Monday, February 24, 2003

Z-Dust and Orange Snow

Odds of dying in a terrorism attack on a mall, if malls are being attacked at a rate of one per month: one in 6 million. Odds of dying in an anthrax attack: one in 70 million. Ratio of general US population to die last year from smoking-related illness: eight in 5,500. Odds of dying in an automobile accident: one in 6,700. Odds of being mowed down by an automobile while standing at a bus stop: better than you'd think.

A week ago Saturday, we sat in a cafe, Katie and me, ruminating on the absurdities of the week just behind us. We had been on heightened alert status for more than a week, and the first precip of a promised blizzard had begun to fall.

It’s all been kind of touch-and-go here in our nation’s capital. Code Orange, mounds of snow, the constant, dull roar of fighter jets overhead--and love’s special day.

With a rueful laugh, Katie relayed a snippet of a piece she had seen on a local newscast. The reporter was interviewing people in a grocery store check-out line. “So she asks the first person, ‘Are you here shopping for the snow, terrorism or Valentine’s Day?’ And the person says, ‘All three, really.’”

Soft targets

The weekend before had begun with the attorney general’s Friday announcement of a serious threat of a terrorist incident. It could take any form, he said, and target American interests both here and abroad. We were advised to stock up on canned goods, and to put together a disaster preparedness kit that would include, among other things, the now-infamous duct tape and plastic sheeting that would protect us, presumably, from a chemical, radiological or bioterrorism attack.

On the following day, I put the warning in my pocket, so to speak, and spent the day at a potential “soft target”--a political conference at a Washington hotel. A quiet uneasiness permeated the rooms; a rumor, later proved to be untrue, circulated that the orange alert had been moved up to red, which would indicate near certainty of imminent danger.

By Monday, the ambient tension in town seemed to be approaching sniper level--the degree of nervousness we slogged through last fall, when two nutballs in possession of a high-powered rifle spent several weeks picking off Washington-area residents at random.

A plague of Caterpillars

Word of the deployment of surface-to-air missiles around the Capitol grounds came on Tuesday. En route to a reception in the Rayburn House Office Building (where the offices of many members of Congress are located), I couldn’t help but notice that, just in front of the building, half of C Street had been cut away, leaving a neatly walled trench some 50 feet long and 8 feet deep. Curious.

In truth, Capitol Hill has been gripped by a plague of Caterpillars--backhoes and bulldozers, that is--for months now. Yes, a new visitors center is being built. But that hardly accounts for the maze of Jersey walls and fencing and heavy machinery that the Hill has become.

I live in Northeast Washington, in a neighborhood that only real estate agents count as part of Capitol Hill. Nonetheless, my morning walk to work takes me past the Capitol, and to get to my workplace, I cut through a sizeable patch of greenery, crisscrossed by concrete pathways, that lies between Union Station and the halls of Congress.

On Wednesday, I found my usual route through this commons, at D Street, blocked by several police cars parked sideways, and a cop in full riot gear standing against a backdrop of hulking orange and yellow dinosaurs. I immediately assumed that he was just blocking traffic due to the ongoing construction but, as it turned out, he was there to turn away pedestrians, as well. The machines were actually idle. I arrived at work edgy and late.

Come Thursday, after having been jolted awake by the sound of a low-swooping helicopter, I was sufficiently wound up to reconsider the disaster kit thing, which I had pretty much dismissed from the outset as a futile exercise. If disaster struck, I was hoping to be taken in the first flash. I continue to believe that that’s the best one can hope for. (Drape plastic sheeting over head and fasten securely
around neck with duct tape.) Still, if the reaper came not for me, I figured, it’s probably best to be prepared.

I left work at 6:00, and headed straight for the Rite-Aid, where I bought one of every canned good they had in stock, along with a plastic drop cloth, a smoke detector, a pack of Marlboro Mediums, and a Chunky bar for to take the edge off with.

On the menu for the apocalypse: Hormel Chili, Chef Boyardee ravioli and Triscuits.

Watch out for flying Zs

Friday, sweet Friday! I’d made it to the end of the week, and to the festival of love. I had no romantic plans, alas, but I was looking forward to dinner with friends. I bolted from my desk at five, hopped a bus, and just minutes later was ditching my work gear in my apartment. I bounded back down the stairs and to the bus stop in time to catch the 5:29 back to Union Station. It was all going like clockwork. The days were getting longer, I noticed, as I glanced through a magazine illuminated by the twilight.

The bus stop sits in front of a sorry little park on Maryland Avenue, a broad boulevard divided into east- and westbound lanes by a low median. The park’s most notable feature is a circle of four benches, only one functional, the other three in varying states of bust-uppedness. Behind the benches, the park takes a steep decline into a pit, lined along the sides with pressure-treated two-by-fours, that in the summer embraces a spread of playground equipment.

I stood at the stop, my back to the benches and my head in Nick Lemann’s piece on how the sequel to the upcoming war in Iraq might go. The sudden roar of a good-sized engine jolted me out of the mag. A Datsun 280-Z was hung up on the median in a perpendicular fashion, its ass end pointing right at me. A u-turn had apparently been attempted by a driver oblivious to the median. Within seconds the car came shooting toward me; the driver had the pedal to the metal with the transmission in reverse.

The Z tore through the park at alarming speed, hit the ridge and sailed into the pit, landing hard. I saw it sail but never saw it hit, only heard it. It was then I noticed that I now stood some 20 feet away from where I had been when I first heard the rumble and the roar. In my peripheral vision, I spied an arc of litter around my feet. I looked down to find that the “litter” was every last thing I had had in my coat pockets--a handkerchief, a Rolodex card, some Carmex, my bus fare.

Some people came over to see if I was all right, while others tended to the car in the ditch. “Sista can move!” someone said of me. “Sista can roll!”

Out of my handbag, miraculously still on my arm, I pulled my cell and, with hands
shaking, dialled 911. “All operators are currently busy,” a recording said.
“Please stay on the line.” I lit a smoke and gave one to a man who had
apparently been standing nearby when the whole thing happened.

An off-duty Capitol Policeman, terribly young and cute, came running over and
began making order of the scene, even though it was a bit out of his jurisdiction. Thankfully, an ambulance just happened to be ambling by, so it pulled up. Two paramedics, both women, got out; one rushed to the car and the other came to me.

The car door was opened, and the paramedic helped out a young woman, apparently unharmed, but certainly unsteady on her booted, spike-heeled feet. She was all tarted up for her Friday night out, her shiny, black hair plaited into an elaborate ‘do, her fair skin awash in paint-pot color. Like her boots, her coat was a tawny suede, but embroidered as well, and adorned with a row of curly fur down the front. I wanted to kill her. Kinda.

My killer instinct was curiously muted. A couple of years ago, you’da had to
pull me off of her, but now it seemed to be mitigated by...pity, perhaps?

Duck and cover

The paramedic tending me was both sweet and stern. A brown-skinned African-American in her 30s, she wore her dark hair straight and to the shoulder, and spoke with the straightforward precision of one who may have once been in the military.

My blood pressure, which rarely gets out of the double-digits in either number, was 170 over 120. I felt like my head was going to explode. It was suggested that I allow an ambulance to be called for me, but I was damned if I was going to let some little trollop rob me of the whole evening. “I’ll be fine,” I told her. She agreed that I probably would. “You’re just very excited right now,” she replied.

Two uniformed cops finally arrived on the scene. I demanded that they take my
statement. I walked one of the cops out onto the median, where the thing
began. A neighborhood man who had witnessed the events followed us. “She
went to make a u-turn...,” he said. “How ‘bout you let me finish my statement?” I
said, with great irritation. (Hey, I’m the one who almost got killed. I’m the one whose head almost exploded. I’m the one who instinctively knew to duck and cover before a combustion engine on wheels, rendered an air-to-surface projectile, hit its erstwhile target. Sista can roll!)

The cop, a white guy in his late 20s, I’d say, finished up with me and gave me his card. At the other end of the park, beyond the ditch, Missy was being put through her paces: first the finger-in-front-of-the-nose test, then the walk-in-a-straight-line test. They turned her toward the rear end of the squad car and snapped the cuffs on her.

I checked my voice-mail. A message from a friend I was on my way to meet--Eric, who works in the TV news biz. “I’m running late,” he said. “I’m just getting out of work now. I’ve been in a war meeting for the last four hours.”

They walked her up the hill toward a second squad car, and she began to wail--a piercing, high-pitched sound. It went through my stomach and traveled up to my heart. I flashed, ever so briefly, on a telephone pole in the middle of the grill of my Pinto that I had placed there after too much frascati on a Friday night some 25 years ago, back when my hair was long, and I wore high-heeled boots and cinnamon lipstick. Not nearly as spectacular as an airborne Z, of course, but I could relate a bit. Her muffled wails grew fainter as they put her in the back seat, then drove her away.

Have a blessed day

I boarded the 6:00 bus. “I almost just got killed!” I told the driver, a handsome,
young Washingtonian fellow. I pointed out the car in the ditch, and became annoyed when an old-timer chimed in about the rough night he had had shopping in the Safeway, on account of the long lines.

It’s about a four-minute ride to Union Station, and we got there just fine. As I stepped off the bus, the driver caught my eye, saying softly and earnestly, “Allah be with you.” I smiled a bit sheepishly in the realization that I had been blessed.

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