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Dance of Death

A Report From the Home Front

By Ian Grey | Posted 10/17/2001

NEW YORK, Oct. 18--I was on an elevated subway platform in Queens, waiting to catch a train into Manhattan, when I saw the guys with the envelopes. Two clean-cut young men of Arabic descent (the neighborhood is roughly 50 percent Arabic), standing there, staring into space, frowning. It was a few days ago; I was on my way to see a Broadway play starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, a chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity to see two of the greatest actors breathing. The play was by Strindberg--Dance of Death. Proclamations that irony had died on 9-11 had, indeed, turned out to be greatly exaggerated.

A few days before that--Friday, perhaps; time blurs these days--I was on the phone with my best pal when his girlfriend broke through on the other line, terrified. People in her workplace were being escorted out by guys in what looked like space suits. She works in a neighborhood adjacent to both The New York Times building, and NBC studios, where envelopes filled with anthrax had been opened. She didn't know if her company--a major media corporation--was next. Today, Dan Rather's office was hit with the cutaneous version. I keep waiting for the news that the inhalant strain will end up in some building's AC system. It's a part of life now, entertaining new methods someone might have planned for whacking you.

I can already feel a now-familiar mechanism at work. I've made some terrific anthrax jokes. I'll make better ones until something else horrible happens. Then I'll freak out, calm down, and--assuming I don't, well, die--adapt. The other morning, I was trying to cross 17th Street when a big white truck ran a light, and so I was almost killed by an emergency-services biohazard vehicle. People looked at me funny while I chuckled on Park Avenue.

The day before I gazed in shamed terror at two young Arabic guys on the train platform, I'd gone to my local health provider for a check-up (all the rage these days). I ran into two close Baltimore pals who'd recently moved to New York. I told them where I was when It happened; they told me where they were, about how a three-block radius of their neighborhood had been evacuated by cops the day after. How they'd stood around, waiting to be blown up, or, failing that, maybe going out for dinner. I told them about my girlfriend and I having lunch across from a suddenly deserted Union Square, while cops and military guys in military vehicles checked out a sinister duffel bag. About watching the new Michael Douglas movie in Times Square with critic who twitched at every cinematic gunshot and explosion, who clapped wildly with the crowd when the Twin Towers made a fleeting guest appearance. Afterwards, I learned that the 34th Street area had been evacuated; more bombs. Maybe. Information is more closely guarded than Cipro stockpiles.

My two Balto friends both had cold and/or flu symptoms. We made anthrax jokes. I went home, turned on the radio, more infections. I called my girlfriend. Her mom lives in Florida, about 15 minutes from American Media, where the guy died. Her mom's OK, like the rest of us. Many are infinitely worse off. A woman I know who lived across from the WTC saw the whole thing from her window; barred from her dust-strangled apartment, she hasn't slept more than an hour since. A friend who lives in New Orleans, an ex-New Yorker, thought she'd escaped unscathed until a few days later, when she heard that two dear friends had died. An artist acquaintance who'd been violently abused as a kid, someone who scrapes by on heavy therapy and meds, is now sitting in his room, flashing back, alternating between attacks of insomnia and terror, waiting for the knife that didn't get him as a child manifest itself anew as anthrax, a bomb, whatever.

Outside the theater in Times Square, waiting on my friend Annie who'd bought the tickets, I see a crowd; cops too. I sidle past the hubbub to ask a scowling woman: "What now?" "Fucking Clinton," she says, and there's the ex-president, basking in media before doing his patriotic duty and catching a performance of The Producers.

Watching the Strindberg play, I became unreasonably obsessed about nuclear annihilation, prompting me to knock back a cognac at intermission. On our way to dinner in the East Village, Annie tells me stuff nobody knows about (almost). She works for the city, in an office that deals with cops and firefighters making reports about this, that, and the other. She tells me about a bomb being found in the middle of one of the bridges that connects Manhattan to the rest of the world. About a cop, exhausted from working at Ground Zero, telling her of other bombs found and somehow disposed of, and what it's like spending 16-hour shifts picking out body parts.

Out on Avenue A--a main artery of alt.youth culture usually packed to the gills with pierced NYU students, club kids, scruffy art-world types, and Puerto Rican girls dressed to the nines--there's almost nobody, and the ones that are around are moving slowly, warily. After dinner, we share a bottle of super-expensive wine I can barely taste.

Standing a few hours earlier on that subway platform, I'd profiled the Arabic-looking guys. Hair cut severely, staring at nothing, clutching their envelopes. One glanced at me quizzically, and I froze. When the train came, I beetled two cars forward, fell into my seat, and realized that if these guys had a cache of anthrax or smallpox or whatever, being two cars away would hardly make a difference. I looked up; an Arabic-looking woman in black, a stunner, smiled sadly at me.

"Maybe they were wondering why you were staring at them," my girlfriend, the Voice of Reason, suggested later on.

But all that was days ago. I don't think I'd even notice those guys now. We're on to different things.

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