I drove to New York two days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and remember the emotional disconnect I found there –- a disconnect that comes back now in the midst of our latest catastrophe.
In downtown Manhattan back then, the scenes of devastation were everywhere. Trucks lumbered out of Ground Zero bearing enormous pieces of bent and twisted metal, leftovers from destroyed buildings. Stricken people with watery, haunted eyes walked the streets aimlessly, holding up photographs taped to handmade signs asking:
“Have you seen my wife?”
“Have you seen my father?”
In the little park at Union Square, a fireman and an iron worker, exhausted, covered in grime and soot, was sprawled on a bench after hours of hauling debris out of the remains of the former World Trade Center. A small crowd gathered around the two men.
“What did you see down there?” someone asked the fireman, whose name was Paul Palmisano.
“Thank God, no body parts,” he said. “But shoes, clothes. And pictures of families.”
The question went to the iron worker, whose name was Richard Cohen. “What did you see?”
“You don’t want to know,” he said. His eyes were open, but lifeless. “You don’t want to know.”
I think of them now because all of this was happening in downtown Manhattan, where the terrorists had struck. And yet, only blocks away, up toward midtown, toward Times Square and well beyond, life seemed to go on pretty much as usual.
People strolled about, went shopping, tossed Frisbees around Central Park. They walked their dogs, pushed baby strollers, sat on benches and told each other jokes. It felt as if they hadn’t heard the news from downtown, though certainly they had.
And yet there was this disconnect, built partly on geography but also on emotions. Out of sight, out of mind. Life must go on. Maybe it’s just a defense mechanism, a kind of whistling past the graveyard.
Some of us feel it with this latest disaster. People are dying by the thousands, for accidentally breathing on one another. Keep your distance, we’re told. Avoid crowded places, we’re told.
And yet, look at those young people out there. Believing themselves indestructible, they’ve been gathering at bars and beaches days into the plague, until those places are shut down by government decree.
The older among us create a different kind of distance. Stuck in our houses, we fret over impositions: We’re tired of watching the news. Why isn’t there a decent movie to watch? We can’t even find a ballgame on the set.
But those numbers keep changing in the corner of our TV screens, the ones about the infection totals, which the cable news stations keep showing.
On this Monday morning, Mar. 23, the official numbers tell us there are about 341,000 coronavirus cases around the world, and more than 14,700 deaths. In America, there are more than 34,000 cases and more than 400 deaths. So far.
And yet, burrowed in our homes where we’ve been told to stay, there’s that disconnect, a sense of unreality. The virus numbers, the scenes of empty downtown streets in what are normally the most congested cities, can’t possibly be real, can they?
In my neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore, people go for long walks. There’s a new, city-built path nearby, which leads to a beautiful new pedestrian bridge that stretches across Northern Parkway just below Sinai Hospital.
Out there, nobody’s crowding anybody. We pass each other for an instant, wave hello and carefully keep the required six feet apart.
But it also adds to the sense of disconnect. If we’re out walking in the sunlight, what’s all this talk about thousands dying?
That iron worker back in Manhattan’s Union Square in September of 2001, the one who said, “You don’t want to know” what it was like in the ruins of the World Trade Center, he had it right.
We don’t want to know. We embrace denial as a defense mechanism. Whatever’s going on in the most infected places around the world, we’ll get through this, we tell ourselves. It can’t possibly be as bad as they’re telling us.
If only we can find something on the TV to help us pretend.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.