Los Angeles Times Magazine, Sunday, February 17, 2002

Letter From New York

How's the city feeling these days? A view from the edge.

By Eric Pape

Terrorist cells, anthrax, recession, war; these are stressful times," says the junk mail flier, suggesting that a workout will clear up our clouded souls. A sidewalk billboard in the East Village for another fitness club reads: "If this is a price war, we just dropped the bomb." We grimace. Airplanes roar ominously overhead. The shadow of a flock of birds draws our glances into the sky. Wailing police sirens screech with memories. People stiffen at breaking news bulletins during televised ballgames.

I know an artist who creates powerfully pained feminine images, often in pink. She had been listless in her vast black-and-white loft in Tribeca, unable to paint, so I suggested that she leave her hometown for a few days. "Rejuvenate," I told her.

Nothing doing. "Something might happen," she warned. "Terrorists might blow up the city with a nuclear bomb in a suitcase." As a single woman with no kids and, as far as I know, no pets, why then wouldn't she get far away from the city before it is vaporized. "I don't want to be far from my paintings." I asked her to consider the difficulties of making such a bomb and sneaking it into the United States--the cost, the risk, the unavailability of the technology. Are there confirmed reports that such bombs actually exist? I ask. "Well, who would have thought that those towers could be knocked down," came her reply. "You don't know what can happen now. Anything can happen." My friend Mark, the only bond trader I know, says he understands. "The whole city has been bitten by Worst Case Scenario," he says. "It is a new cultural phenomenon in which people's normal risk-analysis has been thrown out the window. They don't assess things." Mark says his wife is a victim of this new condition (and cautions that if I mention his last name he will have problems at home). "She hasn't ridden the subway. There might be anthrax down there," he says. But even the subway is a secondary concern, for the couple live in the shadow of the Empire State Building, which survived the crash of an airplane in 1945. To comfort his wife, Mark dug up a photograph showing the American B-25 bomber that lost its way in the fog and struck the building. It proved, he said, that "this building is tough."

For now, they are continuing to renovate their apartment, believing that "we will always keep this place." Unless, of course, a catastrophe strikes midtown. "Then it would be a lot harder to keep it."

Other things are already hard to keep, like jobs. The man who is supposed to get the city over the financial hump, its new mayor, spent $69 million for a job for which he'll receive a yearly salary of $1. The dumpy economy, so widely blamed on the "Bin Laden effect," was becoming a reality a year ago. The roaring '90s were over. The extravagant Internet launch parties were scaled down and then disappeared. Friends and acquaintances caught leaping between jobs fell into an abyss of unemployment and now have bank accounts that scratch at zero.

Struggling bar owners keep extending happy hours, which now last four to six hours. A sidewalk chalkboard trying to bring in patrons asks: "Drunk yet?" A local bartender at one of the trendy newish spots in the East Village says he's engaging in the old pro's trick of serving stiffer drinks to make up in tips for the decline in customers. In recent months, the economic decline simply sped up, and this has stemmed the flow of people to New York. Gentrification is slowing. Even outrageous rents have become slightly less outrageous. A French friend who took a job in a Brooklyn real estate office after being laid off from several waitressing jobs says that rental and sales staff leap for ringing telephones in hopes of getting a shrunken commission.

My friend Nathan Thoma was in escrow to buy a house in a hardscrabble Brooklyn neighborhood in September. After some serious reconsideration, he went through with the deal. Then he purchased homeowner's insurance. Looking through the forms, he says, he discovered that the house is not covered for damage due to revolution or insurrection. "I wouldn't normally have given it a second thought," he says with a nervous laugh. But then he found out that the house is covered if consumed by a nuclear fireball, which led him to the question: "What if there was a nuclear fireball as part of an insurrection?" The city feels emptier, its bright lights dimmed. Friends have stopped going out. One couple jumped into their car on Sept. 11, drove back to Virginia and sent for their stuff. Other friends have disappeared.

Everyone says New Yorkers are tough. They are. But is it because the city transforms them, or because everyone else--maybe the more rational ones--leave? Before 9-11, I had discovered a childhood friend from Los Angeles, Jean Rousseau, living in an East Village apartment just a block from mine. He's back in L.A. now. "Making the decision was easy for me," he wrote. While on vacation in Los Angeles, he learned he had been ousted from the apartment he was informally subletting. Then Sept. 11 came. "I was in L.A., enjoying the space, beach, barbecues, and it hit me. Broke, without an apartment, and now my city getting attacked by terrorists. What's a man to do? The path of least resistance was pointing west. My mind said, 'You're moving to find a better quality of life.' My heart said, 'You're moving to get close to the surf and your family and friends.' My wallet said, 'You're moving . . . period.'"

A visionary college buddy, Stephen Kosloff, has been living hand to mouth amid increasing debts since being laid off from an investment bank nearly two years ago. He is publishing Ghent, a magazine of letters, on a "dental-floss budget," which, he says, is far less than a shoestring. "There is now just an abundance of talented magazine people who need work. It is really a hirer's market." He speaks liberally. He has "hired" no one, having instead taken on dozens of recent college graduates who under normal circumstances would command wages.

Steve is strangely hopeful. Significant publications such as Time and the New Yorker came to prominence during the Great Depression, so perhaps his will thrive amid a recession, he explains. "It is pretty encouraging." Then again, Steve can't afford Drano to clear his sink.

While Talk magazine could afford Drano, it certainly didn't thrive. A few weeks ago, I had scheduled a story proposal meeting with one of the magazine's editors, and the next day Talk ceased publication. My meeting remained scheduled, however, at least as far as I knew. Which raised a recessionary etiquette quandary: Should I call to see if the meeting was still on or simply show up as scheduled and offer freelancing tips? Would my call or my arrival worsen the pain?

Not wanting to show up at a closed building, I called. The editor's assistant suggested I get back in touch after his boss got a new job. "If he gets a new job," I joked. Nervous laughter.

The situation is better for others. Lynn Altman is a partner in a small, thriving product-branding company. "We're getting people we wouldn't have gotten before," she says. But they are being selective. Representatives of an Egyptian beverage company came, in late September, in search of an image for their nonalcoholic malt beverage. "They said, 'We'll have to arrange for you to go to Egypt.'

"We said, 'We can't go to Egypt. It is kind of hard to be an American in the Middle East right now.'

"They said, 'We are American, too, and it isn't hard.' But they are Arab Americans. Normally I would love to go to Egypt, but it wasn't the time. We felt so bad. They were so offended that we didn't want to go. They said, 'We feel safer in Egypt than in New York.' They may be right."

Tonight, winter came, later than anyone could remember. Now cars are capped with snow that descends out of a haze so oppressive that it is impossible to see the Empire State Building or the candle-like Chrysler building. The city has been reduced to a village, and it seems reasonable to wonder whether the sky will ever clear up, whether the days will once again grow long, and whether the bitterest cold, the one inside, will thaw.

As my friend the artist mused: You don't know what can happen now.

Eric Pape is a native of Los Angeles now living in Manhattan's East Village, not far from the site of the World Trade Center. [back to the clips]