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Beloved Infidels 

Wednesday, Nov 7 2001
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Visitors to Hollywood‘s Cherokee Avenue Post Office were surprised last week to find counter employees conducting business in surgical masks and latex gloves. (Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor threat of anthrax . . . )

“How long do you have to wear that stuff?” asked one patron with a package-pickup slip.

“I don’t know,” the woman replied wearily.

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“This is kind of unsettling,” the patron remarked before leaving.

So it was, yet in September 11‘s aftermath we’ve come to expect nothing less than the unsettling, whether it is the sight of New York firefighters battling cops at Ground Zero or George W. Bush striding to the pitcher‘s mound at Yankee Stadium without a Secret Service escort. He needn’t have worried about the mood of the World Series crowd, because at the moment he is even more popular than Bill Clinton was during the depths of l‘affaire Lewinsky. By taking on a part of the Muslim world, the president has become America’s most beloved infidel and now finds himself pitching in a game in which the Democrats, to paraphrase our defense secretary‘s comments about the Taliban, are no longer functioning as an opposition.

A few days after Bush’s appearance on the mound, Governor Gray Davis was ripped by Republicans for passing on to Californians an FBI warning about possible attacks on the state‘s suspension bridges. Davis is merely the latest liberal to discover that in the new political atmosphere the Republican right is allowed to use the crisis as an excuse to turn the Treasury into an ATM for its corporate sponsors while denouncing White House critics as traitors or meddlers. (The retired war hero David Hackworth, who was once considered a serious military analyst, proposed on national television that we strap parachutes on “the Alec Baldwins and the Madonnas and the Phil Donahues . . . and drop them on Afghanistan.”)

It is an unsettling atmosphere, but one to which we have already acclimatized ourselves, in the same ways our grandparents accepted Manzanar, and our parents, the Red scare of the 1950s. Do liberal Californians even blink over the fact that the state’s two Democratic senators voted to kill Russ Feingold‘s (D-Wisconsin) lonely amendment to the Senate’s draconian anti-terrorism bill, to curb “roving wiretaps” and that Maxine Waters and Loretta Sanchez were the only L.A.-area Democratic Congress members to vote against the so-called Patriot Act‘s passage in the House?

Instead, we’ve adopted an “and yet” acceptance of our fractured times. We‘ve returned our attention to the things that really count -- Sunday football, the World Series, the Emmys -- and yet the barricades remain in place around City Hall. A popular institution like Glendale’s Damon‘s steakhouse was still packed last Friday night and yet Xeroxed notices taped to booths announced that, because of September 11, the tiki-themed restaurant would be closed Mondays until business picks up again. Which might well be when the postal workers take off their masks and gloves.

LAMENT OF THE WEEK

“I called one of the all-news radio stations to get coverage for the Backyard National Children’s Film Festival. But the guy I spoke to asked, ‘Is there an anthrax connection?’ I told him this was a positive kids‘ story. ’I‘m not kidding about the anthrax,’ he said.”

--Stephanie Mardesich, public-relations consultant

BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATERS

“My sergeant says we can‘t give interviews, but you can take all the pictures you want.” The National Guardsman, a pleasant Joe dressed in green camos, then removed his glasses and struck a soldierly pose with his M-16. He seemed genuinely apologetic about the gag order, but happy that he could oblige this much. How, though, could he stand the constant rattling of steel overhead? The man looked up at the Vincent Thomas Bridge and shrugged. “Yeah, well, after a few hours . . .”

Bridge sentry duty has become part of a sudden and dramatic development in the ongoing aftermath of September 11, the product of an uncorroborated and far-fetched threat that conjures images of California’s bridges toppling into the sea in nightmarish displays of Osama bin Laden‘s sinister power. “American infidels!” one can almost hear a cruel voice interrupting the Cal-Stanford game. “Look to your Golden Gate Bridge!”

Yet, with all due respect, the Vincent Thomas is no Golden Gate. Instead, it rises above L.A. Harbor like a piece of ugly green furniture connecting San Pedro with Terminal Island. Likewise, guarding it doesn’t seem a particularly exciting or glamorous duty. Although the FBI has officially discredited the bridge threat, Governor Davis hasn‘t said if he’ll remove the guardsmen or not. (He also hasn‘t said what’s to prevent a suicide bomber from driving an explosive-laden truck along the deck above the guardsmen and detonating it midspan.) This week there appeared to be only two soldiers and a Humvee guarding the San Pedro side of the bridge. The men, slouched in the shade against a massive concrete buttress, came to life behind their yellow police-line tape when the Weekly‘s reporter approached, and even more so when a KABC camera truck arrived.

At water’s edge, about 500 feet away, not far from the WWII merchant-marine ship Lane Victory, 15 men in wet suits from the LAPD‘s Dive Team gathered. Its members have been checking underwater structures and helping the Coast Guard patrol the harbor whenever a cruise liner berths. At that moment, a Carnival Line boat was docked, and its portside passengers gazed out at the divers, the guardsmen and the Vincent Thomas. The ship’s name seemed to belie both the drab location of its mooring and the somber season of its visit: Ecstacy.

BIODRAMA

David Feldshuh‘s play about the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Miss Evers’ Boys, caused a stir here during its 1990 West Coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. Now, the anthrax scare has un-bandaged some of the same kinds of racial wounds as were inflicted by such federally sponsored horrors as the Tuskegee experiment, in which 400 black men were deliberately left infected over a 40-year period. Did Feldshuh, who is a professor at Cornell University‘s Department of Theater, Film and Dance, as well as a physician specializing in emergency medicine, see any similarities between the treatment of the experiment’s subjects and that of Washington‘s mostly African-American postal workers, who were kept out of the triage loop until after Capitol Hill was evacuated?

“I think criticism is warranted, but one should have a certain amount of humility in the face of this enormous crisis,” he says. “Tuskegee’s issues were racial and economic -- the argument could be made that people in the Capitol building are always going to have more attention paid to them than to those who work in the post office.”

Feldshuh, who says he has no plans to take Cipro or to prescribe it to friends, sounded humbled by the information void at the heart of the scare:

“We‘re going to be stumbling in the dark. The reality is that no one knows if anthrax is in their neighborhood until somebody dies.”

SIGNS OF THE TIMES

A man standing on Sunset and Cahuenga recently greeted morning rush-hour drivers with a sign reading, “Will Open Mail for $$$.” Perhaps more distressing was the cell phone (or merely a piece of plastic) he appeared to be permanently holding to his ear . . . Spotted at the Nails Station in Silver Lake: A woman getting her small toes painted red and her big toes blue with “911” etched in white on them . . . Zack, a Hollywood Supply Sergeant’s store manager, says his biggest movers since September 11 have been Korean gas masks ($200) and chemical-hazard suits ($19.95). But is merely putting on a gas mask enough for an untrained civilian to ward off asphyxiating fumes or aerosoled viruses? “Yes,” Zack assured us, “they‘re good for chemical and biological attacks. They come with instructions and the names of Web sites. The chemical suits are basically a novelty item, though.”

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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