On Halloween I had one of those days that veered from scene to scene. In the morning, in the waiting room of a Manhattan eye doctor’s office, I watched and listened as a young secretary who was dressed for the day in a Morticia costume—all in black, white powdered face, black eye makeup, black pointy witch’s hat placed on her desk, white spider-web hose on her legs—called patients and left messages like this: “Mrs. Smith, this is Dr Jones’ office. We referred you to New York Eye and Ear hospital recently, and so you will have to be tested for anthrax. Please call us.”
Near the end of the day I had a long talk with a beloved friend who told me that in her office at a great entertainment magazine in Manhattan the young people who are researchers and editorial assistants—they are called “the kids in the hall”—came in to work dressed for Halloween as characters from recent movies. One young man came in bare-chested, with meticulous tattoos running up and down his arms and across his chest; he had dyed his hair blonde and spiked it; he silently walked around the office taking Polaroids of whoever spoke to him and writing on the back what they’d said. He was, that is, the brain-damaged man Guy Pearce played in “Memento.” And he not only won the prize for best costume, he was applauded by everyone at Time Life.
The fabulous wittiness and spirited gaiety of New Yorkers at this time in history can take your breath away. As far as I’m concerned the guy who showed up as Guy Pearce is a national treasure. So are the people with the crazy/funny e-mails about Osama, and the young woman I saw on the street last night in the dark, waiting for a cab to go to a Halloween party. The woman she was with was a fairy princess in pink, with a wand. But the woman who made me laugh was dressed top to bottom in traditional Arab Muslim dress, covered top to bottom in black muslin, veil and all. She was waving her arms and making woo-woo sounds for fun. I just saw her and her friend and started to laugh, and they did too.
Wit and comedy are an expression of the life force, and of life-love. They are an attempt to summon joy. Their practitioners do us a great public service.
* * *
The friend who witnessed and applauded “Guy Pearce,” and who laughed about it with me like a happy kid, then veered with me to another part of what we’re all feeling here in old New York. It is not, as people say, posttraumatic stress disorder. It is postincident sadness, and there’s nothing disordered about it. This is what it’s like: The day is going by and everything’s fine and you’re humming along and doing what you’re doing. Then you see something—an image on the TV, someone reporting on the war—and all of a sudden in your head you see the first tower groaning to the ground, and the demonic debris cloud billowing like a natural force, chasing modernity down the street.
We’ll all get over it; we are getting over it; but we still get mugged by memories. When I visit Brooklyn someone always says, as we approach the bridge, “That’s where the towers were,” and I don’t look. I used to, but now I look at the river. I go to a high rise, looking for a sublet near my son’s school, and they said let’s go to the top, where the views are. Meaning: where the brilliant Manhattan skyline is, the dream view of all dream views. And I said, without thinking, “I don’t want a view.” There was silence for a moment. We heard the fax machine whir. Then someone said, “I think we have something on nine.”
I have postincident heartache. Everyone here does. But they also dress up like Guy Pearce, and they also cheer on the Yankees, and they unfurl banners at the House that Ruth Built that say “New York Is Back,” and last night they sang “New York, New York” along with the Frank Sinatra recording in the stadium when our team won. They sang loud and straight to the end of the song, even though they’re not sure New York is back. It takes a special kind of hardiness to sing like that when you’re not sure.
My people are a hardy people, and fabulously vulgar. This morning in the New York Post there was an item saying Ground Zero is the new hot spot for meeting guys. And a rental agent told me about a woman who called his office to say she’s been commuting downtown for years and, uh, like, who’s handling the apartments of all the dead people?
He was appalled. Me too. But I also thought: New Yorkers are survivors, and that isn’t all bad.
* * *
But this is about what’s next. I’m going to run long, so park this in your computer if you’re busy and come back later.
We continue as a nation on edge. People who live near nuclear reactors are afraid, ditto people in big cities, ditto people near postal depots and people in crop-duster America. That would make just about all of us. (Add now: the entire state of California.)
And we know—we have reluctantly perceived—that our stretched and stressed law enforcement and protection and security agencies are working overtime, creatively and against many odds, and still they know essentially nothing. They don’t know what will be hit next or how or by whom, they don’t know where the anthrax is from or who sent it. The best the government seems able to do is try hard, work hard, and tell a nervous populace to be a little more nervous. One hopes they know much more than they say; one doubts. (And they shouldn’t make us more nervous; they should make us more aware, which is not quite the same thing.)
Advice to the administration: Take, as your inspiration for your daily reporting of the situation, the image of George W. Bush on the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium. He didn’t spin the ball; he threw it straight and down the middle. The competent catcher caught it.
This is what grownups do, and we have proved ourselves the past seven weeks to be a nation of grownups.
We know, for instance, that a nuclear reactor may be hit by the bad men. We wonder: Is every nuclear reactor in the country therefore now being protected by U.S. defense forces on the ground and jets overhead? They should be. And we should be told if it is happening.
A caveat, however. I watched Don Rumsfeld for an hour on TV yesterday. He holds a brisk and direct briefing. It probably took him an hour or so to prepare for it. In all, he probably gives at least three hours a day to one form of the press or another. This keeps our country informed to a degree, but I keep wondering: Could FDR and his cabinet have waged World War II successfully if they’d been spending half their time on the press? Could Lincoln have saved the Union after first Bull Run if he’d spent three hours a day talking to Horace Greeley?
One wonders if this couldn’t be more centralized, with one authoritative voice, and everyone else in the government doing what they have to do: find the bad men.
(I no longer say bad guys. Guy is too warm, too familiar, too colloquial for the evil ones. So: bad men.)
* * *
While the government discovers what is happening with anthrax and other threats, what must the public do?
I think we must repeat history. We must go back to the future. Our country was founded, cleared and hammered together by individuals who did it themselves and together—themselves as autonomous units making the decision to continue pushing west or settle down in eastern Ohio; and together with all the other people who made decisions like theirs. Together they did the house raisings and the barn raisings and started the church that started the first library in the wilderness. The federal government was not, in a daily and present and on the ground sense, of much help.
And that’s sort of where we are now.
It’s back to being pioneer women, hoe in hand; back to being ready to shoo the kids into the cellar beneath the floorboards if the war party comes. And pioneer men working the fields side by side, seeing to the horses and the wheels of the wagons.
So: pioneer women, and men.
Or, as I’ve said, Mrs. Miniver, our doughty, middle-class, middle-aged Englishwoman keeping the children’s dreams alive and chasing Nazis from the kitchen in blitz-torn England.
How exactly to be a Mrs. Miniver or a pioneer woman? You’d think all the hungry-for-ratings news shows would be doing this story, but they’re not. Maybe they think it would look like fear mongering. But it would be received, I think, as helpful. And of course it might help our nation and save lives.
* * *
First thing we must do is know this: We are, all of us and each of us, part of the new U.S. defense system. We are all soldiers now. We have been drafted by history. And we must be watchful and protective as soldiers. Second thing: It’s good to think locally. Third thing: Carry a camera. Cameras may turn out to be the first and best 21st-century homeland defense weapon.
But the point is: We’re all in this together and will have to work together, locally and nationally.
“The American people are a huge and sensitive early-warning system,” the defense expert Peter Black told me. “We are extraordinarily well-connected citizens.” I found Mr. Black on the Internet; he wrote a piece for Wired magazine eight years ago that warned of America’s vulnerability to various kinds of terrorism, especially of the electrical and infrastructure kind.
“You want to be aware of what potential terrorist targets are, and to do it we have to think visually,” Mr. Black says. Potential terror targets are “under the ground, over the ground and in the air.” Among them: natural gas pipes and distribution areas, local electrical grids, local telephone distribution systems, telephone switching stations, the local reservoir.
Appoint yourself a member of the Neighborhood Civilian Defense Patrol, the kind we used to have during World War II, and need again. (Memo to Tom Ridge: This is a good idea, bring it back.)
Find out what sensitive infrastructure you have locally, find out where it is, and keep your eye on it. Case the joint. Get a bunch of folks together to watch things. If you see anything funny—say, guys with box cutters who look like they could be Mideastern terrorists and who happen to be videotaping the main office of the local nuclear power plant—take out your weapon: your camera.
Snap a photo of the possible bad man. Snap a photo of his car, and his plates, and his confederates
Use a digital camera if you can (about $50, available in your basic electronics and camera stores). If you do it with a digital camera you won’t have to wait for the film to be developed, you can call 911 or the FBI, tell them what you saw, and tell them you can download pictures of it into your computer and shoot it to them right away. “The FBI is amassing a cross-referenced data base,” Mr. Black told me, and it holds real potential for finding the bad men.
Mr. Black makes a point that deserves making: While we were as a nation on an extended commercial lark the past 10 years, our obsession with getting our hands on the newest and latest and best new toy helped build an extraordinary array of items that now can be put to a more serious purpose.
* * *
So: keep your eye on the world outside and carry a camera. What else?
Half the people in New York now use this phrase: “my Israeli guy.” We all know someone from Israel who has lived a life a bit like the one we are entering.
“Do what we do in Israel. We have what we call a safe room.” This was my Israeli guy, an elderly fellow at my local hardware store, on Sept. 13. I told him I needed advice on how to make my son and myself safer at the margins as we entered a difficult unknowable time.
He told me what to do. I’ve checked it with people. it seems to be good advice for anyone caught in the middle of terror, and needing a place to gather and duck.
So: a safe room. Find the room with the thickest walls and fewest or smallest windows and doors in your house or apartment. Make do with what you have. If you live in a one-room studio apartment, that’s your safe room. If you have a secure room in the middle of the house, that’s your safe room. Basement with thick walls and little windows? Safe room. (If you live in a big apartment building, ask the owner/super/board head, Whatever happened to the old fallout shelters big buildings used to have? They still exist. They’re often the laundry room. Maybe the one in your building can be turned into a communal safe room.)
OK. You’ve figured out where your safe room is. What to have in it? You start with tape. My Israeli guy told me to buy two-inch-wide blue 3M Scotch tape, and tape any openings that allow air into the safe room. Tape the window frames, the door frames. I asked him if I could use gray gaffer’s tape as it seems sturdier and more . . . fume-stopping. He said: Sure. So I bought both. And two big rolls of blue and two big rolls of gray are in my safe room, along with heavy scissors, a utility knife and a box cutter.
Question: Um, if you tape everything shut and sit there with your kids and breathe, won’t you, um, run out of oxygen?
You probably won’t be there long enough.
If we are hit by a chemical attack, the chemicals will in time disperse into the air. If we are hit by a bio attack, you’ll stay there as long as you can and then get out. If it’s a dirty bomb with radioactive material, you get into the safe room soon as you can and stay there a few hours after the blast. And then you get out of Dodge.
A safe room isn’t a place to live but a place to duck the incoming.
Still, you want to have plenty of stuff in it in case you need it, and as the place where everyone in the family knows you keep it. Get big plastic containers of water—enough for everyone in your family for a few days to a week. (I think: Get too much. Too much bottled water may turn out to be a good thing, and in any case will likely get drunk along the way.)
Keep flashlights in the safe room, with backup batteries and backups to the backups. Have bandages and medicines—can’t hurt, might help. Whatever prescription medication you may be on, get a month’s supply and put it in the safe room. In California they call this making an earthquake pack: everything you need to get through a few days with systems going down.
For communications, you want a battery-operated radio, a ham radio if you have it. Two good ideas. Get a crankable radio in case your electricity goes down—you can get them off the shelf at consumer electronics stores. Those walkie-talkies that people started using the past few years (I think the most well known is made by Motorola) could be a great thing to have in a safe room or outside it. They have a radius of a mile or two, a lot of people use them, and you can find out a lot on their shared channels. Peter Black again: “They can be a short-term communications network if the lights go off for a while.”
A lot of us noted a few weeks ago that when the World Trade Center was hit, the phones in New York stopped working reliably—but the Internet stayed up. Why? Because it was, essentially, designed by our defense establishment to stay up. If you have wireless Internet access, a Blackberry or whatever, it goes into the safe room with you.
By the way: Keep making sure all battery-operated and electrical operated items are fully charged. Just keep making sure everything’s charged.
Have enough canned goods to last you and your family a week or so. Canned franks and beans are not delicious, but they can withstand any blow, and if you get nuked they’ll come out fully cooked. (Sorry—New York moment.)
Memo to our wonderful television networks: Do the safe-room segment. Do a piece on how to get through a rough few days if a rough few days happen in your town.
“PrimeTime Live,” “20/20,” “60 Minutes,” “Dateline,” “Oprah,” “The View”: This means you. As you are all in the entertainment/information business, make it not only helpful but fun. Do interviews with Israelis and get safe-room stories—they’ve used them. Oprah, go to Martha Stewart, a hardy and quick-thinking woman who hasn’t constructed her career by being careless, and ask her what she has in her safe room. This might be helpful and will surely be amusing. (Frank Rich will make fun of it. So what? In the making fun of it he’ll spread the word.)
* * *
I am told it would be wise to take some money out of the bank and keep it in a safe place. The bad men may and many think will attempt to destabilize and disrupt our financial and banking institutions and systems through cyber warfare, etc. Everyone tells me to get $ 1,000 or more, a mix of small and large bills but more small than large. Also have change. “Have silver,” another Israeli told me, “it can come in handy—phones, and things.”
Keep your wallet, cards, keys, license and a good bit of cash near each other, always, in a regular place so you know where to find them quickly if you need them. Take them into the safe room and out of the safe room with you.
* * *
I suspect we should be making sure the barbecue grill in the garage has a lot of charcoal and a lot of lighter fluid. If you can, have a lot of frozen food in the freezer; if you lose electricity, the food will last longer if there’s a lot and not a little. And if it turns out you have to cook a lot of it on a peaceful day, you can invite the neighbors.
I suspect we should all be getting together with our neighbors and friends and family and attempting to plan or coordinate what might be called . . . The Escape. Or: The Fleeing. If something bad happens, where do you all meet? If mom and dad are at work and the three kids are at three different schools, who picks who up and meets who where? Make out a phone contact list, with everyone’s home and office and cell numbers; an e-mail contact list too. Have copies made, laminate them, and give to family and friends.
Have an escape plan. If you had to flee, how would you do it? Think about it. Think about people in the neighborhood.
It’s a good idea for the most vulnerable—the old who live alone, single people, single mothers with kids, or those who live with people who are not fully functioning—to be looked out for by neighbors, or groups, or organizations. Local churches and police could keep a drop-by list for the most vulnerable.
Another idea, again from Peter Black: Why not approach your local doctor and ask him if he would stock up on all needed medicines, and the neighborhood will pay him now, in advance to get them and organize it all. Raise the money at a cake sale, get him what he needs; he’ll help you on a terrible day.
* * *
A friend who would know tells me, “You need a dozen gas masks.” I said, “Oh no, it’s just me and my son.” He said, “No! The most embarrassing thing that can happen is you’re having friends over and you’re attacked. You and your son get your gas masks and put them on and say, ‘We are safe, I am sorry you are not.’ Terrible! You have to have gas masks for your guests!”
Well I guess you do, and I’ll save up. (The unpopular have a real advantage here, and should take some deserved satisfaction.) Like everyone else in New York, I have the kind of gas mask you get at the local hardware store. I have tried to get a better one. I still have no idea if this is a good idea, as smarter people than I are disagreeing on it. But I mean to get one if I can.
The subject of guns has come up. Everyone has an opinion. Here’s mine: If you know how to use a gun, and you can get it legally, get a gun. If you want to learn how to use it, go to the NRA, and they’ll tell you what ranges and instructors are available.
Learn really well how to use it, store it; handle it, hide it. The number of people registering for gun ownership is skyrocketing, and understandably. Worst case scenario: A “dirty bomb”—a big hunking so-called suitcase bomb with radioactive material—goes off in the middle of your city. Everyone ducks and covers; those close to the blast die. Chaos ensues. You’re in the safe room trying to figure out when to leave, but you can’t find out on the short-wave and the battery-operated radio isn’t working. Some people go out, though—vandals, criminals, the marginally sane, and they gather together and become an ambulatory little miniriot. The various branches of government move and bungle, help and make mistakes. You are at the mercy of luck, chance, geography. You are threatened. This is where you and your neighbors with guns come in.
The present crisis is a great blow to the antigun forces, and they know it. That’s why they have nothing to say right now. It is a boost for the right to bear arms, for everyone knows they well may be needed, not now but longer down the rocky road.
But it won’t help if you don’t know how to use a gun, or are afraid to use it, or brandish it ineffectually. After you scare the bad rioter and then show you’re incompetent he will be very, very angry with you, and perhaps “act out his anger,” as we say at school meetings.
* * *
So, do what you can. Think. We’re at war; think like a warrior and a survivor. This is not only a good idea, it will make you feel better, or at least a little bit safer, which is not a bad way to feel.
Then when you’re done planning, get dressed and go out to dinner, and have a nice time.
But remember as you get organized not to let your kids know, “This is what we’re doing because we’re scared.” It’s, “This is what I’m doing to make sure we’re safe.”
This is just a first pass at what to do now. I’ll be returning to it, and I ask you all to write in with your ideas. Because we’re all in it together.