With Bio-Latte and a Gas Mask, We Won’t Panic

So is it unreasonable of me to want a gas mask, a foldable one I could carry in my shoulder bag? How about, instead of the daily vitamin I never remember to take, I get myself a supply of anthrax antidote and, each morning while I’m waiting for the elevator to rise to my floor, I just quick give myself a little shot? Maybe a drug company with a lot on the ball could figure out a way to slip an all-purpose protection cocktail into the coffee, a Starbucks special, a “Bio-Latte” small or grande, depending on your daily thermostat of fear. I’m a calm, frugal type, and I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Barneys plastic bubble hood with rhinestone trim in a rainbow of colors to match anything in your wardrobe. So what if it comes complete with a battery-ready filtered oxygen pump, allowing you to continue working no matter what sirens wail, no matter what blisters appear on other people’s faces? Will they have knockoffs of the Barneys helmet in Filene’s Basement? Would the cheaper variety work, or would it conk out just when it was really needed, like the toaster I bought from a going-out-of-business discount store?

I know about the water. The Brita won’t filter out mad cow disease or a new and more virulent strand of polio specially designed in the laboratories of Serbia, where respect for human life is at an all-time low. I know that the reservoirs up in the Catskills have fences around them, but are they electrified fences, can anybody cut them with a pair of pliers? The answer is: probably. Also, you can toss a ball over those fences; what if the ball were filled with a Saddam Hussein gift for the American people? What if it were specially designed to melt when it hit water and its contents were to flow down the aqueducts and mingle with the Arm & Hammer baking soda toothpaste I use each morning in order to foil the millions of bacteria that already want to nibble at my gums and loosen my teeth? Maybe we should petition the Governor to use state troopers to guard the reservoirs 24 hours a day. This could be paid for by an anxiety tax leveled against all New Yorkers who purchase Brita and bottled water. Maybe we all should collect our own rainwater in pots that sit above our air-conditioners. Yes, there would be a little city soot in the water but better that than LSD or diphtheria. New Yorkers don’t need anywhere near the amount of showers they now take. We could have a campaign of ads running on the sides of our buses: “Gather Your Own Water While Ye May,” or “If you or someone you know is abusing water, call 1-800 Last Swallow for the address of a 12-step program near you.”

Perhaps we need a special force dedicated to keeping our water at an acceptably toxic level. A platoon of police officers who have been accused of brutality could be stationed around the water supply. That is a better idea than keeping them at desk jobs, where they might shred holes in important papers. Please don’t tell the A.C.L.U., but I for one wouldn’t care what outrageous methods were used to subdue anyone caught near our important pipes. It would seem a perfect place for officers on trial for police brutality to continue building up their pensions. Let them rake the paths around the reservoirs as smooth as the Israelis do on the border, so they can tell instantly if anyone unauthorized has come through. Who cares if those police officers get poison ivy or claim to be fatally allergic to bee stings?

I’m one of those who remember what you’re supposed to do in case of nuclear attack. Duck under your desk, put one arm over your eyes and with the other protect the back of your neck. Back in the godforsaken middle of the century, they hadn’t thought of sealing off the rooms. I worked for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s P.R. firm, which was selling fallout shelters all across the state. We held meetings for Lions and Elks clubs, for Masons and Girl Scouts, explaining how helpful it would be to have a month’s worth of dry rations stored below ground. The folks in Scarsdale could afford to dig up their lawns and put in shelters. Those of us in Manhattan had to hope that the Soviet pilot would drink too much vodka and, missing his target, turn Albany into ashes instead of New York.

What if some lunatic member of an Aryan Nation were to hate New Yorkers so much that he anthraxed us out of existence? The one that was caught out in Salt Lake City just hadn’t activated his little tube yet, but what about next time? While riding the subways, it’s hard not to wonder what just crunched under the wheels. We need to put a detector system on the subway tracks. Any foreign object would show up on a radar screen placed on each approaching train, allowing the conductor to put a sign on the caboose: “I brake for toxins.” The technology is not yet available to do this within budget, but perhaps Bill Gates could be induced to set up the service as a nonprison, alternative community-service penalty for monopolists with promise.

It reassures me that the nuclear bomb never has fallen on Columbus Circle. Something stopped us, back in the Evil Empire days, short of total madness … All this biochemical anxiety may just be a symptom of the millennium approaching. It’s hard to shake off apocalyptic visions, beasts slouching and the like. It’s hard to keep a stiff upper lip when it seems as if some humans have turned traitor and joined the microbes in their ancient war against us-a war to the finish, it seems.

On the other hand, today all this ethnic machete-quartering of neighbors around the globe may be working as a de facto steam valve so that mankind can in fact survive itself. Maybe there is a global, survival-of-the-species-driven force that mysteriously stays the hand of the fellow with a can of sarin stuffed in his backpack. Or maybe we New Yorkers are protected by the good fairy who makes sure that the demons have a nice home in the hills of Omaha and never arrive at our gates, for fear of getting mugged in our dangerous city. In which case, we ought not to boast about our declining crime statistics. Some tourists are here to purchase a toy at F.A.O. Schwarz while others may only want to take home a significant body count.

Like Mr. Magoo, always falling in the hole but never disappearing down it, we New Yorkers may be blessed by our stars. So far, all the practice drills by special units of the Fire Department and police force have been exactly as necessary as ducking under the desk; also, as effective. So far, the person who panics is a person or a columnist in need of Zoloft. But the distinction between a prophet and a madman is like the green line the Irish paint down the middle of Fifth Avenue: here today and gone tomorrow.

With Bio-Latte and a Gas Mask, We Won’t Panic