Close Encounter: And a Spider Sat Down Beside Her

Photo by Bill Smith

It had been ages since Sarah, who moved from L.A. to Washington, D.C., 10 years ago, last saw her girlfriend Rani. So when Rani visited Washington, the two went to a popular Italian restaurant in Georgetown to have a glass of wine and catch up. (The women’s true names are not used here.) “There were about five Arab guys there,” Sarah remembers, “all wearing the uniform — black leather jackets, black pants and loafers. They were really talking serious — they weren’t having a party.”

This was about 10 days before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, and Sarah, an outgoing woman who has worked in both the White House and Congress, and who is thoroughly used to Washington’s international complexion, paid the men no mind.

After the group broke up, one of the men stayed and introduced himself. “He lived in Alexandria, and you could tell he had money,” Sarah says. “He told us he was studying international trade at Georgetown, that he was from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. I don’t know if you know Abu Dhabi — it’s a crazy shopping place, it has everything. He was talking about his mom and sister, and about shopping.”

Then the man asked Sarah for a date. “I’ll take you to a wonderful, beautiful dinner,” he said.

“The guy was about 30 and not bad-looking, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen, so I did The Deflect with the cell phone.

“‘Give me your number, and I’ll put it in my phone,’ I told him. But as I enter his number he takes his cell phone out. Then he takes mine and presses Send. His phone rings, and he smiles and says, ‘Now I have your number!’

“‘How clever,’ I said, thinking, What an asshole! I mean, dude, if I’d wanted you to have my number I would have given it to you. The hairs on my neck went up. He called me at home about three times, but I never picked up or called him back.”

The FBI began calling a week after September 11. Sarah was visiting in L.A., where agents contacted her by phone. “They wouldn’t tell me what it was about, and when I offered to stop by a field office, the agent said, ‘No, no, no! I’m the one who tracked you down. I need to get the information from you.’ I asked him what this was about, and he said, ‘This is so big, so large and detailed’ that he couldn’t. That was when I knew this was the terrorist stuff.”

Upon returning home, Sarah met twice with agents in a downtown D.C. coffee shop and will look through an updated album of pictures this week. Her meetings with the FBI have been relaxed, even though the agents will still not confirm the nature of their investigation.

“The big things don’t pan out,” the main agent did allow one day, “but the little random things are turning out to be big.”

Mental States: To the Moon

Sitting around a long table at the Anne Sippi Clinic in Los Angeles are 13 severely mentally ill people who meet every couple of days to talk about what we’re all talking about: the terrorist attacks, the bombings, the anthrax. They live at the clinic, two to a room, some for a few months, some for years. But they’re not out of it. They watch TV and read newspapers, and they know what’s going on.

In the middle of the table are two large boxes of Yum Yum doughnuts. Whenever someone new comes in, including me, everyone offers a doughnut. Even people who leave and come back later get offered a doughnut every time. The doughnuts bring everyone together. In conversation, people here sometimes do the things you’d expect from watching movies — rock back and forth, speak in non sequiturs — but mostly everyone’s just talking.

An older man with an unshaven face and square, gold-rimmed glasses: “They’re gonna have to come up with wiretaps. They’re gonna curtail people’s freedoms. They’re already talking about this in the Senate and the House right now. It’s pretty chilling when it comes down to it.”

A blond woman in her 30s wearing a lavender shirt: “When I’m in my apartment at night, you know, in my bed, and I hear an airplane going by, I’m always afraid a terrorist is coming to bomb my apartment.”

I’ve had similar thoughts myself.

Michael Rosberg, the psychologist who runs the clinic, tells me that when the attacks happened last month, he and other workers braced themselves for a rough few weeks, expecting residents’ illnesses to worsen and their self-absorption — common with severe mental illness — to deepen.

He waited to be bombarded with the question: What’s going to happen to me?

But the opposite happened. Residents grieved for the people who died and for their families. They wanted to know what they could do to help. Some residents’ symptoms even seemed to remit. They seemed more able to talk about their illness rather than succumb to it.

“One of our clients brought up anthrax,” Rosberg says. “He wanted to know if it’s safe to breathe the air, and I said, ‘It’s very safe.’ But he also talked about what it’s like to feel afraid all the time. And then another guy, who’s recovering from paranoid schizophrenia, said all this brings back the feeling that someone is after him, because when you read the paper, it’s true.”

The woman in the lavender shirt is talking again. “Instead of killing bin Laden, if America stands together, and unites together . . . as a team . . . united . . . together . . .”

She falters, unsure how to get out of this loop, but after a second moves forward.

“If we’re proud to be Americans and be united, that might work better than killing one of their people.” She looks around. “I had trouble expressing myself.”

A quiet, doughy-faced man next to her follows up. “Maybe make them feel their own sense of what they did. Just recognize what they did and not do the same. Maybe just hold back.”

“But they have no conscience!” shouts an older man with dark, close-shaven hair sitting across the table. A former Marine, Rosberg tells me.

People always want to know if it’s scary, sitting in a room with people who have serious mental illnesses. I’m not scared here at all. I’m relieved.

Unlike the rest of us, the people here are under no obligation to approach this whole thing rationally, or pretend they’re in control of all the fear and sadness this is stirring up. Listening to them, we can understand why so many of us are walking around feeling fragile and not-ourselves, even if nothing has touched us directly.

“This is the first war I’ve been in since I was a kid — that one in 1972,” says a young man with a shaved head and a blond tuft of hair gelled straight up in front. “I never liked it. My dad said, ‘Watch it, I want you to know about it.’ But I didn’t want to watch it.”

A few minutes later, a woman with thick, dark eyebrows and a square face says flatly, “I’m going to be planetless.”

She says this to no one in particular, as people are already filing out of the room. The discussion is over.

As I head to my car, one of the guys from the discussion calls out to me. He’s a tall, bald black man, sitting on a bench, wearing silver cowboy boots. A yellow string is tied around his forehead.

“Let me ask you,” he says. “What else is going on that I’m not aware of?”

He looks at me, waiting for a reply. I am speechless. Isn’t this the exact question that’s been gnawing at me for the last five weeks?

I give some lame reply — “Uh, I’m not sure” — but he doesn’t seem to care. He just switches subjects and starts telling me about how he’s going to colonize the moon.

—Nancy Updike

Panic Attack:
The Patient Zero of Hypochondriacs?

It started with dry mouth. The cottony, tongue-smacking feeling, like licking a piece of construction paper. Next came dizziness. Racing heartbeat. Woozy, blurry field of vision. Chest pains that progressed from mildly annoying Tylenol-stuck-halfway-down-your-throat to intense freaky. Reading the symptoms on the Web sites — solid, trustworthy sites, including the CDC’s, Johns Hopkins’ and the FDA’s — I think, no, I know, I have it: Anthrax. Or smallpox, botulism, tularemia, plague.

Maybe I picked it up when I moistened that envelope at the ATM. Or maybe when that woman coughed on me in line at the grocery. Oh, the countless doorknobs, toilet seats, salad bars, hugs, handshakes â and shared breathing spaces. Nausea? Check. Fatigue? Check. Coldlike symptoms including fever, cough and malaise? Check, check, check.

Twenty minutes later, I drive to UCLA Medical Center and check myself into the emergency room. I travel from triage to receiving to the little pink desk where they strap on the plastic ID bracelets, then back to triage. A portly fellow sitting in the waiting room informs the med tech that the wound from the lesion he just had removed in a biopsy two days ago won’t stop bleeding and could they please get it to stop? A teenage boy bends over, clutches his head between his legs and retches. A nurse named Jose takes my vitals and shuttles me into a curtained-off section. “Strip,” he says, handing over a cotton gown, “and keep the open part to the back.” As if it were even an option for me. In the cubicle next door, an old man strapped to a gurney screams, again and again, “Damn you! You’re always screwing things up!” The doctors, apparently, were trying to take his temperature.

I’m besieged by a flurry of nurses, phlebotomists, interns and residents. They take blood out. Put saline in. They stick electrodes here and there. They prep me for a CAT scan.

“Do you have any allergies?” Anthrax!

“Have you or anyone you’ve come in contact with been on a plane within the past two weeks?” Anthrax!

“Have you been out of the country lately?” Anthrax!

“Does it feel like an elephant sitting on your chest?” a young Indian doctor with an Australian accent inquires politely. No. Not really.

“Like something smaller? Some other animal?” A Chihuahua, maybe. A fat one.

Someone has Scotch-taped a 1-to-10 “Pain Scale” chart on the wall. Smiley-face for “no pain,” frowning face for “extreme pain.” I’m asked to estimate a number. Pain is physical. It’s mental, spiritual, psychological, emotional. It’s the pain of the present, of the future, of potentially excruciating surgeries to come. It’s the pain of confronting possible contagion vs. the need to flee vs. the sneaking suspicion that it must on some level be all in your head.

“Uh, five? Six?”

Never before has so much attention been lavished upon my lungs, heart, stomach. In college I’d planned to study medicine, had even majored for a while in molecular biology. Had always, in fact, considered myself rational. Non-hysterical. So why am I flipping out? Suddenly, all those scary, vaguely sexy scientific terms from the Johns Hopkins Web site — aerosol clouds, incubation periods, mortality rates, spores and vectors and vaccines — seem pretty academic when there’s a guy with a gunshot wound bleeding out onto the floor two feet away.

I try to sign myself out. But the doctor insists on ruling out possibilities — do I really want to leave without knowing if it’s a blood clot lodged in my lung? An orderly says not to worry; the UCLA emergency room is not only the best place to be in the event of a terrorist attack, it’s also a bomb shelter.

At 1:30 a.m., eight hours after I signed in, UCLA Medical discharges me with a clean bill of health, a shot of Ativan and the stern suggestion that perhaps “other issues” were at play. Diagnosis? Good old-fashioned panic attack. For once I get to say that I was ahead of the trend. Three weeks ahead. The media and health experts hadn’t even decided which biological agent would be the likeliest, and the current anthrax craze hadn’t begun to hit its stride.

Logging on to another Web site, www.anthrax.com —the heavy metal band, not the bacterium — a splash page suggests that in light of current events, the group is considering changing its name “to something more friendly, like Basket Full of Puppies.” Two days after the first anthrax-spore-laden letter is discovered in the mail, an itemized bill from the ER arrives: Three upper-body X-rays? $110. One half-hour session in a CAT scanner? $1,211. Total cost of one paranoia-induced hypochondriac panic attack? $2,113. Figuring out you’re not Patient Zero in a nationwide bioterrorist strike? Priceless.

—Gendy Alimurung

Freedom Trail: You’re Canadian, Eh? Where’s Your Passport?

I am a Canadian living legally in the U.S., but I look as American as Sandra Dee. And so, when a Canadian girlfriend and I encountered a border-patrol checkpoint just outside Tucson on a recent road trip, I didn’t worry.

My friend was a little nervous, though. “Aren’t these border patrols supposed to be at the border?” she asked.

“I knew we should have skipped Tombstone,” I griped as we pulled up to the border-patrol tent. “We didn’t even get to see the shootout at the O.K. Corral.”

“Are you two American citizens?” asked a 20ish female soldier in camouflage.

“No, we’re Canadians,” I said.

“Can I see your passports?” she asked.

“Sure,” said my friend.

I started to turn gray. I’ve lived in the States for years, and I’ve never been asked for my passport unless I was crossing the border. “I don’t have it on me,” I said. “I work in Los Angeles. I have a work visa.”

“You always need to carry your passport with you,” she said.

“I will,” I promised. She waved us on.

The next day, just out of El Paso, the two-lane highway narrowed to one lane. “More construction?” I said, slowing.

“No, I think it’s another border-patrol stop,” my friend said. “I can see the flashing lights and the army guys.”

Great.

“Maybe you should say you are American,” said my friend.

“No way. I’m so nervous, I’ll probably end every sentence with ‘Eh!’”

Trucks full of beefy, angry-looking men were waved through. Then an officer with a German shepherd on a leash signaled us to stop. As he approached, he had to yank back on the dog, who stood up on its hind legs, snarling.

My friend pulled out her passport and tried to divert the officer by chatting about the dog. No luck, he wanted to see my documents.

“I don’t have them on me. I work in Los Angeles,” I said wearily. “Do you want to see my driver’s license?”

“That doesn’t prove anything.” he snapped, annoyed. “Not carrying proper identification will get you 30 days in jail, a $5,000 fine and your car impounded.”

“I didn’t know,” I begged. “I promise I’ll carry my information with me from now on.”

“I guess I’ll take your word for it,” he finally said. Smirking, he let us go.

When I got home, I called the INS and discovered that Checkpoint Charlie had been half right: I was supposed to carry my passport, but the penalty is $100 and a possible 30 days in jail, not a sure month in the slammer. The point is the same, though. From now on, I’m carrying my passport across the street for a carton of milk.

—Christine Pelisek


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