NEW YORK -- What's in the Daily News? I'll tell you what's in the Daily News. Story about a Brooklyn highway crew goofing off while the city "suffers through its worst pothole season in memory!" That's what's in the Daily News.
What's in the New York Post? I'll tell you what's in the New York Post. Story about a local mob boss getting rubbed out because the other mob bosses didn't like what they're now calling his "Fairy Godfather" lifestyle. That's what's in the New York Post.
What's happening all over? I'll tell you what's happening all over. People picking up newspapers here spent the past 20 months looking at Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein's mugs plastered on the tabloid front pages, and now they're finding the life of their very own city chronicled out front once again, with its comic Guys and Dolls foibles, its minor scandals trumpeted to the heavens and, not to be minimized, its deep financial troubles and its continuing struggle toward normality after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Is the city back to normal?" asks attorney Jonathan Dodge, as he strides along 77th Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "Yeah, for people who didn't lose a member of their family, it's normal. Except normal is different now. People don't think about it that often. Except for the people that do."
Dodge thinks about it every day. His wife, Vita Marino, working in the second World Trade Center building, was lost in the terrorist attacks. Every day, Dodge and his two young daughters cope with a sense of balance: remembering their yesterdays, but trying to move on. It is a whole city's struggle.
"My old law firm has now handed out emergency kits to everybody, including flashlights," Dodge says. "The fire wardens on each floor now have transistor radios and walkie-talkies. People are very aware that the bad guys are still out there. It doesn't mean they're not going to restaurants and theaters and living their lives. It just means everything is normal, but everything is different."
What's normal? On a Saturday afternoon, shoppers flood Macy's department store, throwing body blocks to make certain they don't miss out on some dollar-off sale. Near Times Square, Broadway theatergoers jostle for a spot in line for half-price tickets. Some of those full-price tickets are $100 apiece. Some of the parking garages around Times Square will rip you off for $40 for a couple of hours. For New York, that's normal.
What's different? Some prices are getting worse than ever. Struggling to cope with the bleak economy and a staggering budget shortfall -- and the continuing cost of the post-Sept. 11 recovery -- the city has raised the price of a subway ride to $2 and the price on a parking meter to 50 cents -- for 15 minutes.
You think Baltimore's got budget problems? A week ago, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg handed out pink slips to more than 3,000 city workers as part of the largest layoff of city employees in a decade. He just begged a $2.7 billion aid package from the state. He's trying to cut $600 million in city expenses. Among the proposed cuts: eight firehouses across the city, plus about 150 civilians from the Fire Department of New York.
As Dodge strides along 77th Street, he points toward a firehouse, Ladder Company 25, which lost men that day. "They were all the way up here on the Upper West Side, and the trouble's downtown, and they took off right away. The sidewalk in front, people were laying flowers there for a long time."
Fire Department spokesman Paul Iannizzotto says six men from Ladder Company 25 were killed, and 343 firefighters from around the city lost their lives that day. Thus, the city's conflicted recovery from the terrorists: While venerating those who lost their lives, they close the doors on some who are still here.
The city tries to strike a balance. The cloud of Sept. 11 does not exactly go away, but there are moments that brighten even the darkest hours. One year after the attacks, families of survivors were invited to ceremonies at Ground Zero. President Bush was there.
Jonathan Dodge (who is my wife's cousin) brought his daughters, Monica, now 11, and Claudia, 8. Monica's a big baseball fan. Claudia wants to be a writer. Before the ceremonies started, Mayor Bloomberg spotted the girls and introduced himself.
"Would you like to meet President Bush?" Bloomberg asked them. "I can introduce you."
Feeling a little shy, the girls shrugged their shoulders.
"Well, who would you like to meet?" Bloomberg asked.
"How about Derek Jeter?" one of them said.
"I can't help you there," Bloomberg said. "I'm only the mayor."
It was a nice little laugh for a city still reaching for moments of sunlight under its lingering cloud.