Calm as Calm Can Be

The press-conference acoustics on the floor of Grand Central were so bad, the most telling sentences were nearly unintelligible. Not that the specific words spoken by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly mattered, really. It was the way they spoke them, their tone the verbal equivalent of a shrug.

“These are the types of things we prepare for,” Kelly said.

“This is what we do,” Bloomberg said.

A disembodied female public-address voice interrupted: “The 12:23 to North White Plains, running local, is departing from Track 107 on the lower level. The 12:37 to Rye … ”The trains are running on schedule. This is what we do. This is the way we live now.

It wasn’t simply that the latest terrorist attack hadn’t happened here. It was that worse has happened here—and, many assume, will happen here again. In the hours after four explosions killed more than 50 people and wounded 700 in central London, the mood in New York was sympathy mixed with fatalism mixed with wishful-thinking faith in the NYPD mixed with quiet defiance. The city isn’t numb to terror, but nearly four years after 9/11, we are almost inured.

Even discounting slightly for posturing—concerned-but-confident pols have become as central to the post-attack protocol as the prodigious display of machine guns—Bloomberg’s determined calm reflected New York’s prevailing mind-set. After the press conference with Governor George Pataki, the mayor walked to the Lex (Pataki entered through a gate held open by one of his bodyguards; Bloomberg swiped a MetroCard) for a ride to City Hall. The train was packed, even before the media wedged in. Bloomberg stood, gripping an overhead bar and smiling down at a young blonde woman. (“How is it,” one reporter muttered, “that he always ends up next to the best-looking woman in any room?”)

Bloomberg looked remarkably rested and relaxed, considering his private plane landed two hours earlier from Singapore, where years of effort and millions of dollars had won New York a pathetic sixteen votes in the 2012 Olympics derby. “Well, it’s a 26-hour flight,” the mayor said crisply. “And I’ve done a lot of traveling, so I know how to get some sleep.” Did the attacks on Istanbul, Bali, Madrid, and now London show—in a backhanded, tragic way—that New York had become a hard target? “I do think we are doing a good job protecting the city,” Bloomberg said as the 6 train left Spring Street. “But you never know when you have too much security, or why we weren’t the ones who were attacked this time. Really, it reminds you that everyone is vulnerable.”

True. But Bloomberg’s manner, always pragmatic, today seemed appropriately British in its stoicism.

To be sure, there were fresh waves of fear, sadness, and worry. “Even after 9/11, the city wasn’t prepared for the blackout,” said Patricia Fleary, a New Yorker waiting for an uptown train. “The city never beefs things up enough until after something happens.”

Subway workers joked darkly. “We’re on the bottom of everything down here,” said Stanley Hamp, a signalman waving a flashlight on the Grand Central platform. His friend Richie Chomicki, a conductor on the 4, nodded gravely. “There’s more cops in the tunnels, but the guys who are willing to die, the ones who are doing it for Allah? Forget it.” Then again, Hamp and Chomicki agreed, breathing the subway air all these years would probably kill them before any terrorist did. “My wife asked me this morning, after she heard about London, ‘Do you gotta go to work today?’ Pffff!” Chomicki said with a laugh. “Yeah, I gotta go to work today!”

The most painful reverberations were felt by people who experienced the World Trade Center attack firsthand. “This is more than a trigger,” said Dr. Rachel Yehuda, a Mount Sinai expert in post-traumatic stress. “This is almost a re-creation of the initial event they’re upset about.”

Yet most people plunged ahead, some because they’ve grown jaded. “The employment number tomorrow morning is far more important than terrorism here,” one prominent Wall Street trader said. “In part because we feel that short of thermonuclear war, we’ve seen what’s out there and we’ve learned to live with it.”

Two women and their 16-year-old sons studied a subway map in Grand Central. They were here for a week of vacation, from England. “My son got a text message from home this morning,” Lynne Bray said. “The boys were so scared they didn’t want to leave the hotel.”

“Then we thought, Today in New York will be safer than lots of others,” Sue Lacey said. “And we’ve got no choice. We can waste our time or get on with it and enjoy the day.”

Now they must be going, Bray said. “We have reservations for a sightseeing helicopter.”

When Bloomberg emerged from the train, 25 protesters greeted him on the City Hall steps. They were angry about Bruce Ratner’s plan to build a monstrous apartment-tower and arena complex in the middle of brownstone Brooklyn. “Hands off our homes!” one woman yelled. “There’s a better plan, Mr. Mayor!” a man hollered. Bloomberg didn’t answer. Maybe he was wondering when New York’s number would come up and he’d be confronting a true crisis. For the moment he looked happy to see the demonstrators.

Welcome home. Remain calm. All is well.

Calm as Calm Can Be