October 25, 2001

Tired of being an intinerant, solitary observer, sans any external validation or context, I decided to write a 'real' journalism piece. And, feeling that I'd frittered away too many years to patiently climb a new ladder, I aimed high. I sent it to the Times. They kind of told me they don't accept unsolicited news pieces, but what the hey. So they didn't publish it, so here it is, loyal readers:

In the heart of the East Village, across the street from Kim's videos and Benny's Burrito's, sits a mysterious brick building, the source of intermittent, ominous hums. The uninterrupted brick fa├žade extends the entire block of Avenue A from 5th to 6th Streets. There is a bus shelter for the uptown M (14? 11?) on the sidewalk. From September 11th to October 5th, a stretch of the building's wall served as the local memorial for the missing; a site for candles, flowers, pleas, and poems. Now, a thin ribbon of yellow 'do not cross" tape attached to blue police barricades surrounds the building's perimeter. Pedestrians walk in the road inside a line of fluorescent-red cones, and the bus shelter is taped and closed. The nation is on highest alert, and the 9th Precinct is protecting the neighborhood's ConEd facility.

Since October 5th, the Friday night before the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan, the heightened police presence and pedestrian barricades here have reflected the mood of the nation and governmental response to anticipated threats. Advance warning of the bombing campaign might have been gleaned when the one patrol car stationed on 5th Street and Avenue A since September 11th was augmented by another, and the pedestrian barricade went up. Sometimes there are cruisers on each corner of the block, but on this balmy October Monday, Officer Rosado sits alone in his scooter on Avenue A and Sixth Streets.

Even Officer Rosado isn't sure whether he's protecting a generator or a transformer, but he is sure that he's performing a service for the community, even if some inconvenienced pedestrians "don't seem to get it."

"Could it be protected better? Yes. Could there be a guy on another rooftop? Sure. Could this stop a truck bomb? No. Do we need more permanent concrete barricades, maybe a shell? Yeah."

Officer Rosado is part of a campaign of psychological, even symbolic, deterrence called "omnipresence," already a tactic in high-crime areas. Rosado explains, "This is a known drug block. Having a cop on the block will stop that activity, not for good, just for that time. We can only protect like three blocks, but we're watching, if they see us here…" As for terrorists? "Can I do something to stop this? I can try. If they see a cop 24 hours a day, they might think twice."

Whether the tape itself proclaims the building as a target, how keeping pedestrians off the sidewalk helps deter terrorism, and whether the police presence is reassuring or anxiety-producing for local residents aren't Officer Rosado's to question. For the time being, and indefinitely, "It has to be done."

While "98%" of the public has been supportive, one or two people a day will "act annoyed;" complain about inconvenience or question the necessity of the barricades. Rosado doesn't get it. "Just comply. It takes 30 seconds to cross the street. What's the big deal; this is for everyone." He saw a special on how they live in Israel last night. They search your bags when you go to the movie theater. "Would it really bother you to be frisked in the theater? A ten-minute inconvenience?" He thinks that maybe we took what we had for granted before September 11th. And that things have to be different now.

"I don't want my family in a mall shopping and all of a sudden something goes off. So I think this is a good thing. So much as it induces anxiety; Better safe than sorry."

This protection doesn't come cheap. While the extra hours everyone is working take their toll on the officers and take time away from their families, they also cost the city money. How much money, and for how long, are questions which will become more important as emergency response gives way to permanent policy. Both the 9th Precinct and Office of Public Information refused to comment on details of how security measures are assessed and implemented or on who is calling the shots and who is footing the bill. Officer Braun at the Public Information headquarters said "We do not discuss security issues." When asked who will decide which measures to take and for how long, he responded "I don't know what you don't understand about what I said. We do not discuss these issues."

So while public policy decisions remain in a black box, Officer Rosado does his job. No one could have anticipated, even prevented, he thinks, what happened on September 11th, and maybe he can't anticipate or prevent a really determined attack on this ConEd plant. "But it has to be done." Before September 11th, someone shoots up a place, you thought emotionally disturbed, now you think 'terrorist.' He saw on the news how people would rather drive all the way to Florida than fly, they're afraid to open their own mail. And electricity is important; for the street lights, for the hospitals. So you do what it takes. He only wishes the pedestrians understood. And the ones who don't get it? Because he's there, maybe they won't have to ever get it. Maybe they'll never have to lose someone they love. " People act all inconvenienced. It's just a block, just a corner."

As much as he seems to accept that life may have to be different now, there's a tone of wistfulness. We should be able to get on a plane to Europe, to Florida, without fear. "Would I want to live anywhere else? No. I can't wait for things to go back to normal It takes a toll. But we knew going into it this was the job."

Behind the barrier tape, the remnants of the untended community memorial on the south end of the building's brick wall consist of two bunches of dried flowers, an unlit candle, and a tiny paper American flag.

No comments: