Theater Journal for Oct. 11, 2001

Bouncing Back

by John Kenrick

From Mayor Guliani on down to the homeless drunk on the corner, people all over New York keep proclaiming how this town has bounced back from the nightmare of Sept.11th. Not only that, we are supposedly going to be a better city than ever. As praiseworthy as such cheerleading seems, I can't echo it. Oh, the pace of life here is certainly back up to speed, the theaters are once again (thank heaven) drawing profitable turnouts, and most parts of the city seem much as they were just over a month ago.

But despite such outward signs of normalcy, things "just ain't right." Some differences are obvious. For example, the air -- a substance New Yorkers traditionally do their best to ignore. Last Friday, an audience that had just guffawed its way through a hilarious performance of Kiss Me Kate poured out of the Martin Beck Theater, only to have its chattering perceptibly silenced by their first breath outdoors. Whenever the wind shifts, parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and coastal New Jersey are once more flooded with the acrid, throat burning stench of the hellfire that still smolders in the ruins of the World Trade Center. Everyone does their damnedest to pretend they don't notice it, but its undeniably there, pounding at our spirits.

Then there are the fighter jets. With three major airports, this city is accustomed to a sky filled with airplanes of all sorts. But F-16's are another matter. In the last four weeks, we've learned all too well how to recognize their distinctive sound. For several days they were the only things flying. Now they are an everyday thing, but I for one get blown away whenever I see one zoom through (and yes, I mean THROUGH) Times Square or along the Hudson. Sure, their presence is reassuring. It is also chilling, and way too late to do anyone any good.

Other differences are more subtle. Our city's infamous rudeness -- a regrettable reality -- is very much alive again, but with a new edge of . . . dare I say it . . . compassion? The person who would normally start screaming when someone bumped into them on a subway platform now grudgingly accepts a grumbled apology. Mind you, there's always some New Yorker ready to make an ass of him or her self -- just not on the usual scale.

There are also a hell of a lot more public displays of affection. And not just hand holding! We're talking about couples wrapped around each other's waists and children clinging to their parents necks. From Broadway to the Greenwich Village piano bars, any song about love or friendship sends arms around the shoulders of loved ones. And in these last weeks, I've seen more people lip locking in the street than ever before -- and I mean earth-rocking, tonsil-tickling kisses in broad daylight. The best part is seeing the way passers-by burst into smiles.

Like all Americans, we are still learning how to cope with life in an age of terror. It isn't bad enough that we've barely begun the 3,000 funerals of our friends and neighbors -- now we're told to beware of our mail? And to be ever vigilant of what others may be up to in crowded public places? To top it off, something like 100,000 New Yorkers are expected to lose their jobs. Many of my friends who escaped harm on Sept. 11th are now wondering how they will pay their crippling rents on unemployment. Computer technicians, waiters, actors, secretaries, sales clerks -- all are being swept aside as financial tidal waves reshape New York's economic landscape.

Yes, I know the entire country is reeling. But we've been in the midst of the horrors that everyone else watched on a television screen. That gaping hole in our downtown skyline tears at our hearts every time we look.We ache, and many of us will probably need a lifetime to process what we have been through. But we go on.

A wonderful group of people brightened New York's life last week. They came from Seattle, looking to show their support for us in a dark hour. What started as a small bunch of friends grew into an army large enough to pack two chartered airliners. They came by the dozens, wearing "Oregon Loves NY" t-shirts, packing into theaters and restaurants, and marching as a guest contingent in our Columbus Day Parade.

The evening after that parade, I came across a half dozen of these good souls. They were outside of St. Vincent's Hospital reading the wall covered with memorials to those who died. Hundreds of photos, poems and bits of homemade art sweep along half a block, silent reminders that 6,000 separate tragedies occurred, not just one. The Oregonians read the notices, and held each other close, and shared in our tears. God bless them.

The nightmare continues -- and so do we.

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