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Paris as anxiety antidote

During his first stay in Paris, Ernest Hemingway wrote short stories about the Michigan wilderness. It was necessary to leave the Midwest, his home and arguably the place he knew best, to see it clearly.

Last week, from across the Atlantic, I got a good look at the place I know best. I could finally see what had become of my New York since Sept. 11, and of me and of many friends who now subscribe to the belief that we could face an apocalypse any day. We have been managing our anxiety badly, and in our quest to tough it out here, we have changed our lives in many little ways.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 5, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Paris headline -- A headline accompanying Geraldine Baum’s New York, N.Y., column in Monday’s Calendar incorrectly referred to Paris as the City of Lights. The correct phrase is City of Light.

I still ride the subway every morning to Penn Station and then walk east on 34th Street past the Empire State Building to the office. But my mind races if “police activity” is blamed for a delay at Times Square, and I involuntarily duck a little as I pass New York’s tallest building.

If I dare to wear heels in the evening, I carry a pair of flats in my bag. I might have to sprint again for my life; I did on Sept. 11, and I was wearing the wrong shoes.

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In Paris, I relaxed. I ran every morning on a route that took me directly under the Eiffel Tower, and I always looked straight up. I eagerly rode the Metro, passing through major stations without scanning for cops carrying machine guns.

Maybe I was able to let go because I had convinced myself that the radical Islamists of Paris wouldn’t be blowing up any 19th century landmarks now that France seems to have taken Saddam Hussein’s side. Maybe it was because I was on vacation or because it didn’t rain once or because my daughter rode almost every carousel in the city or because my son was smitten by creme brulee.

It was simply a relief to be in beautiful, peerless Paris and to walk to a brasserie with my family and wear my favorite black heels. Clicking slowly on the broad cobblestone avenues while the kids ran ahead, it occurred to me that I longed for my New York, the one with a limitless horizon of romance and elegance and possibility. Life has become constrained in New York. We are always calculating risks, smothering nutty fears: Should we take the George Washington Bridge or Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey? Which would be harder to blow up?

Either there is a palpable difference between the mind-set of the Northeast Corridor (which I now call the “Axis of Fear”) and everywhere else, or I just know a lot of people who have the luxury to worry about such things. Either way, high heels have become a symbol of what I can’t know.

I was two blocks from the World Trade Center when the first tower fell and was swept up in a crowd running up Church Street to avoid being swamped by the black clouds. I had made a poor choice that morning of footwear -- red slides with a wedge heel.

And as I ran for my life and spent the next 10 hours reporting in lower Manhattan, I saw so many bloodied feet and scattered shoes that my toes gripped desperately to stay in my own. Since then I almost always wear sensible flats with soles that look like tires. My favorite spiky sling-backs sit in the closet, the remnant of a time when this 47-year-old mother would slip them on -- my ruby slippers -- to gain entree, undaunted, to any part of this daunting city.

Ruing the loss of the transformative power of high heels may seem vapid, an insignificant casualty in a city that lost almost 3,000 people one September morning. But I find myself thinking about such things every day.

Sometimes when I kiss my little girl goodbye in the morning, I lose the pure joy of the moment and can’t help but fret. She has a 15-minute bus ride to school in the Bronx. But I work in Midtown Manhattan. How would I get to her? I imagine her huddled in her kindergarten classroom overnight, leaning against her backpack for a pillow, munching on animal crackers and wondering where her mommy is. Where will I be?

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I have friends who have stored survival kits with flashlights that last four years, rain ponchos and swim goggles to protect their eyes from lethal gas. What we buy at Home Depot these days has become a measure of our anxiety.

On a bone-chilling morning this winter, I found myself thinking how awful it would be if there were another attack on such a frigid day. How would the firefighters stand the cold? With the transit system, bridges and so many streets shut down on Sept. 11, most everybody walked home -- to Brooklyn, Long Island, as far as northern Westchester. But how would we manage in the snow?

So Paris -- picture-postcard Paris, skyscraper-free Paris, been-through-it Paris -- was paradise. For a week.

Then I came back to New York. And lying on my office chair was a brochure for a disposable gas mask that my company is issuing to all its East Coast employees, thank you very much. Also awaiting me was a letter from my son’s school demanding I show up the next morning to get my picture taken for yet another identification card that would enable me to visit my son’s classroom. I can’t complain. These precautions are meant to make sure my kid stays alive.

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In my post-Paris serenity, I have noticed that many friends are now digging inside themselves to be detached. If they’re not going to leave, they have to make peace with a “high risk” alert level, maybe interminably. “It’s too depressing to be afraid all the time,” said a friend, who has charted an escape from the Upper East Side.

Only my friend Chip, a poet who lives near ground zero, has completely rebelled against the fear. Yeah, he says, maybe Chicken Little is right -- every 1,000 years. But the good life in Manhattan has been so good for so long that “we could have 20 years of bad luck and maybe then we’d catch up with places like Somalia.”

I think about adopting Chip’s view that we can’t live as if New York is under perpetually gray skies. He loosely quotes John Updike to me: “We survive every moment but the last.” When we meet Chip for his birthday celebration in a few weeks, I am determined: I will be wearing my sling-backs.


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