The VigilanceVoice

Tuesday-- February 19, 2002
—Ground Zero Plus 161

Terrorism & Screwdrivers
Falling From Heaven, Or, is that Hell?

Cliff McKenzie
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

        GROUND ZERO, New York City, Feb. 19--You're walking down the sidewalk in New York City, trying to mind your own business.  It's a cold evening.  You're snuggled in your jacket, weaving around others heading your way.  Suddenly, from above you hear the clickety-clunk of something falling.   It grows louder, distinct from the thousands of ambient sounds that paint the city's aural canvass.
         Thunk!  Clatter!  Rattle! 
         Your warning radar ignites, an instinct born from city life triggered when unfamiliar noises slice through the dictionary of familiar sounds.  You freeze and glance up at the battleship gray fire escape switch backing up the side of the hundred-year-old apartment buildings that line the street like brick Dominos.  It's a scene from some 19th Century movie of aging stone monoliths pressed shoulder to shoulder, their cantilevered facades of gargoyles and romanesque art precariously perched over the sidewalks, constantly threatening to fall on the unsuspecting.
        Clatter!  Rattle!  Thunk!
         You leap back.  A giant screwdriver lands at your feet with a clear plastic handle and a red ring around its grip with the words ACE embossed on it.    The six-inch missile bounces, spinning baton-like in the air, its shiny steel blade flashing against the cab lights that zip down the narrow street.  The object somersaults up and away.   You curse and expel your anger at nearly been ambushed by a screwdriver.  You shout invectives at whomever above caused your near demise.
        You forget about the Terrorist attack on September 11 and all the horror it brought to the city.  You think about moving out of Manhattan to escape falling screwdrivers--a much more clear and present danger than a jetliner smashing into your apartment.
         You wonder what stupid idiot above would be so inconsiderate as to drop a screwdriver and not yell a warning.  You hurry home with the screwdriver in your pocket, a battle prize, a street war symbol of the infinite booby traps that make up Big City Life.
         I wasn't the guy walking below.
         I was the stupid, inconsiderate, *#%!*@$ guy who dropped the screwdriver.
         I was the idiot from above.  I was the Reckless Terrorist.
                                                                      * * *
         New York City has its drawbacks.   One of them is space.
         My wife and I moved here just over two years ago from Dana Point, California where we had lived in spacious 3,500 square foot house, endless rooms of space, a three-car garage, cathedral ceilings, a sunken living room and a grand backyard with a flagstone swimming pool and waterfall surrounded by vegetation and trees galore that created a grotto, a sanctuary, isolating us from the humanity of Southern California.
         All that is gone.  In its place is the cramped space of the vertical city in which every move you make can affect another human being--from walking down the street to avoid a collision to climbing the stairs and meeting someone coming down because there's only room for one on the narrow, winding passage to your 5th floor elevator-less apartment.
         I am a novice in many ways to city living.   I still think I can do what I want in my "castle," and have the freedom to do it.  That isn't correct.
        If you elect to carve a totem pole, as I recently have, there is no place to work on your pet project except the fire escape where the dust from your sanding drill, and the wood chips from your chisel do not cloud or mar the sanctuary of your compressed homeland.
         My wife and I came to New York City for the experience of living near our children and grandchildren.   We often forget the luxury we gave up--SPACE and PRIVACY!  
        Adapting to the new cottage environment hasn't been easy.   At first we refused any apartment unless on the ground floor until we started apartment hunting.  Then our standards broadened in direct relation to the price of living.  Toward the end, we would have climbed twenty stairs to find the right place that had enough room to live in some sense of privacy.   Going from 3 1/2 baths to one was bad enough, let alone reducing the living space to 20% of what we once had.  We felt like round pegs in square holes.
       Fortunately, we found a rent stabilized apartment with no elevator and 59 steps to our 5th floor abode.  The prize was it had four private rooms, a living room and kitchen albeit tiny) and was just a few blocks from our grandchildren in the East Village.
      But last night I forget the dangers of city dwelling.   They flashed before my mind as I watched my screwdriver fly out of my hand and heard its descent clacking and thunking toward the sidewalk below.
      I was hanging out the window, working on my newest hobby--woodcarving.   I had chosen to carve a totem pole for my grandson out a thick, tough piece of wood.   I was chiseling the arms of the figure, proud that it was taking shape, unaware of the danger I was creating for others.
     It was a cold night.  My hands were numb as I hammered and crunched at the wood.  I had just sharpened the tip of the screwdriver with my Dremel, making it like a razor tip to penetrate the grain of the wood.   As the hammer glanced off the edge of the screwdriver handle, the tool flew out of my hand.    I grabbed frantically for it but it was too late.
   I watched it tumble, and disappear in the night, followed by sounds of its clunkering journey down the iron grates of the rickety fire escape.   I didn't think of people walking below as it fell. My eyes searched the dark in hopes I could see it when it landed on one of the grates below.  That was wishful thinking.
        Then the panic began to set in.  What if it hit someone?   Before I could utter a word of warning, there was one final rattling sound and a kerplunk, followed by an angry Voice yelling up words I shall not print here.   Courageously, I did what any six-foot-four-inch two-hundred and seventy pound man would do--I ducked back into the apartment so no one could see me.   My heart pounded like the child whose mother caught him with his fingers in the cookie jar.
      The invectives continued for a few seconds.   I thought about sticking my head out the window and yelling: "I'm sorry!  Can you hang on to the screwdriver and I'll be right down to get it."  Then I thought about New York City.  I figured whoever it was might throw it back up like a knife, intent on sticking it in my forehead as a lesson in city manners and public safety.
       At that moment the phone rang.  It was a friend of mine telling me about the time for Guy's funeral, my buddy who suddenly died last Friday of a heart attack.   She was telling me the address of the funeral home and the time for the services.   .
        It took me a minute to collect myself.   I decided to face the music and donned my shoes and jacket--for it was bitter cold--and wended my way down the 59 steps of our Pre-War apartment building to the street in hopes I might spot the screwdriver and retrieve it and make apologies to whomever I had hopefully missed.
       The sidewalk was empty.
       There was no blood.  
       No body.
       No screwdriver.
       I was glad I hadn't hurt anyone, but frightened that I almost had--or, that I could have.   I had a vision of some guy walking around with a screwdriver stuck in his head--a sight in New York City that would not bring a second glance from anyone.   Oddity is commonplace here.  If you went up to someone with a screwdriver stuck in their head and said:  "Excuse me, sir, there's a screwdriver stuck in your head," odds are he or she would grump at you, "So What!"
      "But, it's my screwdriver.   Can I have it back?"
      "No way!  It's mine now!  I like it!"
      My macabre humor didn't sate the truth--I had been neglectful.  Leaning out my window, I hadn't thought about how the cold would numb my hands, loosen my grip and create a scenario ripe for disaster.   I was thinking about was my mission--carving the wood, exposing its inner beauty  that waited patiently below the surface, waiting for me to unearth it with my makeshift screwdriver chisel and Dremel drills.
       As I searched behind garbage cans and flower boxes and in the gutter for my screwdriver, I thought about all the madness in the world.  There were Terrorists in the Middle East ducking bombs and bullets, Olympic skaters being attacked by judges who dropped screwdrivers on their scores, madmen mowing down innocent pedestrians in the middle of Manhattan, drug addicts sticking guns in people's faces to get enough money for their next fix, drunk drivers pointing steel weapons of destruction down the highways--and me, dropping a screwdriver out of a 5th floor apartment building.  I was a part of the world's madness.  I was a Terror contributor.
       I was more concerned with getting done what I wanted to get done than thinking about the consequences of my actions.  I didn't run a system check on leaning out a window with a virtual weapon in my hand.  I didn't consider dropping it, or that it might transform from a tool into a destructive missile dropping from the sky the way a bomb does-- indiscriminate as to whom it might  harm when it reached its destination.
       My reaction had been inaction.   As I leaned out the window with my mouth open, hoping the Ace Hardware Steel Shafted Spear would end its fall,  I didn't switch to my Vigilant mode and yell: "Fore--Screwdriver On Its Way Down!  Danger Below!   Duck!  Run!"  Instead, I wimped out.  I dived into the cave of complacency.
       Daily, in these Vigilance News Reports, I  promote Vigilance as though I were an expert at it.   Last night I felt more like a Terrorist than the Sheriff of Vigilance.  Unlike a real Terrorist, I didn't have mens rea--evil intent--but I was a criminal of neglect. I had committed the crime of Complacency.  I hadn't considered the consequences of my actions.   Under the law, I was subject the crime of reckless endangerment--a nice word for being "stupid," or "inconsiderate," "thoughtless" and "selfish."
      Yesterday I had written about how hard it is to assume an attitude of Vigilance because it requires work to think through what is right in the face of pressures to do what you want to do, and get what you want.   Effort is necessary to think about the other person's welfare when you do something that could affect others.   And, I had no excuse.  Last summer my wife had been fixing a screen and it fell down to the sidewalk--I could have remembered that event.   But the relationship between a screwdriver and screen seemed very distant to me as I attacked the chiseling of my totem pole.
      Had I given Vigilance its due concern before I leaned out my window and started to chisel in the cold night, I might have noticed the gaping spaces in the grates in the fire escape and thought:  "Hmmm, it's cold.  If the screwdriver slips from my hand it might fall.  Better put some cardboard down on these grates to be safe."   Or, perhaps I might have rigged a piece of string or fish line from my wrist to the chisel so that if I lost my grip it would dangle rather than fall.   Or, even better, I wouldn't have hung out the window.
       I promote that Terrorism's ingredients are threefold: Fear, Intimidation and Complacency.  Last night I all three Fists of Terrorism hit me in the gut.  First, I was afraid of what I might have done, or nearly did.  Second, I was intimidated by an angry Voice calling me names (which I deserved).  And finally, I was complacent about rushing down to offer my apologies, and make my amends.
      For every yin there's a yang, and the antidote I billboard to Terrorism is also a triad:  Courage, Conviction and Action.   I failed those tests also last night.  I didn't have the Courage to yell out when the screwdriver fell.  I didn't have the Conviction to tell whomever I nearly missed it was my fault, and apologize from above.  And, I didn't take the action to go down and take my medicine.  
       It was, perhaps, a minor lesson in Vigilance, but a vital one.
       It made me think cautiously about others like myself who aren't Vigilant when they lean out a window and hold in their hands a flower pot, or a hammer.   It reminded me that walking down the streets of New York City is taking your life in your hands.   The sky can really fall, Chicken Little!
      Putting on my Vigilance cap, I thought about requiring my wife to wear a hard hart when she strolls with the grandkids. (She actually has one.  It was a Christmas gift from me - a  genuine red, white and blue construction hat. I purchased it down near Ground Zero.)  Then I thought about walking with them, my head arched up, scouting for debris falling from the sky.  Twisting my imagination to its extremes, I thought about a new law I could champion which would require bars on all the windows of all the apartments, and special training courses for apartment dwellers on the dangers of working on totem poles on fire escapes.
       Then I smiled at myself.
       At least I was thinking Vigilance, even in the aftermath.  But those thoughts drove me to remember the Paradise I had left for the madness of New York City.
       My mind drifted back to  Dana Point, California.  I thought about all that space and freedom of Southern California living.   I saw myself sitting out on the veranda watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean, a warm sensuous breeze circling me while I calmly whittled away at my totem pole, safe and secure that no matter what I dropped it would not affect anyone below because I owned the yard, the bushes, the ice plants, the pine needles.
      I thought of the baying of the sea lions and the sounds of the ocean waves slurping onto the cove, and chips of wood flying into the air falling down to the rich soil to become mulch.
       Vigilance, I thought.   It can drive a guy into a new hobby, one that doesn't require hanging out a window and hammering a chisel.  It can also make a guy wonder why he left Paradise to drop screwdrivers off a 5th story apartment building in New York City!

     Go To Feb. 18--Vigilance Wins Olympic Gold Medal For Courage

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