Life During Wartime: We Manhattanites Defy Brooklyn Smirk

MONDAY, 3/17: Bush to speak tonight [the 48-hour-ultimatum speech].

As war approaches, and more and more uniformed National Guard troops can be seen in places like Grand Central, I’ve begun to pick up on something in casual conversations: the Brooklyn Smirk. Not everyone who lives in that fair borough will let slip the Smirk, but enough to get to you.

The Brooklyn Smirk: If you live in Manhattan, you too may have heard maybe one too many ostensibly solicitous, but inwardly smirking, remarks from people who live in Brooklyn. Remarks along the line of “Now I’m kinda glad I left [Manhattan]“-or, as one guy told me, “Yeah, we moved to Brooklyn, but we’re kind of glad of it now considering …. ” Yeah: considering that you pitiful Manhattanites will probably ALL DIE in some terror act once the war begins. Even an editor who was thinking of moving from Brooklyn back to Manhattan, conceded to me that it “seems a bit contrarian these days” (i.e., a romantic if somewhat suicidal gesture).

So, O.K., we’re doomed and you’re not. Enjoy your fabulous, fabulous Smith Street restaurants. That fusion cuisine- so exciting. And all the really, really breakthrough art! Manhattan galleries just can’t handle the truth! B.A.M. is all yours. But we few, we happy few, embedded in Manhattan, far from your many, many happening new retro-hip scenes (so neo-ironic!), will hang on here, and I will attempt to record what it feels like to live on an island that-as you so helpfully point out to us-has a target painted on it.

You’re probably not going to believe this, or think that it’s an attempt at some kind of literary device (I hate dreams as literary devices), but I swear it’s true: Last night, I had a dream that I was in Baghdad, sitting around a conference table with a bunch of reporters, some of whom I knew vaguely, like Judith Miller, the Times bioterrorism specialist. We were there for some kind of briefing. I can’t remember what was disclosed; I don’t think Saddam was there.

My interpretation: Living in Manhattan at this moment feels, in some respects, like living in Baghdad before “shock and awe.” Except we’ve already been hit once, and every cable-channel “terrorism expert” is telling us it’s “inevitable,” inexorable, inescapable we’ll be hit again-and this time much worse. We’re a “target town,” as Mike Albo put it in these pages recently. Isn’t it true that in the Gatsby/Winchell era, they sometimes called Manhattan “Baghdad on the Hudson”? Once it meant living in a dazzling, exotic, magic-carpet fantasy realm. Not any more, not in my nightmares.

MONDAY, 10 a.m.: I went up to The Observer and did something I’d never done before: withdrew a column that was ready to go to press, because I thought its tone was wrong for wartime. It was a column mainly about a subtitle. To make a long story short, a production company for CBS had approached me to be a consultant on an aspect of their rise-of-Hitler miniseries project, the one set to air in May. The project had initially been based on Ian Kershaw’s admirable biography of Hitler; Mr. Kershaw is gone now, apparently uncomfortable with the process of turning history into docudrama. The initial script (not Mr. Kershaw’s work) had come under attack: “The end of the film resembled Rocky ,” according to a report in The Times from someone who had seen the script. I declined the request to help them use a chapter of my book as a source of a subplot of a new script because of a conflicting commitment. Then I learned that, in addition to other changes, CBS (or its production company) had retitled the miniseries, from Hitler: The Early Years to Hitler: Origins of Evil , at least provisionally. My book is called Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil . Coincidence?

Yes, I know: Titles (and subtitles) can’t be copyrighted. Even so, for the column in question I had written an “open letter” to CBS head Les Moonves, asking him to change the subtitle to avoid confusing his project with my book. But now, with war about to start, it seemed just too self-involved to devote an entire column to my own concerns.

I was pleased with my forbearance in withdrawing the column-the bracing self-sacrifice of wartime! Then, walking back from the Observer offices in the sudden spring weather, I swear I passed Hans Blix walking up Park Avenue just north of 57th Street. The enigmatic Hans Blix. In some ways, you could blame the coming war on his game-playing. Adjusting the rhetoric of his U.N. reports to manipulate the debate, when the Iraqis were making fools of him, feigning cooperation while engaging in elaborate games that played to his vanity, made him think he was the one person who could save the world from war, meanwhile undermining Colin Powell, the one person who actually might have saved the world from war. If Mr. Blix had been more forthright about the Iraqi con game, the entire U.N. might have been behind an ultimatum that Saddam might just have paid attention to. I was surprised at how untroubled his countenance seemed to be as he made his way unrecognized up Park Avenue. Yes, it’s possible it wasn’t him-perhaps, like Saddam, he has look-alike doubles. This one was a dead ringer.

Back home, a phone call from the wife of a friend: His father had just died, the memorial service would be held tomorrow at noon. I’d just seen my friend a little more than a week ago. We’d been on a panel on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shadows on the Hudson ; afterward, we walked up Broadway (Singer’s old neighborhood) toward the nursing facility where he was visiting his long-ailing father. My father had gone through a similar prolonged, heartbreaking deterioration toward the end. I had no idea the end would come so soon for his father.

MONDAY, 8 p.m.: The 48-hour ultimatum. First time I’ve felt even the slightest sympathy for the odious Saddam: Who can pack in 48 hours? Even with the Special Republican Guards to help. I can’t even go to Brooklyn without two days’ prep. But I was actually among the few who believed Saddam would make the deadline, get out of Dodge, maybe send for his furniture later. That it would all end without war, with Saddam choosing exile over war. That it was all a big game of poker, the buildup a bluff. It’s beginning to look like I was wrong about that.

TUESDAY, 3/18: On my way to the memorial at Riverside Chapel, I can’t help thinking of another memorial service. On Sept. 10, 2001, along with several hundred others, I attended a memorial service for the legendary literary editor Robert Jones at the University Club. Almost everyone who was there then thought it represented the end of a kinder, gentler, more literate era, and this was just hours before Mohammed Atta and his pals boarded those planes. And in the year and a half since, when I’ve run into people who were there at that memorial, sometimes we talk about the way it was much more the end of an era than we ever could have imagined.

Anyway, I’ll always connect 9/11 with that memorial service the day before it. And now another memorial service, the day before the war-32 hours, anyway, before the 48-hour ultimatum runs out. And there was a sense of the end of another era, a sense of standing on the precipice, on the verge of a world of “shock and awe.” That things will never get back to “normal” again.

Certainly, my friend’s father had led an amazing life-one that puts our sense of shock and awe in perspective. Born in Vienna in 1924, he was a kid when Hitler marched into Austria in 1938. His parents had taken the desperate measure of putting him on the Kindertransport -rescue missions that took Jewish children to safety in England, but left their parents behind. His mother and father said they’d all meet again, maybe someday in America, but it was a dream: They were murdered in the death camps.

My friend’s father eventually did get to America and was able to lead what sounded like an enviable life of the mind, a life of learning that combined English, Hebrew, Yiddish and German literature. He lived a full, rich, admirable life in postwar America; the words of his friends and colleagues were warm, eloquent testimony to that. His lifelong friend Cynthia Ozick, recalled him as a ” zeidener junger mann ,” Yiddish for elegant and gentle, deeply sweet-although one never without the shadow of the nightmare he escaped from. (The continuing resonance of Singer’s title: Shadows on the Hudson .) He left children who loved America and who, until recently, felt just the shadow of the shadow their father felt.

The rabbi at the service spoke of how Moses, when he came down from Sinai, carried two sets of tablets: the Ten Commandments we all know, and the tablets that were shattered when God had a fit about the Golden Calf. God’s first draft, I guess you could say. The impression the rabbi gave was that the tablets in fragments said something different-nobody knew what. Anyway, I left the memorial feeling the loss of one more fragment of a lost world, like the world of Robert Jones on Sept. 10, 2001.

It was this that gave me the idea of trying to record my impressions of life during wartime, in fragments.

And speaking of life during wartime, last week in The Wall Street Journal Peggy Noonan suggested that the Paul Simon song from his Graceland album, the one that goes “These are the days of miracles and wonder … “, should be the soundtrack song, so to speak, of this strange time. She might be right. Certainly she’s right about the tone, that combination of thrill and ominosity (if that’s not a word, I’m hereby coining it), that sense of shock and awe, so to speak. But “miracles and wonder”? I don’t know. Maybe I’m being too obvious, but what about Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime”? It’s got that ominous premonitory sense of transport to a more dangerous realm: ” Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons ….”

And then there’s that classic of ominosity, Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” It’s set in some bleak pre-apocalyptic landscape and breaks off with an ominous fragment: “Two riders were approaching / The wind began to howl …”, followed by the wailing harmonica of doom.

At the memorial service, friends read favorite poems of the deceased that were equally apropos. My friend’s father apparently loved Matthew Arnold’s despairing “Dover Beach,” with its evocation of “ignorant armies [that] clash by night.” And Yehuda Amichai’s “1924” (the year they both were born): “As a human being, I’m tired, very tired … you are all brothers of my hope, companions of my despair.” And Rilke’s “The Death of Moses”: But in the end the soul felt: it was enough.

Back home, I read a remarkable piece by Hampton Sides in The New Yorker , the one about getting so freaked out in Kuwait by the dangers that the Marines he’d be embedding with would face (chemical warfare, etc.) that he decided to go home to his wife and three children rather than risk his life. I thought it was an incredibly brave thing to record this kind of Lord Jim moment, but wondered if he’d be haunted the way Conrad’s Jim was.

Received an e-mail reminder from the woman I’m supposed to appear with on a panel, “Jane Austen and the Movies,” at the Williams Club, a week away. Is there any way to make this relevant? Persuasion was, after all, about life during wartime-the Napoleonic wars, anyway. All of Jane Austen, if seen through a glass darkly (my preferred lens), is about the irredeemably wicked pettiness of human nature. Human nature: the real source of all war.

WEDNESDAY, 3/19: It’s always a day-brightener to wake up and link to a detailed report (in The Washington Post online, as I recall) on the effect of a small nuclear weapon detonated in Grand Central, which happens to be 10 blocks away from my bedroom. Half a million immediately dead in Manhattan. Apparently, it might even affect Brooklyn.

I start contemplating the more likely semi-doomsday scenario, a “dirty nuke,” and for the first time, I think about buying iodine pills and formulating some evacuation plans for me and my new cat, Bruno. Up till now, I’ve done no emergency preparedness aside from buying a few extra bottles of water and bags of cat food. Now I call my vet and ask about vaccination records, even the possibility of pet iodine pills. I contact Holly Staver, head of City Critters (citycritters.org), the cat rescue organization I’ve helped out by asking readers to donate in memory of my late beloved cat, Stumpy. (Holly found me my new cat, a Stumpy look-alike.) She tells me people shouldn’t assume that if they leave their pets behind in an emergency, they’ll get to see them again. In other words: take them with you, whatever the hassle, or stay and face the worst together.

And then there’s work. I heard from a friend that a well-known writer is having his hard drive backed up and shipped to Utah (presumably a low-priority terrorist target) to preserve his every precious word from a cyber meltdown. I shouldn’t laugh, because it then occurred to me that I have an ex-girlfriend who now lives in Utah. I could send the half-finished manuscript of my next book to her-although if I’m not around to finish it, so what?

Lunch with Farrar, Straus & Giroux editor in chief Jonathan Galassi at a place near Union Square to discuss, among other things, the Isaac Bashevis Singer situation. He tells me my recent column on the unpublished-well, untranslated-Singer novels has helped bring things to a head, in the sense of focusing F.S.G. on what to do about the material in the Singer archives at the University of Texas. (J.J. Goldberg, editor of The Forward , where the untranslated Singer works were first published in Yiddish, called me earlier to tell me that he was on the case as well).

Maybe this is my role in life; anyway, it’s one of the things I take most pride in. I recently received from Overlook Press a complete set of the new edition of the once out-of-print works of the brilliant, overlooked American novelist Charles Portis-books that my columns had been instrumental in bringing back into print. (Want something to distract yourself from the war? Go out and get Portis’ The Dog of the South .) If I could do that for the “lost” Singer novels, then I wouldn’t feel so bad about expiring in a dirty-nuke attack. (As long as nothing happened to my cat. Remember the epigraph to Nabokov’s Pale Fire ? It was Samuel Johnson’s poignant response to a cat killer on the loose in London: “But Hodge shan’t be shot,” Johnson said of his beloved cat: “no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”).

Our lunch took place within shouting distance of the small ongoing anti-war protest in Union Square. Less than eight hours to the end of the 48-hour ultimatum. He asked what I thought and I told him I was a historical pessimist: Iraq’s a fascist state, Tony Blair’s heroic, but war or no war, things will get worse. I added that I was clinging to the hope that Saddam would be bluffed out of town into exile. Surprisingly, he said he, too, believed the poker-bluff theory. Ironically, Mr. Galassi had brought along one of his company’s just-published books, Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker , by James McManus. Mr. McManus is the novelist and poet who fought his way to the final table in the annual No Limit Texas Hold ‘em Tournament at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Glitter Gulch, the old-school, non-theme-park Vegas. I took it home and found it a totally absorbing account of an obsessive passion-one that distracted me from the clock ticking away on the high-stakes game of international Texas hold ‘em that was now down to the final hole card.

I’ll admit it: Part of my absorption was that Mr. McManus’ book reminded me of one of the high points of my own life-flying out to Vegas with members of my now-dormant poker game to take on the winner of the World Series of Poker. O.K., it was a kind of publicity stunt, and the winner, Johnny Chan (a.k.a. “the Orient Express”), deliberately lost to us in disgust at having to play our penny-ante games after winning his million-dollar prize. But it gave us the right to spin it as a victory: We beat the World Champion of Poker.

I guess it doesn’t matter a hill of beans now, as they say in Casablanca . At 8 p.m., the deadline ran out. The game was over. The war has begun.

I leave you with the words of Yehuda Amichai: “You are all brothers of my hope, companions of my despair.” Even you, Brooklyn smirkers.

[to be continued]