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Fear and Jitters in the Big Apple

November 04, 2001|SHANNON TRAVIS | Shannon Travis is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City

"I hope the Empire State Building is still standing," the elderly woman said as she walked up beside me on a corner in midtown Manhattan on a recent Friday evening.

Turning to her I asked, "Did something else happen?" "I don't know," she responded. "The building was evacuated. I think it was just a bomb threat."

As we stood there waiting for the pedestrian signal to flash "Walk," I parsed her words to understand their meaning. "Empire State Building." "Still standing." "Hope."

That she and I wondered whether this building--one that's survived an accidental crash of a U.S. Army B-25 bomber in 1945 and even a scaling, albeit fictional, by a gargantuan gorilla in the 1933 movie "King Kong"--was still standing said a lot about our mental state. This is 2001, post Sept. 11. And in New York City, now on the other side of the day that split time in half, we feared anything could happen.

Because fear, like misery, loves company, many of the other 8 million New Yorkers are similarly paralyzed. In a city whose bravura could once be compared to that of an ancient empire, safety and security are the dearest coins.

Last week, a friend was stuck on an express train in the subway. Police and firefighters, yelling, "Get off! Get off!" were evacuating the local train stopped on the adjacent track. "This is my time," my friend, a deeply religious woman in her late 40s, said to herself.

It turned out all subway traffic was stopped because there was a man lying on the train track. Before the World Trade Center attacks, most passengers viewed such delays as irritating inconveniences. Now, these situations are fraught with fear.

Truth is, there are terrorists still among us. They call in false bomb threats to Grand Central Station and other New York City buildings, causing pandemonium and a fraying of nerves. They spread rumors, about chemicals in our water and unsafe agents in our air. They send us e-mails that make apocalyptic translations of Nostrodamus' ambiguous quatrains. They address and stamp their evil intentions into our consciousness.

The other day, I was on the train heading home to Brooklyn when a tall, dark-haired, ashen-faced man boarded at Times Square. He looked like a foreigner, but it was not his nationality that worried me. It was what he said: "Just one more stop and it's all over."

I got off the train as soon as I could. In a city with millions of loose cannons, I've certainly seen and heard more bizarre things. But that was then, and this is now.

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