By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Its been close to home too close to home.
First there was the horrendous, barbaric terrorist attack striking at
our City, downing the World Trade Center, taking some 6,000 lives including neighbors and
police and firemen who served our borough. It was an impersonal attack on random civilians
unlike any barbarism ever known to mankind.
FBI Advisory on opening mail
Terror? No, our City responded with some fear, sorrow, incredible
shock and a unity of commitment of purpose unknown in the past half century. The nation
joined in, with support of equal magnitude, as we prepared to rebuild together and go to
war with terrorism.
And our Mayor, the man who, although effective, was as divisive as any
in our fair City, rose to the challenge and has united us and led us bravely, boldly and
And our President, the man who previously was portrayed as an inept,
babbling good ol boy, rose to the challenge and has led us proudly, prudently and
And although we were at war, and although the threat of more terror
loomed, we moved on cautiously. We are recovering. We will recover. Our economy
will come back that is already apparent. Our spirits never failed. And our way of
life will be unchanged, only a bit of inconvenience and additional security will be the
I was on the cell phone with Lil (my wife) the other day, as I
approached the tollbooths of the Midtown Tunnel. It was my first trip into Manhattan since
Sept. 11. Now I had chatted with quite a number of people who had regularly made the trip
through the Tunnel or over the bridges. I had experienced the almost daily rush hour
backup from the Throgs Neck Bridge all the way back onto the LIE. I had been regularly
asking questions to try to monitor the situation.
So, I approach the tollbooths and it looks like an armed camp
unlike anything described to me by the regular commuters perhaps I was seeing the
introduction of the National Guard to supplement or replace the NYPD. There were soldiers
in camouflage everywhere National Guard, I guess. Three trucks pulled off to the
side, and a large handful of soldiers were searching each. A dozen other soldiers and
several NYC policemen stood between the flow of traffic and the tollbooths. The traffic
slowed and in two lanes moved between soldiers who eyeballed each vehicle and waved them
on. I didnt see any actually pulled over. At the tollbooths, there was a cop at each
station, including the E-Z Pass lanes, giving another eyeball at drivers.
The trip through the tunnel was uneventful except for the flashback to
childhood when I recalled worrying about being under water and wondering: "what
As I griped to Lil about the armed camp and not wanting to live in a
New York seemingly under siege, she assured me, Id be used to it shortly. Even the
three HumVees that drove by me on 2nd Avenue will be accepted as business as usual in our
The airports have clearly changed and have a lot more changing to do.
And we all will get used to the heightened security there and at large gatherings and
But damn it, theyre fucking with the mail. Placing anthrax spores
into envelopes and mailing it to news media and high profile companies is another
indication of the level on which our enemies function. Merely watching the Taliban
treatment of women and slaughter of innocents should have indicated to us that the
terrorists they harbor represent the vilest form of humanity.
Although authorities have refused to tie the mailed anthrax to the
Sept. 11 terror, this writer as most rational thinking people believes they
are the handiwork of the same groups of hate. And just as we were almost adjusting to the
impact of Sept. 11, our foundations were rocked again. No, it was not as violent, not as
sudden and not as threatening. But in the case of this writer, perhaps closer to home.
The first target, American Media in Boca Raton, Florida is 10 minutes
from my mothers home. Allison, Lil, Lee (when he used to travel with us) and I
stayed at a hotel walking distance from the building dozens of time. I know the turf well.
Thats not all . . . I have an old friend, a journalist
transplanted from New York to Boca, who had been in the American Media building during the
potentially dangerous exposure period and was being tested for anthrax. He had gotten a
clean bill of health and I was online with him Friday morning informally interviewing him
for this column.
Tim is an easy interview, he scripts it all himself. Tim McDarrah was
raised a journalist. His father Fred was the original photo editor for the Village Voice
and Tim, a legend in his own mind in NY journalist circles, has held a variety of
reporting jobs in New York. He offered the following credentials to me: former NY Post
Page Six editor and News Communications staffer now working in Florida on a 60s
Encyclopedia for Macmillan. His claim of being tall, dark and handsome is where the
sunshine had obviously affected his well-honed observation skills.
In Sept Tim went to have lunch with an old NY Post friend who is
now at American Media. He received a brief tour of the four-story building in a corporate
park, which he described as, "big, ugly, and modern." He was inside no more than
20 minutes and was shown basic newsrooms, going nowhere near the mailroom. "At least
I didnt see it, but of course there is mail all over in a newsroom," he
After the first incidence of anthrax, anyone in the building after Aug.
1 was supposed to be tested. So Tim went to get tested in the Delray Beach Health
Department, 10 min. from American Media in Boca, and reports: "I passed. I had
some concern, sure, but I was really not scared of anything."
So, Tim, you went to get tested with a batch of journalists, what was
it like? I asked.
Tim, always the journalist unloaded: "It was a media gang bang
a social hour. Easily 20 print reporters and 10 camera crews, network, cable and
local covering it with so little to report. Everyone was sharing generally bad
information and offering theories on everything from how the terrorists took over the
planes to how the anthrax was spread and everything in between.
"The passing public was not happy about the media presence. They
never usually are. Of course, there was some debate about what media should and should not
report. I am on the side of full disclosure on any info a reporter can gather, as military
has a track record of lying. There were handfuls of vendors flag and tee shirt
sellers, mainly, but nothing like what it would have been in NYC. The NYers there spoke a
lot about the Yanks if they could beat the As. There was some talk of what
Rudy should do next. And there was lots of talk about good local places to eat.
"Reporters had already had their fill of speaking to people who
were tested. They were basically there in case there was another announcement that someone
had been infected.
"My main impression (this is called burying the lead): There was
NO gallows humor. That was the most striking thing. With all those quick-witted
journalists, there were no smiles at all. In my career, I have made and heard jokes about
ANYTHING and everything, from: Son of Sam, to Robert Chambers, to Gotti, to
Goetz, to Bess Myerson, to Sharpton, to Gulf War, to Lockerbie, to various domestic
disputes/murders, to kids getting eaten by polar bears in Prospect Park, to cop shootings,
to abandoned babies, to drug overdoses, to JFK Jrs plane crash, to AIDS. Not
proudly, perhaps, but as you know," Tim told me, "That is how media folks often
deal with tragedy with humor. There was none of that now. I mean zero."
Tim wrapped up, "I dunno what else to tell you. Any qs?
Ill answer them, but thats more or less it..."
My exchange with Tim was interrupted several times. Steve McGuire,
Tribune assistant editor came into my office to tell me about the discovery of
anthrax at NBC News in New York. I told Tim. We both turned on the television and broke to
make calls and gather info. Tim got back to me first with the info that it was a member of
Brokaws personal staff.
Tribune reporter Angela Montefineses phone call was
the next interruption. She was on the phone with a friend who works at the N.Y.
Times, when that friend was told to leave the building evacuated.
It didnt take much more news for our newsroom to start buzzing.
Trying to lighten the moment, I called several people into my office individually to
inform them that their job description was being modified and that they were now
responsible for opening the mail.
Several of us discussed the matter seriously. We are a news
organization and although we are truly local, American Media has no real international
coverage perhaps no real coverage at all. Our corporate name, "News
Communications," could suggest greater scope than our base. Our company does have a
publication in Washington, D.C. which covers Congress. Could we be a target?
Staff outreach to the U.S. Post Office, FBI, NY Health Department, NYC
Office of Emergency Management, NY Press Association, NY Press Club, as well as a variety
of other governmental offices gave us little guidance on how to handle our mail.
Most of the people we needed to speak with were in meetings. By
days end, we received a general memo from the post office offering advice similar to
that given on television and a tip sheet which opened: "The United States Postal
Service has not had one confirmed incident involving the use of the mails to transmit any
weapons of mass destruction to include chemical or biological agents."
Gee, dont they know how to make us feel better.
We also were directed to the FBI website which instructed us how to
handle suspicious letters or packages.
Whats a suspicious letter?
We were on the phone with other community newspapers. Apparently many
news organizations were discussing appropriate precautions.
Here at the Trib, I have the first contact with the mail and
then the lions share goes to editor Tamara Hartman.
"Im buying us latex gloves," she volunteered.
"What about gas masks?" I retorted.
A weekend later and numerous additional cases of anthrax discovered,
our flippancy has turned to caution the insistence of Lil and a number of phone
calls had some influence.
Sure we at the Trib are going to be careful.
The war is uncomfortably close to home.
Busy newspaper office seeks meticulous, carefree individual with good observation skills
who likes a challenge. Open office mail in pleasant working atmosphere. Thick skin, good
disposition and strong immune system a plus. Companys health plan not applicable for
this new position. Fax resume: (718) 357-9417.
by Dom Nunziato
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@QueensTribune.com
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