New York's New "Normal"

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New York, never a patient town, is now a patient town.

Not only are we suddenly confronted with the very real possibility of traffic tie-ups without fistfights, other signs of patience abound as well. Last week, for example, my commuter train was leaving Grand Central at about 7 p.m. It had been, for all aboard — and there were more of us than usual, since the traffic tie-ups and, more significantly, the Mayorís ban on cars carrying only one passenger, had enticed some suburbanites into leaving their cars at home — a long day at the office. The train chugged desultorily through the darkness of Grand Central, then stalled; it didn't have the power to get up the hill and out of the terminal. The disembodied voice of Metro North announced that our train had to roll back down the incline into the station. We would have to de-train and switch to "new equipment."

Not a peep. No groans, even. People did not get out of their seats to stand anxiously in the aisle, thereby assuring themselves a better shot at a seat on the new equipment across the platform. Extraordinary. A year ago or even a month ago, there would have been serious umbrage taken by this trainload of commuters. Conductors would have been mercilessly if unfairly berated, at the very least.

But not anymore, not in New York's new normal. People just accept what happens now: We're alive, others are not, we have no right to complain. There's no profit in impatience. Broken trains and cold dinners are trivial matters, and we finally know it. One man turned to his wife on the new train and said quietly, "We should call Myra, tell her we'll be late." That was it.

On Friday night, same train, the lights went off as we passed into Westchester County. They stayed off. People had been trying to read the tabs, but now just closed their eyes or looked out the windows. Again no one complained to the conductors. I've seen far lesser problems create a mob scene among New Yorkers, but no more. We are still counting our blessings and, I think, we realize that public complaint about insignificant matters isn't just out of order, it's unacceptable. What if the woman across the aisle is a survivor from Cantor Fitzgerald?

If I make it sound like New York is a city with gauze draped over it, then I'm getting the mood right as I see it. Sure, we're back at work and yes, we're doing normal things again, but in the new normal we're still constantly sad, constantly wary about when the images will pop back into our minds. September 11th still overwhelms all — at least for most of us.

It's good, this week, to find ourselves in October. A new month, at least. It will be even better to get to 2002. Calendar hurdles that take us further down the track from 9/11/01 are good things. December 7 won't be easy this year, as the 60th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing will bring back all of this "Day of Infamy" stuff. But at least the movie stiffed, and isn't lingering in the Cineplexes as a reminder.

Many of my friends have stopped reading about the tragedy, or are trying to keep it at arm's length. I'm still reading everything I can about it. I'm not sure why. I don't find Barry Bonds' quest for the homerun record diverting in the least, and that's not (just) because itís Barry Bonds. I didn't watch any football over the weekend, and since the good folks here at aren't forcing me to do my Monday morning sports gig here, but are giving me dispensation to write these occasional updates on life in New York instead, I'm indulging myself.

Of all the words I read this past week, the ones that stuck with me were from Mr. Rogers, as quoted in last Friday's Wall Street Journal. Fred, who recently retired from the Neighborhood after educating and counseling kids for generations, was asked a series of questions regarding what an adult might tell a child regarding the attack. Mr. Rogers urged parents and caregivers to keep to familiar routines, limit children's TV viewing, redirect play toward "caring and nurturing making a pretend meal for the emergency helpers."

Fred remembered his own childhood: "When I was a boy and would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me: 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' This shows children that there are lots of people who want to keep others safe." He recommended quiet time not just for the kids but for everyone: "Parents and children should be given the chance to recognize the quiet, to hear a small voice that allows us the chance to understand death and simplicity in life. At a time like this, adults, too, should give themselves space."

Useful words, because New York is not only a newly patient town, it is still an anxious town, more anxious than ever — anxious, now, not in its classic Woody Allen way, nutso with neuroses, but anxious in the way of being truly scared. Maureen Dowd told us in the Times last week that Boomers everywhere, still worried about Numero Uno above all else, are now busily loading up on gas masks and all manner of anti-toxin. I don't see it, not in my experience. But I do see anxiety that wasn't there three weeks ago. The new normal has new rules about what's possible. About what's next.

My wife and I are a little more anxious, not a lot. Mostly, we're concerned about the kids, particularly Caroline, who's nearly four (or as she puts it, "three and eleven-twelfths"). I've talked with Caroline a few times about "the plane that bumped into the building" because she's aware of it, and now I'm following Mr. Rogers' recommendations in full. My wife has worried that the incessant recounting of horror stories by adults is trickling down, is falling upon ever hovering little pitchers with big ears. At a cookout last Sunday, she finally flashed a sign to the rest of the parents: Change the subject.

I hadn't had a sense of whether Caroline was being affected by fallout from the attack or not — until this morning. Caroline's our family's word watchdog. If the parents use "stupid" in any context, she'll bring us up short: "Daddy, we don't say 'stupid.'" I have to keep explaining to her that the "but" I just used in conversation is not the "butt" she's not supposed to use. Anyway, one of her least favorite words is "disaster." She knows its meaning because at some point in each of the Madeline books Miss Clavell, the all-seeing and all-knowing nun, wakes in the night sensing something is not right and then, fearing a disaster, she runs fast — then faster. So Caroline similarly fears disasters. This morning, out of the blue: "Daddy, the plane that bumped into the building. Was that a disaster?"

I told her it was, gave her a kiss, headed out the door and spent the train ride pondering. At work, I shared the anecdote with a colleague. She said, "Have you read the Harry Potter books? My six year old Charlotte has given little sign of how she was processing this, until the other night, when we were saying prayers, and she said, 'I wish I had a Time Turner.' Which, as the name implies, is a wondrous device that lets you go back to an earlier day, and start over."

All of New York, now cognizant of the virtues of patience and fellow-feeling, wishes it could say as one, "We've learned some lessons. Now hand us that Time Turner."