The devil is in the details
by David Wallis
[ opinion - october 03 ]
Since September 11, every time Michael Polesny drives across the George Washington Bridge he nervously jokes with his wife "This is it. We're gone." Mr Polesny, the bespectacled, Cicero-quoting owner of a Greenwich Village café, knows full well that he faces more peril from a traffic accident than from a terrorist strike, yet he admits that "genuine fear" lurks behind his fatalistic aside: "You see police or soldiers with machine guns pulling over trucks at the entrance of the bridge and you can't help but think twice."
More than two years after two hijacked jets smashed into the Twin Towers, many New Yorkers continue to feel reverberations from the attacks. Exposure to the carnage - witnessed by an estimated 30 per cent of Manhattanites - followed by an anthrax scare a month later, followed by repeated warnings about dire al Qa'eda plots (not to mention the occasional nerve-rattling blackout) - has warped the daily routine, though sometimes subtly so. "There is a pervasive anxiety throughout the city," reports April Naturale, statewide director of Project Liberty, a mental health initiative that has provided crisis counseling for approximately 400,000 people since its November 2001 launch. "Anxiety makes people do a lot of things... People may be walking around, going to work, taking care of their children, functioning, but they don't feel good."
Despite the chin-up attitude pervasive among New Yorkers, apprehension is still palpable in the city, particularly on the subways. Passengers scan crowds. An abandoned briefcase can create havoc. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently posted ads in subway cars, advising passengers to refrain from eating on the go lest jittery commuters mistake spilled mustard for a deadly biological agent.
Ben Dickinson had a sky-is-falling moment on the downtown Number Two train just before the first anniversary of the attacks. To increase their chances of surviving a bombing, Mr Dickinson and his wife inexplicably decided to ride in the last car of the train. Then, as the Iraq war approached, Mr Dickinson told his wife that they should stop taking the same train in the mornings to reduce the possibility of orphaning their three children. "They don't let the Congress fly on the same airplane for a reason," reasoned Mr Dickinson. He ultimately abandoned this "cockamamie" plan, acknowledging, "When you don't have control of your fate, there's an impulse to somehow assert control by making arbitrary decisions."
According to Dr Randall Marshall, Director of Trauma Studies and Services at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, such random measures in the name of security reflect "an undercurrent of fear that people have adapted to rather than taking a good hard look at." Not that nervous New Yorkers, who now check CNN before hopping on the subway, should immediately seek therapy for post traumatic stress disorder. Instead, Dr Marshall counsels New Yorkers to simply monitor their behavior in case an aberration turns into an obsession.
Aside from subway skittishness and dark humor on bridge crossings, terror's residue stains life in myriad ways. In an e-mail, a native New Yorker who requested anonymity wrote of developing a new-found fashion sense after 9-11: "I tend to think sometimes about the clothes I'm wearing... how easily could I run in them?" Robert Sawyer, a brand identity consultant, now walks around with the city with a compact but powerful flashlight. "If I'm in a building and the elevators were to go down, I don't want to be in the dark," said Sawyer.
A similar sentiment undoubtedly triggered a cell phone boom after September 11. Prior to the attacks, many "creatives" judged mobile communication as gauche - something for pimps, drug dealers and garmentos. I can afford not to be in touch, the thinking went. Now, after hearing broadcast recordings of doomed victims of the attacks, saying a last goodbye to their loved ones thanks to wireless technology, there is no shame in whipping out a cell phone to call home.
Within a week of the attack, Jim Glenn bought cell phones for his two daughters. "They are obligated to call me [and their mother] when they get home from school," said Mr Glenn, known as Smokey to patrons of Toad Hall, the downtown pub where he tends bar. He stops cutting limes for a moment of revelation. "From her junior high school, my youngest daughter - I guess she was twelve at the time - watched people jump from the buildings... I'm more protective now and we keep in closer contact. I thought they might resent it, but they've sort of embraced it," said Mr Glenn, who stopped working nights after the attacks so he could spend more time with his family.
"You become more aware of the importance of the connections to other people, which also means you are more anxious about [those] attachments," observed Dr Marshall, who sees a potential flip side to increased communication within families. "There were a lot more problems with couples and the couples did not even realize that it was connected to 9-11 and the aftermath. If both members of the couple are anxious, there's more blaming, more displacement of the trouble onto the other person. Parents hover more over their children. The children might lash out, especially if they were used to being independent."
Perhaps the most common behavioral change, say mental health professionals, is a heightened "startle effect," an acute sensitivity to sudden, loud noise. When a truck backfires, a steam pipe explodes or a jet roars overhead, New Yorkers flinch. Hearts beat faster. "If I see a helicopter I wonder is that a regular helicopter or a helicopter with a purpose," explained Roger Newton, a photographer sitting at outside a SoHo coffee shop with his Pug Murry - "there's no A in Murry" pointed out Mr Newton - draped across his lap. In May, a chartered Continental Airlines jet bringing home troops from Iraq buzzed the Statue of Liberty, giving its war-weary passengers a thrill and countless war-weary New Yorkers a scare. [Barraged by complaints, the Federal Aviation Authority subsequently issued an order banning similar stunts].
Low-flying airplanes and hovering helicopters do not faze Frances Reddick. Plenty else does. As the Parks Department employee stabs cigarette butts with a spike in front of a SoHo playground, she rattles off a list of recent qualms: She now avoids buildings that are more than five stories tall. She can't help but think towering inferno when she sees chimney smoke rise above a building. When a man who could be from the Middle East gets on her subway car, she gets off. "But do you know the biggest difference after 9-11?" she asks. "I don't read newspapers on purpose - too much stress."