Anxiety, appreciation fill the autumn air

October 25, 2001|By Michael Olesker

ON THE STREET where I live, the leaves are falling red and gold. I have never in my life looked at them with such tenderness. On the radio, the lyrics of familiar songs now offer an embrace like old friends. In the morning drive down the Jones Falls Expressway, I glance at the cars near mine and sense something unanticipated: strangers who share my exact vulnerability.

In the office where I work, the talk is all about anthrax. But somebody circulated a group photo of the cast of The Sopranos, with a caption reading, "Just tell us where bin-Laden is, and fuhgedabout it."

There is fear in the air, but also laughter and intimacy and appreciation for things once taken for granted and now, in the new reality, held dear.

Who knew we could regard our neighborhood mail carrier not only as part of the community but a front-line soldier in the terrorist attacks? Who knew the schools would be canceling class trips to dangerous places - such as Annapolis? Whoever imagined we could find inspiration in the New York Yankees winning a baseball championship?

The terrorists think they destroyed an American city's gumption?

Fuhgedabout it.

Everything changes by the day, though, leaving us both anxious and appreciative. The anxiety comes from mixed signals: Go about your business, important people tell us - but watch out for exploding buildings. Visit a shopping mall, they suggest - but be careful when you open your daily mail.

Thus, our new appreciativeness: We hold dear the things we never before had to think about losing - not only autumn leaves, and songs on the radio, but backups on the Jones Falls Expressway that have always signaled a kind of aggravating normality.

The anxiety arrived more than a month ago, over breakfast, and settled in. When we turn on the television news, it feels like all anthrax, all the time. There is a reason for this. The Pentagon briefings are maddening for the amount of news they will not tell us. A war is being fought, they explain, and lives are at stake.

We go along with the secrecy, because we wish to think of ourselves as good citizens. The patriotic gesture is to stick to the game plan. But we're hungry for hints that there is such a game plan. We want to know where our lives are heading. And the 24-hour news stations want to oblige us but can't.

Lacking information about Afghanistan, they give us anthrax stories - a diet so endless that, as we consume our dinners in front of the television, we aren't sure if they're talking about new cases or doing the 14th rehash of the cases they first told us about over breakfast.

"A terrorist wants to change our way of life," the president tells us. "But it isn't going to happen. It simply isn't going to happen."

This becomes part of our confusion. We rally around the president because it is what we do in wartime - but worry that his words sound hollow.

Of course our lives are changing. In Baltimore County schools, they're talking about eliminating overseas class trips. In Harford County, they've eliminated trips to American places that might be dangerous: to Washington and New York, and maybe even Annapolis, where the state government meets and even the entire brigade of Naval Academy middies is considered no defense against things they cannot see.

In every school system in America, caution is the natural byword.

The vice president declares, "For the first time, we will probably suffer more casualties at home than will our armed forces overseas." In World War II, more than 40,000 British civilians were killed during the Blitz of 1940-1941. In fact, for three years, the number of British women and children killed at home exceeded the number of its military casualties. But the plucky British, we have always been told, learned to go about their business. Maybe it was their tribute to the 40,000.

At this moment, in America, anthrax has taken three lives.

So we watch the televised anthrax reports and reach for our daily pluckiness - and wonder if something bigger could be coming, some echo of the thousands killed Sept. 11 in the airplane attacks.

A friend's work forces him to fly. At the airport, he was saying the other day, every passenger eyeballs every other passenger. Who might be a threat? My friend happens to be African-American. He finds himself looking for Arabs. Don't do that, my friend tells himself. You're against racial profiling. You don't like it when people do it to you, so don't do it to others.

He has come up against his own conscience, with one unanticipated addition. He finds himself wondering: Is that fellow over there a Latino - or an Arab? A Filipino - or an Arab? A swarthy white guy - or an Arab?

And, if he's an Arab - what about it?

We are caught between our old convictions and our new anxieties. We believe in an America that embraces all newcomers, regardless of heritage - as long as they wish to embrace us back, and not slip one past us after we've let our guard down.

So we nurture our anxieties these days. And also find ourselves with new appreciations: Technicolor leaves, and songs on the radio that soothe us with their familiarity. And the faces of people who are newly intimate, because we share an identical vulnerability.

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