Making this worse are the bomb threats. Port Authority, Penn Station, and the Empire State Building have all been repeatedly cleared. So the people who can go to work (where there's no work to do because there are no customers) are interrupted by announcements over the radio, or in my case, by management, several times a day, with statements similar to "There is no need to panic, but the Condé Nast building has been cleared. Authorities are not stating why we believe that you should not take any of these threats seriously, as logic dictates that these terrorists would not warn us before attacking."
Needless to say, people are wired.
The media coverage I've seen is reporting on how people in New York City should act, or how people in New York City would like other people to think they're acting, and not how people in New York City are actually acting. People are crying, attending prayer vigils, and holding up under incredible stress. But they are also being racist, paranoid, jingoistic, and irrational. Despite everything, people still are acting like people. And not all people are nice.
On one of the few functioning subway lines, a group of tough guys is trying to provoke a fight. "It was just a bunch of early-rising white bitches who got killed, so why should I care?" they say for effect. No one bites.
Two woman on the steps of the Metropolitan Library are having a loud, agreeable conversation. "We should ship all of those people back." "Uh-huh, to Libya, to Pakistan, to Lebanon, it don't matter." "Yes, the risk is too great."
Managing to be racist, homophobic, and anti-Christian-fundamentalist all at once, a woman tells me (in reaction to the right-wing reaction to the attack): "Fuck Jesse Helms, fuck Jerry Falwell. Send them to be fucked up the ass by the Prince of Saudi Arabia--that's what should be done to them."
The ubiquitous postcard/camera/tchotchke stands in Midtown have realized the value of World Trade Center postcards, and accordingly have raised the price from 10 cents to a dollar or more. This doesn't stop people from fighting over the few cards left. A shoving match erupts on Broadway after a guy in a suit grabs the last stack of "Downtown New York" postcards.
Dark-skinned people who look like they might be from the Middle East are never seen traveling alone. The workers at the Middle Eastern delis that are open are obsequious and aggressively friendly. Rumor has it that the state militia is patrolling Yonkers, an area with a large Middle Eastern population. There are no army troops in other neighborhoods.
A red van parked downtown, next to several patrol cars smashed by falling rubble, announces in large white letters: "NO TALK/IT IS WAR/ACT NOW/DON'T INVESTIGATE/ELIMINATE!"
A woman, turned back from the volunteer area at the Javits Center after waiting two hours (she had also been turned away from giving blood) told me, "You have to be named Tony or Vito or Guido to help. It's so unfair."
And then there are the crazies--the extra energy is most apparent in them. A man in rags and shopping bags circles the now-canceled Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Bryant Park, screaming. A huge bare-chested man in tights walks through the subway from car to car, shouting "boom! Boom! BOOM!!" Off of Canal Street, a thin young man sitting on the corner with an almost empty cup for change yells at passersby: "Give to a future World War Three vet."
Despite the bomb threats and the crazies and the young toughs picking fights, people congregate around the Empire State Building, which is again the tallest building in New York City. The thought that buildings--national landmarks--are impermanent is making people take them less for granted. And people are still lining up to buy advance tickets for The Producers, Mel Brooks' enormously successful musical comedy about Hitler. The show is still playing to full houses--and the irony is apparent to everyone. Ticket-holders and theater employees look sheepish. Is Osama! The Musical! 40 years off?
On the West Side Highway, where the working men are congregating to volunteer, thousands of big burly types from all over the tri-state area sit in their emergency vehicles waiting to be put to work. But there are more volunteers than there is room for them in the disaster zone. So here they sit, in what looks like a huge tailgate party. The amount of food is overwhelming, and groups of volunteers walk up and down the highway trying to give it away to the guys in their trucks, but there is too much of it. Clusters of cheerleading groups walk through the clumps of idle would-be emergency workers with signs that read "God Bless You and America," "We Love You," "You are all heroes."
At night, New York feels like a small city. The streets are dark. There is little traffic. There's no wait to get into popular bars like Double Happiness, which would normally be packed on the weekend. The few people that are out are actively trying to get laid. It seems to be working. You can sit in bars and watch couples pair off and leave. I am propositioned twice on the subway, something that has never happened before. Some kind of fuck and survive instinct is kicking in.
Most of the people out drinking are doing it in unpretentious smaller places--and doing a lot of it. By midnight, puke spots Ninth Avenue. In a bar on 46th, a very excited crowd watches Rocky pound the daylights out of Apollo Creed. Two guys covered in soot and stink are at the end of the bar. They are bricklayers from New Jersey who have been digging bodies out of the rubble and sleeping in their Honda for the last three days. Some mysterious force commands me to buy them a drink, and even more amazingly the words "God bless you" emerge from somewhere inside me. I have never bought a drink for a stranger, and I have never said anything like that before. Everyone in New York is behaving strangely.
One nice thing: Due to all the debris in the air, the sunsets have been spectacular.