In the city that never sleeps, terrorism lurks
Especially after 9/11, we New Yorkers know we're America's canary in the
coal mine—and we wouldn't have it any other way.
Manhattan. I knew this because I was awakened at 1 a.m. by a strange crack of
thunder—not the usual boom-boom kind, but a weirdly sustained rumble, like the
muted noise from a building demolition.
I sat up in bed and waited—as I've customarily done since Sept. 11, 2001—for the
sound of sirens. If I didn't hear them, I'd know we were just victims of some nasty
meteorology. If I did, I'd know we were in trouble. Again.
I had good reason to worry, of course. Earlier in the evening, I watched the news
coverage of the abortive car-bombing in Times Square, and my stomach tightened
as I witnessed that all too familiar tableau: Bystanders rubbernecking, taxi drivers
shaking their heads and beeping their horns, and policemen mounted on strong
brown steeds slowly winding their way through the ever-thickening crowds.
But that, I suppose, is life in New York.
For whatever reason Osama bin Laden drew a bright red circle around Lower
Manhattan when he first concocted his insidious call for attention, it has changed
the complexion of this metropolis forever—for its residents, for its tourists, for the
nation as a whole. Low-flying planes routinely get a second glance, the sight of
firehouses is a little more melancholy, and kids get an extra hug before they're
packed off to school.
That, too, is life in New York. Adaptation is not only the credo of most residents
here but a mandate. Just like in our infamous subway caverns, if you stoop to tie
your shoe, you'll be trampled.
Indeed, it's no mystery why, eight-and-a-half years ago, the smoldering graveyard
of rubble just north of Battery Park was instantly dubbed our national tragedy's
Ground Zero. More than just the giant fuse box of our nation's economy—or the
punch line of any number of late-night monologue jokes—New York City has always
been America's canary in a coal mine, a peculiar, 303-square-mile outpost of
concrete and conviction, where its inhabitants have been charged, sometimes
reluctantly, to lead the nation's ongoing journey.
Worldwide clothing trends rise from the dingy basements of gray office buildings in
Midtown's fashion district. New music is born in tiny brick clubs that line the streets
of the East Village. Cutting-edge theater and rich literature spring from the minds of
unemployed insomniacs who'd rather head to their keyboards at 3 a.m. than tell a
cranky neighbor to turn down his TV.
And now the threat of terrorism—and our nation's fight against it—is simply another
part of that routine. In fact, most of the alarms we've had here in recent months—
the suicidal student carrying toxic chemicals into a subway tunnel in April; the 747
and F-16 fighter jets that buzzed New York Harbor last spring (to take photographs,
it turns out); the checkpoint trespasser at Newark International whose inadvertent
shortcut shut down the whole bloomin' airport—raised eyebrows and neck hairs
only momentarily before it was back to business as usual.
Even the Times Square scare seems oddly anticlimactic. Whether the culprit turns
out to be a full-blown terrorist or just a lone kook with a bad idea is, to many locals,
largely incidental. After all, who has time to worry when, not unlike those horses in
Times Square or Central Park, New Yorkers are forever strapped with blinders and
told to keep moving?
I hardly mention this to brag. It wasn't until I married a Midwesterner that I
understood the pointlessness of perpetual motion, and the peaceful rewards to be
found in a reflective pause. I was 40 years old before I learned to lie in a hammock
and read a book. And I had to leave the island to do it.
And yet, having grown up in the suburbs and moved to New York in my 20s, I've
seen both worlds and learned to appreciate the soulfulness of each. Not so with my
kids, I'm afraid, whose first stroller rides were down cluttered, noisy sidewalks, and
for whom take-out Chinese is actually a food group. I sometimes feel guilty that I
haven't given my daughters a place to grow up where they'd experience the sheer
joy of sailing down a grass hill on a bicycle on a fall afternoon, or enjoying a
backyard barbecue on a cool summer evening.
But then I remember what they're getting in return. Two nights ago, my 14-year-old,
Bridgette, accompanied a friend to Lower Manhattan so they could watch their
classmate "walk on stilts outside the Tribeca Film Festival." It is a testament to the
unique vibrancy of this city, and the sights and sounds that my kids get to soak up
every day, that I didn't even pause to ask Bridgey what the hell she was talking
about. I only said, "OK, but be careful."
And so New York will move on, as it always does, from the Times Square bomb
attempt. In my house, this was evident by Day 2. When I showed my 11-year-old,
Audrey, the front-page photo of the calamity that had taken place just 40 blocks
from where she lives, she momentarily grew quiet.
"Was anyone hurt?" she asked?
"No," I said, "thankfully not."
"OK," she said. And then after a pause, "Can we eat Japanese tonight?"