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All quiet on a nervous home front

The day was almost over. At an uptown parochial school in Manhattan, it was just another Wednesday of long division, Colonial history and kickball in a playground the size of a 37-cent postage stamp. But then the most precocious girl in the fourth grade cornered her teacher.

“I’m scared,” she said.

His mind raced. This is it, he thought. She’s worried about the war with Iraq. Or maybe her mother had already told her that the school was demanding by Friday each family produce a backpack -- a “Go Pack” -- with a one-day supply of water and food in case of an emergency.

He was searching for the right words to calm the worldly 9-year-old New Yorker. What could he say about an impending war, a roaming threat of terror in her city and God knows what else?

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“What is it?” he finally asked. “What are you scared about?” The school play, she said. She got a part.

“Ooh, right,” he said. “Isn’t that scary?” That about sums up last week in New York City.

Everywhere New Yorkers felt like they were living on the front lines, an obvious target for a counterattack in America in the war with Iraq. But people were also consumed with the everydayness of life. A school play. Open heart surgery. A cop’s funeral. A parade.

The week that led to war began with the St. Patrick’s Day parade, an event that usually has less to do with the city’s proud Irish American population and more to do with pimply faced teenagers from Long Island vomiting on Manhattan sidewalks after a couple of beers.

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The boozy suburban kids were there again last Monday, but the young faces that were most striking were those of firefighters in their dress blues. There were so many young “probies” -- the recruits hired to replace the 343 firefighters who died Sept. 11. And as they marched past St. Patrick’s Cathedral in their crisp dress uniforms, you couldn’t help but think about the 250,000 American and British soldiers in the Middle East.

The crowd seemed surprised when former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who marshaled the city’s morale after Sept. 11, turned up in the procession up Fifth Avenue. People screaming “Rudy” rushed up to him.

“For a moment there, I actually wished Giuliani was still mayor and not that twerp Bloomberg,” said one New York sophisticate as she wedged into the crowd in front near Saks Fifth Avenue at 49th Street. “Rudy’s our stand-in general. The war wouldn’t stop Bloomberg if he felt like going to Bermuda for the weekend.” The woman, however, seemed melancholy as she stood there smoking and soaking up the military music and the military feeling in the air. This festive, all-green affair had been eclipsed by thoughts of war -- and by all those blue uniforms and the blue eyes of the recruits.

In the 48 hours between President Bush’s speech and the start of the war, the early-morning local news was filled with reports from the two fronts: the weather in Baghdad, in the 70s and dry; the weather in New York, in the 40s and wet. Traffic in Baghdad: rush hour all day with Iraqis fleeing on foot and by car. Traffic in New York: the usual nightmare but worse this week because of all the new checkpoints.

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Cops were not only searching trucks at all the bridges and tunnels but now also on all southbound avenues on 96th Street in Manhattan. New York’s $5-million-a-week war contingency plan, Operation Atlas, was launched because, the mayor declared, “as we in New York City know all too well, events halfway around the globe can turn our world here upside down.” Yeah, tell it to the driver in the Luv-a-Cup Service “Complete Office Refreshments” truck trying to deliver Snapple, water and Dr. Brown’s cherry soda to parched Midtown. Since Sept. 11, Manny Alvarez has gotten a whopping taste of what it must have been like to enter East Berlin in the old days. This week his truck was searched at not one but two checkpoints inside the borough. “The most dangerous thing I got in my truck,” says Alvarez, “is extra fizz in my seltzer.”

Talk radio was as obsessed with the war at home as the one abroad. An antiwar protester who tied up traffic by tying himself up with duct tape and lying across a New Jersey highway drew a disproportionate amount of attention. The president of a hospital association also was allowed to blather endlessly about showerheads at area hospitals and whether there are enough to hose down victims in the event of a chemical attack.

Only occasionally was mundane urban news allowed to intrude into the endless coverage of the war. An animal protection agency rescued 46 purebred dogs from some crazy guy in Brooklyn. New York City police took off a morning from Operation Atlas to attend a funeral of a cop who died in a shootout on Staten Island.

By now, the Fountain Diner on Atlantic Avenue in the heart of Brooklyn’s Arab neighborhood could again become a potentially dangerous place. But last week, before the bombs began to fall and the possibility of anti-Arab sentiment became a worry, the lamb sausage and fatoosh were still big a draw.

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Seven co-workers -- all New Yorkers from somewhere else -- held a goodbye lunch Wednesday for Steve Martin, a burly Texan who was having open-heart surgery Friday. They all debated the relative safety of open-heart surgery versus eating in a neighborhood known to house terrorists.

“Once the war starts, I won’t be back to this diner,” said Tim Kiely, who grew up in Santa Monica. “There are a lot of nutty people out there who might want to take their revenge on Arabs.” Vanessa Braxton, the only woman at the table, said her biggest concern is always that her kids are at home with the baby-sitter in Long Island while she and her husband work in Brooklyn. “You just don’t want to be so far away if something happens,” she said.

Martin, who is going to Toronto for surgery because they don’t break the chest bones there to do a double bypass, said any kind of worrying is useless. “The day you stop living your life normally, you stop living.” The guy making his lamb gyro felt the same way.

Kadi Ahmad, 54, was a little concerned about backlash against Arabs, but still he stuck a flier for a weekend antiwar march on the door of the diner. “I think Saddam Hussein is a ruthless dictator, but you don’t have to send 250,000 Americans there to get rid of him,” said Ahmad. He would have preferred George Bush had the Iraqi president assassinated rather than start a war that he believes will kill thousands of Iraqis.

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But that is a criticism of Bush, not Americans, and certainly not New Yorkers, who Ahmad believes would never burn down his diner or imprison him the way Japanese Americans were during World War II.

“There are idiots around, but generally America is good,” says Ahmad, who has lived here 34 years. “You know why? Because it’s made up of people from all over world.”

With the war underway by week’s end and the president, class of ’68, firmly in command, the mood at the Yale Club in Manhattan was boola boola.

It was martini time and the bar was a haven, certainly compared with that bunker across Vanderbilt Avenue better known as Grand Central Station, where National Guardsmen with machine guns slung over their shoulders were hanging around the ticket counter. Mostly there were decent, doughy lawyers in dark suits grabbing the munchies and sipping vodka. A few had just played squash and had slightly wet hair. A couple of the older fellows were smoking cigars and reading newspapers in an enormous lounge under stately paintings of Poppy and another former president who spent a few years in New Haven during law school. What was his name? Clinton, was it?

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No one really wanted to be quoted, but after a couple of interviews it became evident that the guys who knew George thought he was doing a good job last week. “I love the guy,” said a banker, class of ’66, who was catching a bite upstairs in the Grill Room with his dad, class of ’38. “All the guys who knew him loved him.” It was especially reassuring to this group of relentless networkers that George had teamed up with Tony Blair, the Brit. “Smart fellow, validates the necessity of the whole thing,” said the banker. Then he winked at his dad and added, “As one of the guys said, I’d never thought I’d have a socialist as my hero.”

Both the banker and his dad support the war.

“Bottom line is you can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. (Interpretation: The administration can both attack Iraq and fight terrorism in this country.) “I feel a lot better getting rid of Saddam. As a New Yorker, I feel a lot safer.”

A majority of New Yorkers remain true to their (liberal) nature and not their (Sept. 11) history. A poll last week showed despite the president’s effort to tie bombardment of Baghdad to the safety of the five boroughs, the majority (51%) here are opposed to military action in Iraq. Over the weekend, the city was nothing if not a place of anguish and ambivalence.

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While Little League teams limbered up in parks all over the city readying for the open of the season next weekend, tens of thousands of antiwar protesters filled up Washington Square Park with their hand-lettered banners bearing slogans such as “Impeach the Cowboy.”

What to make of it, except that direct experience has not wiped out deep-seated, multilateralist, anti-interventionist feelings in this most Democratic of cities.

And, of course, nothing beats baseball.


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