like the Golden Globes. “I’m not going to stop going to movie theaters,” says Palumbo, “but I wouldn’t go to Madison Square Garden. I like people, but I don’t like people, you know what I mean?”

The low-grade infection we’ve been carrying around the past few months has escalated to a full-blown disease. After repeated code-orange segments on the Today show, even chirpy Katie Couric seemed shaken. “She actually said, ‘Jeez, talk about anxiety,’” says a beauty editor who watches the show with her morning coffee. “That sets the tone for the rest of us.”

The rest of us are apparently obsessed with rumor, ready to spring to the phone and spread panic with the same enthusiasm with which we solve blind gossip items. A weekend forecast of code red flew through the city last Thursday faster than the Oscar nominations. Along with dwindling finances, “it’s concern for personal safety that I’m hearing most,” says Dr. Warren Berland, a midtown psychotherapist. “The panic associated with another terrorist attack has moved from if it will occur to exactly what form it will occur in and where in the city one could handle being at the time.” For many, getting on a plane is out of the question. The potential liability has prompted the Fieldston School, a coed private school in Riverdale, to cancel its spring-break trips to Spain and France.

“I’ve started biking pretty much everywhere,” says a recent New York transplant. “It gives you a better sense of the geography and escape routes. Plus the feeling that you can put on the juice no matter where you are. At least I won’t die clutching at the door of the Q train as a cowpox canister rolls around the tile at the Canal Street stop.”

When a marketing executive was taking a late-night N train home to Brooklyn last week, the cars abruptly froze in between Whitehall Street, the last stop in Manhattan, and Court Street—for twenty minutes. What would have been a sweat-inducing nuisance even just a month ago now seems like a near-death experience. She began to hyperventilate. “I don’t like when the train goes underwater anyway, and I was freaking out. They didn’t make an announcement or anything.”

One grad student hoped to outsmart terrorists by heading to her nine-to-five at 7:30 a.m., only to find the train full of others thinking the same thing. “This morning, I gave up,” she says. “I just decided nothing was going to happen. But then I got to my station at Borough Hall, and there were twenty police officers. From now on, IÂ’m going to take the water taxi.”

A good thing, since land-based taxis are hard to come by. Every day, one Tribeca resident finds herself sizing up her commute to midtown with a quick cost analysis: Should she forgo the subway for a $12 cab or save up for next week, when the war might start?

There is a kind of anxiety yo-yo going on: We are worried that no one is protecting us; on the other hand, the mere sight of flashing lights makes us feel under siege. We feel oppressed by our office buildings when they force us to hand over I.D., but when they stop, we are terrified. On a family trip to the Met last week, one Upper East Side mom was delighted to see a flurry of officers milling around, and to be asked for I.D. at the ticket counter. “I thought, I love this!” she says. “It’s like security chic or something.”

Guessing at “soft targets” has become universal dinner-party fodder. Where is it worse to be: Times Square? The Ziegfeld? Dos Caminos? “I live on 89th between Lex and Park,” says an ad executive, “right by the 92nd Street Y! I mean, that is exactly what they’re talking about! A Jewish recreational facility. That would get the whole Upper East Side!”

After discussing terrorism alerts at too many parties, one Gramercy resident, who was fearless enough to make his way to ground zero the night after the buildings came down, woke up last Sunday and bought a ticket to Florida with an open return. (He took the subway to the airport, however.) From the beach in Naples, he tries to analyze his flight response. “It’s weird,” he says. ‘It’s like, where do you feel safer, as a sitting duck or a moving target? Plus my new health insurance doesn’t start until March 1, and I wasn’t sure if dirty-bomb radiation would be considered a pre-existing condition.”

Would this be the time to brave the Midtown Tunnel and head for the Hamptons, to risk the GW to the Catskills? The irrational rationalizations are not uncommon. “I wouldn’t fly American to go internationally,” says a Paris-bound traveler. “I would fly on Air France. I mean, why would they bomb Air France? They might bomb British Airways, but not Air France.” One Lower East Side psychic has a client who refused to get her eyelid-lift lest she be stuck mid-stitch during a potential evacuation.

New Yorkers without travel plans are shelling out hundreds for protective gear. “My father’s law firm gave him a fanny-pack safety kit,” says an MSNBC addict. “I keep thinking I need to go to the cash machine and take out like $500 to leave at home, because who knows?”

“Last night, my doorman cornered me,” says a Greenwich Village resident. “He wouldn’t let me go up to my apartment until he finished quizzing me on the checklist of items I’m supposed to have.” One investment banker needed no prompting: “I started by putting together canned food, water, some first-aid items. We have a couple of Motorola walkie-talkies. These things have a range of five miles. You just agree what channel you’re going to talk on, and you’re good to go. I found this Website and ordered family safety kits with gas masks and protective suits.”

Remarkably, some New Yorkers have yet to alter their routine one bit. “As bad as it sounds, I’m used to it,” says an analyst for Accenture, a tech-consulting company. “I know no one who is leaving Manhattan. Everyone here is too much of a freakin’ workaholic.” At least for now. “If any sort of chemical thing happens, I’ve already decided I’m going to move to L.A. for six months,” says an entertainment lawyer, entirely satisfied with his plan. “No one gives a shit about L.A.”

What, Us Worry?
A perfect storm of anxiety is being created for New Yorkers. Is this a passing phase?

Fear Factor NYC