The residents of a block near me have adopted Halloween as their holiday. They get the police to close the street so kids can run back and forth, they decorate various buildings, and they create a dark, haunted house that is scary fun even for adults.
That block is one of the many tiny neighborhoods that comprise New York City. You can read about them in E. B. White’s very short book (or very long love letter) “Here Is New York.” It was published in 1949, but almost all of it rings true today.
The portion of the book one hears quoted most often these days is this:
“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest editions.”
It wasn’t just White. When Woody Allen read from Jimmy Cannon, Damon Runyon, and John Lardner at the New Yorker magazine’s benefit on October 11, those half-century-old pieces also sounded fresh. This isn’t the first time there has been fear in the air of the city.
As for prescience, “Moby Dick” was first published almost exactly 150 years ago. In the first chapter, Ishmael imagines his going on a whaling voyage as a minor item in a grand plan that otherwise includes: “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States” followed by “Bloody Battle in Afghanistan.” It’s possible to find coincidences everywhere if one looks hard enough.
I prefer the reference in “Here Is New York” to a shopkeeper delighted to see an old customer. He knew she was moving — three blocks away — and was afraid he’d never see her again. That’s how small New York neighborhoods can be. They still are.
The subway ties many New York neighborhoods together. People who wouldn’t dream of walking a quarter of a mile to shop think nothing of popping into the subway for a trip to another borough (the unlimited-ride bus and subway Metrocards — as low as $4 for a day or $17 for a week — help).
Unfortunately, the subway has been experiencing many delays these days. The trains are fine. The tracks are fine. So are the signals, the stations, the crews, and even the passengers. But there has been much “police activity.”
Most regular subway riders had undoubtedly experienced “police activity” even before September 11. The barely intelligible public-address system would announce some grand diversion of trains or delay, attributing it to “police activity.” But before September 11, such delays and diversions were rare. Now they’re common.
We have been cautioned by the Justice Department to be extra aware of strange people, mysterious substances, unusual packages, and the like and to report them to the authorities. But what subway car does NOT contain strange people?
Mysterious substances? There are stalactites and stalagmites growing from drips in some stations. Unusual packages? I used to carry my wife’s seven-foot-long harpsichord on the subway, wrapped in its padded cover; sometimes I’d dash with it from local train to express or vice versa. Abnormal activity? Does playing Broadway show tunes on a Chinese erhu with steel-drum accompaniment fall into that category?
I have yet to hear of any actual threat in the subway since September 11. But the trains are being delayed.
Tonight is the annual Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village. There will reportedly be 2,000 New York police along the route. Tonight is also game four of the World Series. For game three there were 1,500 police at Yankee Stadium.
Go about your normal activity. But be very scared.
I think I get it now; it’s the Justice Department Halloween message!