I Miss Tom Ridge! Where Have You Gone, Code Orange Alert?

Crossing Sixth Avenue on a recent afternoon, I wove through a thicket of tourists gawking at the towering streetscape. As I nearly hooked my arm through a scarf dangling from a woman wearing a Michigan State University wool bonnet, the midtown crowds rekindled memories of what I’d imagined New York to be around this time of year: full of out-of-towners enjoying the city’s carefree spirit. Indeed, New York has seemed different this holiday season-perhaps even more jovial and jolly than usual-but I haven’t been able to share in the revelry. Wall Street is back, and the city is buffed to a fine sheen-what’s not to like?

On the crest of 2005, as the city emptied itself of natives for the holidays, leaving Manhattan in the hands of its visiting guests, I finally discovered the missing energy source that had fortified my sense of purpose as a New Yorker: the Code Orange Terror Alert.

Let me explain.

I first greeted the waves of Code Orange Alerts with fear bordering on paralysis (my mother’s daily phone messages admonishing me to buy rolls of duct tape and map out my “escape” route surely didn’t help matters). Each time Tom Ridge appeared on television, I girded for some unforeseen calamity or news that a “dirty bomb” was heading for Times Square.

But I began to welcome Tom Ridge’s scary announcements, delivered with deadpan stoicism (or was it befuddlement?). The headlines blaring to make me feel less secure ended up, in a curious way, making me feel more secure.

Tom Ridge and the Code Orange Alert became a heady tonic that imbued me with a “live in the moment” sensibility. I began to recognize the allure of being a journalist living in a Code Orange New York (Manhattan isn’t Mosul, of course, but it’s a hell of a lot more exciting than ZIP codes far out of Al Qaeda’s crosshairs). I thrived on the way the city charged into motion with each new terror warning. Every time my F train lumbered in from Brooklyn and paused in the tunnel, I wondered if the unannounced stops were the result of a terrorist strike further up the tracks. I held my breath until the driver’s garbled voice played over the loudspeaker. Back on the street, the sidewalk pace seemed to ratchet up a notch, as if people were eyeing over their shoulders at some elusive foe. Each Code Orange pronouncement would send the city into a collective tizzy-like a D.J. laying down that favorite pop song for his audience-and I fed off the energy.

The past six months provided a stiff shot of Code Orange, with bomb threats at the Citigroup Center chased by the red-state siege during the Republican National Convention and, of course, topped off with the Presidential election. Each event brought new threats and more flashes of Tom Ridge’s leaden face on Fox News. I got up earlier and stayed out later; pulling taut the cord of my daily routine, I plunged deeper into each day, trying to race ahead of what then seemed possible-even inevitable. Quotidian tasks, even daily minutiae, took on a newfound gravity. I paid my bills on time and scrubbed my house with an unusual diligence. Going out at night, I got sozzled on a few drinks but chalked it up to living in the now.

The Code Orange omnipresence also cascaded into my romantic endeavors. This fall, a few weeks after meeting a girl at a party, I decided to phone her up for a date-a rarity for this shy writer. As my fingers paused over my cell phone’s digits, a little voice inside my head nudged aside any hesitation: “What if something happens tomorrow?” So I called her.

Throughout all this, there was something not entirely terrifying about Orange as a threat indicator. Red, of course, is undeniably scary, with all its sanguine undertones. But Orange? It had a comfortable feel to it-enough so that I knew Tom Ridge meant business, but could still forestall the morbid paralysis that had first gripped me.

But more than instilling a kind of post–Sept. 11 carpe diem, the Code Orange Alert became a stanchion in my New York identity. Beyond access to endless takeout and heaving large chunks of my salary at my rent, living on the front lines of the terror war endowed my life with a different kind of seriousness. Adrift halfway into my post-college decade, perhaps the terror alerts were the existential salve I was looking for. I watched cable news with a frisson of pleasure, knowing that though the hawks who supported George Bush’s gleeful march to war lived safely inland, for the most part, we New Yorkers were the ones who would take it on the chin if Osama decided to get serious. In a weird way, it kind of made paying that much for my apartment in Brooklyn worth it. My pride as a New Yorker bulked up to Balco-like proportions.

And then, without any warning, the Code Orange alerts disappeared. Without them, I lost my private John Keating. Not that I think New York is any less of a terror target, but without that ever-present reminder, I’ve edged back into my natural state of procrastination.

With the Dow at a three-and-a-half-year high and tales of newly minted Wall Street millionaires snapping up Bentleys and yachts, in some ways New York is moving on. Or maybe it’s that our attention has been dogged by the Iraq war or, more recently, the tsunami tragedy in Asia. Thoughts of our own danger have dimmed in comparison.

But part of the allure of living here was that I could tell my friends in the flyover states that we choose to live in a dangerous place because there’s no reason to live anywhere else. Code Orange was a badge of courage. Now all I have are a long subway commute and a slice of Grimaldi’s pizza to show for it.