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Coping in New York City

September 28, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ROBERT MACNEIL: And with me are two close observers of New York life. Joyce Purnick writes the “Metro Matters” column for the New York Times; Adam Gopnik writes the “New York Journal” for the New Yorker Magazine.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Let’s talk about fear for a moment. It’s very understandable that people so close to the disaster would still be terrified. How do you read the anxiety level of New Yorkers in general not so close to it, Joyce?

JOYCE PURNICK: I think we have to take into account the scale of this city. Not everybody in fact in a city of eight million people, you are talking about 15,000 directly affected, living there of course not God help us those who were in the towers, but those not living there can’t get back to this apartment to their apartments. This is a huge city. And I think everybody — most people are sad. Everybody has been affected by it, sort of the hustle and the chutzpa of the city are down several degrees. But I don’t think that level of fear that was reflected in that piece is universal by any means.

ROBERT MACNEIL: What do you think?

ADAM GOPNIK: I think I’m one of the few New Yorkers whose anxiety level decreased. It was such a high level to begin with, the Woody Allen thing. We are in touch with very basic things. You don’t worry about what the building is worth but about the building stay there go in fact. And I think I agree entirely with Joyce that one of the oddities about New York and one of the wonders is that it’s very much a city of villages. People live in separate worlds. So in lots of ways, one of the oddities, one of the really strange things about the past couple of weeks, that a lot of people are not affected sufficiently by the disaster and they go downtown. They go to look, they go to search for some way of getting themselves engaged with it in fact. That’s one of the strangest parts about it. It is not something you have to avoid at any every minute but something you have to engage in.

ROBERT MACNEIL: The village I live in, the Upper West Side, which is several villages actually, I hear a lot of people talking about being afraid when they hear a siren, which they never were before, when a jet plane flies over. If there is a traffic jam, they worry does that mean that there has been another incident — people breaking down and crying on the subway, men and women — the real fear that’s induced when they, for instance, as they did again this afternoon, evacuate the Empire State Building because there was another bomb threat. Do you not feel any of this?

JOYCE PURNICK: Yeah, I do, and people I know do. But I think we have to sort of separate those out who are feeling it directly and those who are feeling it indirectly. I think almost everybody in this city feels it emotionally. I think a lot of us are not feeling it sort of physically. And it’s very hard to explain to people who don’t know New York that well. I mean to come over to the studio, I walked from the New York Times which is obviously right off Times Square. And I walked past crowds so thick, you know, that people were bumping into me and they were a little nicer than they might have been a few weeks ago. They said excuse me. But they bumped into me nonetheless. I walked past portrait artists, I believe they’re Chinese immigrants who are earning their living doing portraits of people on the street, doing caricatures, business people rushing out of the garment industry to go home. There is a lot going on, but there is also an overlay of tension. And I think that’s what you’re picking up, and I think everybody is aware of that.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Do you know anybody who has bought a gas mask?

ADAM GOPNIK: To use or as a fashion accessory? I’ve known a lot of people who have done that over the years.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Recently.

ADAM GOPNIK: No, I actually don’t.

ROBERT MACNEIL: There is a lot of talk to television about bio-terrorism and anthrax.

ADAM GOPNIK: You know, honestly, maybe I live in the wrong village but I think there is a sense of pervasive anxiety, which is always a feature of New York life. But I think the thing that’s hard to communicate to people who are not here is both the scale of the disaster and the scale of the disaster — that is if you go down and look at the site, you simply cannot believe the enormity of it. If you think about it at all, 6,000 people dead, you can’t believe the enormity of it at all. But if you step two blocks away from the actual site, life goes on to a degree that is almost spooky. And it is as though, as I wrote last week, it’s as though “Titanic” went down outside a subway station. Everybody watched it and they knew it was the most frightening thing they had ever seen and walked home with a chip of the iceberg as a souvenir.

JOYCE PURNICK: It really is hard to communicate. My husband and I went down to the site to look again today, as close as could you get. We have a tradition in New York of people buying coffee and bagels and doughnuts from carts. I don’t know if they have that in other cities but every corner here there. And there was one coffee cart with the handwritten sign saying coffee– a sign on a post right, you know a block away from the disaster, the sign said “coffee cart one block North,” because people were going to work at Wall Street. I don’t think either of us want to sound like Chamber of Commerce here — but the city is moving ahead.

ROBERT MACNEIL: But, don’t mean to contradict you, but Mayor Giuliani, much praised for his behavior after the disaster, is using what he calls the “fears of New Yorkers about what may happen and how it will happen” to justify his wanting to stay three months beyond his term.

JOYCE PURNICK: Which I have to say is the best example we could come up with of things returning to normal. Because Rudy Giuliani, you know, the tough guy, suddenly became sympathetic and reassuring. He was marvelous the first two weeks of the crisis. Still fabulous about that but he has also returned to normal. He is planning and he is plotting and making phone calls behind the scenes and planning his political future. That’s the Rudy Giuliani the city knows. That’s the one that they either love or hate.

ADAM GOPNIK: And it was one of the things that I think allowed him to communicate a lot of strength. The thing was he wasn’t histrionic through this. He was being mayor in fact. And it was his lack of overwhelming sense of occasion that need to knit his brow and look tough that made him so powerful.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Which do you think is the bigger fear among the generality of New Yorkers now: Fear of a new terrorist attack or the recession that we seem either to have entered here or about to enter?

ADAM GOPNIK: I think the first. I think people were prepared for some kind of recession already. I think the people will now have a hard time remembering that the whole dot-com collapse happened before the terrorist attack. Fear of another terrorist attack is very real. I think it’s also very widespread throughout America but of course we feel it more intently here. But it’s– we’re in a strange kind of schizophrenic moment where life is going on, where life does go on in ways that are moving because the little normalcies of New York life seem incredibly precious. You take the kids out for pizza, you think this is a very New York thing. We have to keep this going in some way but at the same time there is the knowledge that we don’t know what the second act is.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Let me ask you, Joyce, how does fear weigh against the other emotions that were engendered by September 11? Pride, patriotism, affection for the city, all the things that came out of it besides fear?

JOYCE PURNICK: It is kind of a big tumble, isn’t it, all these things together, all these different emotions. And I think there’s also — I don’t know how to grade them, Robin. I think one of the most interesting aspects is that suddenly the country loves us and we love the fact that the country loves us. And I think everybody will know that things are back to normal when suddenly we’re hated again and we have John Rockers throwing verbal bombs at us. I mean that’s the role we play in American society. This is kind of odd that everybody….

ROBERT MACNEIL: But it is a far cry from New York drop dead during the fiscal crisis in the 70s.

ADAM GOPNIK: It’s funny you mentioned fiscal crisis, because one of the things that was true when I came to New York in the 80s, it was seen as a very quixotic thing. New York was seen to be on a downhill slide and a downhill shoot then. And that was one of the things that seemed systemic in the city, that is, bankruptcy and personal crime. And those were things — New York was seen as if not doomed, certainly a bleak future. And this other New York, this you know unbelievable Oz or Babylon of prosperity and power that we’ve seen in the last decade really, that was nothing anybody could imagine from New York of the blackout and the looting and those things. We tend to have a short memory about just how bleak a vision we had of New York 15 years ago.

ROBERT MACNEIL: People have written that New York is becoming like London to the British and Paris to the French, a city to be loved and admired. Do you think that’s more than a temporary or passing-

JOYCE PURNICK: No, I suspect it is temporary when we get our energy back and our willingness to kind of say we are who we are. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. If I may quickly respond to something you asked before about what, is it the fear or the fear of a possible terrorist attack or fear of the economy?

ROBERT MACNEIL: 100,000 jobs lost as far as we know already.

JOYCE PURNICK: I think both are abstract to most people in New York City and elsewhere in the country. If you were to have asked the question another way and you were to have said which of the two should we be most fearful of, I would say the softening of the economy. I think we are going into a deep recession. I think New York is going to feel it very, very severely. And I think everything from unemployment to welfare recipients will go way up. And I think we are going to go through a very difficult period, lower revenues to pay for all of it. I don’t think our leaders have yet prepared us for yet to come.

ROBERT MACNEIL: I have to thank you both there, Adam Gopnik and Joyce Purnick, thank you.