lettuce - Column for 9/22

Letter from Washington, DC

The air still smells. Even some miles from the Pentagon, depending on the wind, there’s an acrid charred smell that reminds – as if the plume of smoke from the still-burning building wasn’t enough – that a hijacked plane shattered this city last week. And nothing will ever be the same.

I was covering the latest in the Gary Condit imbroglio Tuesday morning, back when we were allowed to care about such minor things. I was going to take an early lunch, and pick up some belated birthday presents I’d forgotten over the summer. With the first hit, my plans changed direction. With the second, they changed forever. I was frantically trying to get information together when reports of “fire” at the Pentagon came in. Some of my colleagues rushed to the scene, others tried to remember if anyone we knew was there. There were scattered reports of car bombs at federal buildings, murders at federal agencies, even an explosion at the Capitol. All false. The White House was evacuated. Our offices, only two blocks away, were not.

We all know the events that followed. It was well into the next morning before I left work, to return again three hours later. That became the routine for the rest of the week, as there ceased to be enough time to report the obituaries, the calls for war, the sad tales and terrifying implications.

By the weekend, we were ordered to get rest. And that was when I noticed how much Washington, DC has changed.

The military humvees, parked ominously at key intersections weren’t too much of a surprise. Prior to the attack, the only one seen around town was a commercial model, comically stretched out and used as a limosine. Police and fire sirens, already predominant in DC, now sound more frequent, more shrill, more desperate. There are constant helicopter patrols such as were once only seen during state dinners and other planned public presidential events. What makes them most terrifying now is how they are the only sounds left up there to hear.

DC’s suffering is somewhat overshadowed by New York’s – how can it not be? Our TV station there, WPIX, lost one of their best photographers in the collapse, from the accounts of our peers, and from the footage we’ve been handing from DC to help them fill in the blanks – I fear I can only guess at their pain.

But DC had it’s own trauma. For hours Tuesday, we awaited the arrival of the “4th plane,” by then down outside Pittsburgh, but no one really knew for sure. I felt disbelief more than doom – maybe that’s what kept me at my desk, despite email pleas from my fiancée to go home. I remembered how I used to flippantly tell how DC was so poorly defended during World War II that the Navy kept fake wooden anti-aircraft guns above their buildings to scare off enemy intelligence flights. I wondered what the equivalent of that was today.

I still feel disbelief, though experience chips away at it daily. The emptiness has the most effect. There has been some return to nightlife in the city – far from downtown. But Saturday Night, I took a bike ride to Capitol Hill. I had Pennsylvania Avenue to myself – that is, except for the cops. The Capitol itself, largely barricaded, was still lit, like nothing was wrong. But in 3 years here, I’d never seen the area empty of tourists. It would have been empty entirely were it not for the dark shapes of the police officers, certainly more tired and apprehensive than I was.

An eternity ago, but really just the other weekend, President Bush held a state dinner for Mexican President Vincente Fox. Fearing security concerns, the administration kept secret from the city a $200,000 fireworks spectacular – that began around 11pm and jolted almost all city residents awake. In the low-level fog of the evening, from my apartment a half-mile away, I couldn’t see them. All I saw were light flashes in the distance, all I heard were the heavy booms. Standing outside my door, I was joined by many neighbors peering out. “Are we under attack?” the guys upstairs asked as we peered into the fog.

“I don’t think so. It’s a school night,” his roommate replied

Early that next morning I ran into them again. That morning a Soviet-era booster rocket burned up in the atmosphere – leaving an eerily glowing trail up in the sky.

“I wish the End-of-the-World would stop teasing us,” he joked.

It’s hard to imagine joking about that now.

But it’s not the end of the world. And to that point, I promised myself this Sunday morning, that I would try to pick up something where it was left off that Tuesday. No, not the Gary Condit story. But the birthday presents I’d planned on buying that afternoon. Maybe by doing that one, normal thing, I’d feel that some aspect of DC, and my life here was untainted. But even at the shopping mall, you can smell the smoke. And I didn’t buy the present. It’ll be a while longer before I find the normal things in Washington, DC again.

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