I was throwing punches into my boxing trainer Bob’s hands in a basement gym down the block from City Hall when he gave me some advice that had nothing to do with shifting my weight back for the hook. ‘You do know, don’t you, that if you’re within range of a chemical bomb, you have to cut your clothes off? If you pull them off the regular way, you’ll get the stuff in your eyes and mouth.’
We were just a few days into the orange alert. Ever the fighter, Bob likes to be provocative and find out just how nervous you are on any given day. If he hadn’t been talking chemical warfare, he might have been asking about my book or my family, trying to rile me that way.
‘Thanks, Bob. I’ll keep that in mind,’ I said cheerfully, picturing myself in my kitchen with the shears, clothes dropping to the floor. Then what? I thought of the famous photograph of the naked Vietnamese girl running down the road.
‘And when you’re washing the chemicals off, never rub your skin. Just dab at it with warm water and soap.’ He delicately patted his huge forearms.
‘I’ll remember that too.’
‘Seriously,’ he said. ‘If nothing else. You’ll remember that.’
‘If nothing else, and I’ll think of you,’ I said. Maybe I would. He laughed.
A former heavyweight champion of Canada (he fought Larry Holmes all six rounds in 1973), an autodidact and a bartender, Bob – who was briefly married to my cousin – is someone I count on for political discussions. He has seen something of the world (he drove trucks from Turkey to Afghanistan in the mid-1970s) and is an enthusiastic reader, a fount of information on everything from political parties in the Philippines to obscure facts about the Cuban Missile Crisis. ‘I watched a documentary on terrorism on my wedding night,’ ” he told me recently.
The Friday before, on Orange Day No. 1, Bob had caught me off guard as I was warming up. ‘I figured it out,’ he said. ‘If a dirty bomb goes off while I’m here at the gym, I’ll get some fans and aim them at the doorway. Even a light breeze going out will help. Chemical particles are heavier than air, so the air can come in but the particles stay out . . .’ He stopped. My hands had dropped to my sides. ‘What’s wrong? You look like you’re about to leave.’ I almost did. If the end came, I wanted to be at home with my husband and dog.
That weekend, the Government ‘advice’ to buy duct tape and potassium iodide pills came out (unhelpfully, absurdly), and Bob’s fan plan sounded a lot more reasonable. ‘Of course, it’s all about what the wind’s doing,’ he said now. ‘If they drop a bomb in New York, it could go to Jersey or Brooklyn in a matter of minutes. The plastic sheeting/duct tape thing is ridiculous. Can you imagine the two of you sealing up your windows? You would probably start fighting.’ We probably wouldn’t, but I didn’t want to spoil his fun. That said, it took us months to put up plastic sheeting (with duct tape) in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to keep out winter draughts last year. ‘It takes so little: an eighth of a drop of VX to kill a person, a vial of anthrax to kill Congress. Besides, buildings breathe. Cracks and vents.’
My husband and I are longtime fans of the durable silver sticky tape. He introduced me to it seven years ago when we met. Since then, we have used it for wrapping packages, fixing tears in clothing and backpacks (from the inside, so you can’t see it), hemming trousers, holding shoes together, a number of crafty-type projects, sealing up bags of fresh tuna steaks for the freezer and, appropriately enough, hanging the orange curtains in our bedroom. We almost always have two or three half-finished rolls around the apartment; though when we needed some this past weekend for an actual leaking duct, we realised there was little chance of finding any in the shops.
The last time my father called from Milwaukee, he asked with a chuckle: ‘Have you got your duct tape?’ If he, the optimist, is sceptical, it’s got to be a faulty plan. I’ve been asked the same question by friends and acquaintances all over town, always with a knowing smile and a slightly furrowed brow, as if they are really asking ‘How’s mass hysteria treating you?’ or ‘Are you ready for the end? I’m not.’ Almost overnight, my duct tape went from being a tool of resourcefulness to a symbol of Armageddon.
The New York Times quoted a man in California saying he had a nice bottle of cabernet set aside. If the end came, he was going to sit down and drink it. That sounded like a good plan to me, even if I’m not at all at peace with my mortality. After boxing with Bob, I dreamed I was in Houston, near Nasa, in the aftermath of a dirty bomb, wondering whether I should really cut my clothes off, or try to figure out how to fly one of the dodgy-looking airplanes nearby to make an escape.
New York is not the only place in the last year where I’ve been immersed in the giddy climate of hovering death and disaster. Last June I arrived in Delhi just in time for the height of the nuclear war talk. The State Department’s official recommendation to US citizens to leave came a few days later, but I had worked too hard to get there to pay attention to it. I was interviewing Arundhati Roy, who accused her Government of warmongering in order to deflect attention from trickier issues at home, such as the Muslim pogroms in Gujarat and (recalling images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki) joked about what it might be like to be an ‘Arundhati-shaped stain on the staircase’. She said in an essay that many of her foreign friends were calling her up, asking her why she hadn’t left already: ‘but where shall I go? If I go away and everything and everyone, every friend, every tree, every home, every dog, squirrel and bird that I have known and loved is incinerated, how shall I live on? Who shall I love, and who will love me back?’ A lot of New Yorkers feel this way.
I don’t know anyone who bought duct tape or a flashlight or a gas mask, although we’ve all considered it, after hearing of so many others rushing to the stores. My best friend sent me an e-mail about it:
I arrived early for my date on West 4th, and I thought: ‘What the hell, I’ll pop into CVS and buy some duct tape and potassium iodide.’ I felt like an ass doing it, but I just decided to be an ass. September 11th is a weird, unbelievable shadow, but it happened. The inside of CVS looked unusually messy, like it had been looted. It wasn’t just the duct tape section, but all the other shelves – cereal, canned goods, bottled water – were almost empty, giving me an eerie feeling. Somehow I just couldn’t ask for duct tape. I was too embarrassed. But then I was embarrassed for being embarrassed. I mean maybe duct tape WAS the answer. Do I want to die because I was too embarrassed? I walked back to the pharmacy section, swallowed my disbelief, and asked the pharmacist: ‘Do you have any potassium iodide?’ Without skipping a beat, he replied: ‘All sold out. I don’t own any myself. I figure if the end is here, I don’t want to be around. But Bigelow’s down the street will have pills tomorrow.’ ‘OK, great, thanks,’ I said. I bought some fluoride gum to freshen my breath and went to meet my date.
I nearly bought a few gallons of water, and I thought about leaving the bathtub filled. But I haven’t and probably won’t.
I mean, what is our plan? Swim the icy Hudson? Race away on a bicycle? If it’s a chemical attack, should we just lie low and wait for the fumes to rise? What about the dog? Our kitchen tap has a homemade sticker on it that says ‘the champagne of tap water’. Every time I see it now, I think what if the champagne were contaminated with smallpox or some other toxin? My mind flashes to lesions, blistering skin, me prostrate gasping for breath. And then I pour myself a glass of water.
At the same time, we all wonder if the Government isn’t just trying to get us pumped up for war: the vagueness of the warning, the feeble advice, the total absence of Federal money to protect a city that is the nation’s financial and cultural centre, and which is already facing a three billion dollar deficit. And what about that city on the other side of the globe, where tension and anxiety certainly run higher than here? All around downtown New York, xeroxed black and white photographs – Muslim women sitting beside a carousel, a boy with an impish grin, two children playing in a park – have been showing up on subway walls, lamp-posts and defunct mailboxes, all with the simple label, ‘Baghdad January 2003’. After the peace march on 15 February, my friend Katie, of the fluoride-gum fiasco, said angrily about the orange alert: ‘This is such bullshit. This is just because we’re about to kill a lot of 14-year-olds in another part of the world. Who can think about anybody else when you’re worried about your own life?’ In the back and the front of our minds, we know that whatever happens here will not be anything compared to the suffering we cause there.
A friend from Israel just arrived in town and told me that her little boy woke up last week to see mist all around their house. ‘Ima, it’s nerve gas,’ the child said. ‘We need to go take a shower.’ They had been teaching them about what might happen in school. ‘It’s macabre,’ she said, laughing. It is macabre. It’s also becoming mundane. I go from mentally counting how many clothes I have that are button-down, or how many windows in our apartment, or how many cans in the cupboard, to wondering when I will finish my book or what I should cook for a bridal shower I’m hosting later this week. Will I need that new dress for the party in March?
This flip-flopping between vital and mundane concerns is new to us. New Yorkers are used to living with a certain level of anxiety, but now that worry has spiked. The psychiatrist I see, who grew up in Poland at the height of the Cold War, said: ‘There is a lot of anxiety and depression in the city these days, and not all of it is neurotic.’
When I saw Bob again for my Friday training session, he told me he hadn’t been sleeping well. If he isn’t calm, who is? Then he told me how perfect the subways would be for terrorists releasing chemical or biological weapons, because the breezes would sweep the agent through the tunnels crisscrossing the city.
When I was growing up in Wisconsin in the 1970s we had regular tornado drills: the whole elementary school filed down into the basement corridors, where we sat lined up with our backs against the cinder-block walls ready to put our heads between our knees. In the stairwells leading down to the basement, there were tin placards that said ‘fallout shelter’, with a picture of what looked to me then like a hybrid of a fan, a flower and a peace symbol. ‘What do the signs mean?’ I asked more than one adult, but nobody ever gave me a clear answer. I knew they had something to do with bombs, but I thought that perhaps this part of the wall could drop down like a fold-out bed, so you could tuck yourself under it when the bombs were falling. I looked for telltale seams and hinges in the wall but never found any.
The Cold War was tepid by then, but I remember watching The Day After when I was eleven or twelve. I cried. It was too horrible to imagine. When I was 15, we read 1984 at school, and staged a theatrical version. At the same time the world I grew up in was certain of its safety and its right to exist exactly as it was. We had nothing to apologise for. The only time my mother ever slapped me was when, in a fit of pre-adolescent pique, I said: ‘I hate America.’ My private suburban school was somewhat racially mixed at least and a passionate teacher taught us about evolution. Ours wasn’t the right-wing conservative culture that gets play in the media, it was just the heartland.
In the first week of orange alert, my friends and I watched the Westminster Kennel Show, and learnt what a Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen looks like, and we discovered a new drink called a Silver Lining made with frothed egg whites, at a cosy downtown bar. A friend sold her book for a hefty sum, which will change her life, after having lived through trauma and poverty and an oppressive Catholic upbringing. There is still goodness and justice in the world. I’m reading MFA applications for Columbia’s creative writing programme. People still want to be artists, that most frivolous of professions, our puritan society tells us, because there’s no sure money in it. We are not yet reduced to hunting rats for food.
After the peace march a photojournalist friend who has spent much of the last six years in Central Asia and who lived in Afghanistan during this last year, described Afghan humour: ‘They’ll joke with you until they kill you.’ Of their elaborate and unfailing rituals of hospitality, he said: ‘They give you a way of sitting down with your enemy, of dealing with him.’ America lacks this tradition, and I wonder whether that has anything to do with our inability to have a dialogue with those who don’t agree with us. This same friend told us that someone he knows in the State Department told him that construction companies have already been asked to submit bids for rebuilding Iraq – telecommunications, roads, everything. It seems that March is when we’re going to war, like it or not.
All the same, the peace march filled my little group with a sense of well-being, and even exhilaration, that no amount of duct tape could provide. The 400,000 marchers out in freezing weather packed nearly twenty blocks, on First, Second and Third Avenues. One young woman wore a sign on her front that read, ‘Bush is weird,’ and on her back: ‘Cheney is weirder.’ The march broke the spell of apprehension that came with the orange alert, not that anyone believed that we might change Bush’s mind. But I realised that the strangest feeling during these past weeks and months has not been the fear of being attacked, but the alienation from my own Government. Every night on C-Span, I hear ‘democracy’ being used the way Christianity once was – ‘we’ll bring democracy to the people.’ If nothing else, the peace march quelled my gnawing feeling of disenfranchisement, reminding me that there are massive numbers of like-minded American citizens. The police along the route were good-natured. One bear-sized officer said: ‘You gotta keep going upstream, just like the salmon.’ Afterwards, our gang needed a diner – something American and consummately New York. At the Gardenia, we ordered bacon cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes. Our newfound optimism made us hungry, relieved that we’re not just part of some obscure subculture.
Two days after the march, I woke up early to see the city covered in more than a foot of snow, for the first time in seven years. It was Presidents’ Day. The silky orange curtains in our bedroom blew with the draught, and when I pushed them aside, I saw that the blizzard had pushed through the cracks and formed little icicles just inside the window. When I walked the dog, most of the streets were only half ploughed and still impassable for cars. People were walking down the middle and there were ski tracks to one side. It was impossible to think of orange in this grey and white world. Instead I thought of ‘The Dead’, when the ‘snow was general all over Ireland’, as it was all over New York City, and all over the East Coast. Children slid down the snow banks into the empty streets, and at this moment I felt a muted hopefulness that this peace might last a little longer.