Panic in the Year Zero

From September 11 onward, a sickening vision has gnawed at the back of our thoughts: that in some city, possibly our own, there is a deserted apartment whose rent is nevertheless all paid up, and in this apartment there is a closet with a briefcase that someone has left behind -- a briefcase with a kind of timer inside . . .

President Bush‘s recent disclosures concerning Osama bin Laden’s nuclear wish list were really nothing new -- once a year the State Department announces that the world‘s terrorists are actively seeking fissionable material, underpaid atomic scientists or actual warheads. The president was simply notching up the nation’s fear level by pushing our gnawing thoughts forward, making sure we‘re all on the same Team Panic as the administration and the media.

On the other hand, the discovery of anthrax in four new places on Capitol Hill merely rated a Page 14 story in Sunday’s L.A. Times, part of a trend in the media to downplay the ongoing bioterror drama. Since the FBI has declared mailings of the deadly spores to be the probable work of just another American serial killer, anthrax has lost its usefulness to the war party‘s efforts to keep the country in a state of perpetual alarm, to be replaced by officially fanned rumors of nuclear holocaust and smallpox. (Which explains why a jittery Dow Jones took a header on the day American Airlines Flight 587 crashed -- a day when the Taliban’s retreat from Kabul should have sent the stock market skyrocketing.) No wonder the pundits, combining apocalyptic paranoia with national vanity, have proclaimed the time following September 11 as a sort of Year Zero in the war between the World‘s Most Important Country and barbarism. (To David Halberstam, the terror attacks were not merely the garden variety of disasters that befall lesser nations, but ”genocidal acts.“)

Among other things, the current crisis and Bush’s fear mongering have settled the question of how different America would have been had it not elected a Franklin Roosevelt president. It should also absolve Ralph Nader voters of whatever guilt they may have later felt, because from the start many Democrats have confronted the administration‘s initiatives to scuttle habeas corpus and attorney-client privacy privileges, and to emancipate the rich from taxes, with one, united position -- tongue out, paws up in the air. September 11 provided Bush with the chance to rethink positions on everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to global warming; that traumatic date also afforded the Democrats an opportunity to inaugurate a conversation on America’s international responsibilities in the new century. Instead, the president and his advisers chose to shout ”Fire!“ in the theater of government, and the Democrats seconded the motion with their near-unanimous approval of the USA-PATRIOT Act. The rest, as they say, is hysteria.

Who Says War Is Good for Business?

”We‘ve been through the gas crisis, earthquakes, fires and floods,“ says John Papadakis, ”but this is the first time in 28 years that I’ve had to change the menu.“ San Pedro‘s Papadakis’ Taverna has been a popular social and culinary hub for Harbor-area families for 28 years, and its gregarious owner is unofficially known as the mayor of Sixth Street, San Pedro‘s Old Town business district. But Sixth Street, along with most other area businesses, has been hard hit by September 11. That is why this higher-end restaurant, already hurting before the attacks, now offers an a la carte menu. Many of L.A.’s small, independently owned businesses are having similar troubles.

Consider the fate of Hollywood‘s Franklin Avenue Strip, a lively commercial district along Franklin Avenue concentrated between Bronson and Tamarind avenues. ”Two things are interesting,“ says Susan Polifronio, who, with her husband, John, owns Counterpoint Records and Books, a Franklin Avenue landmark for 22 years. ”People are coming in the store requesting employment, and other people leaving town are selling us a lot of books and records.“

Polifronio, who remembers the big demand for books about Nostradamus, Afghanistan, war philosophy and Islam after September 11, has received 15 applications for jobs, even though her store is in the middle of a small slump.

The downturn has been far more severe for other businesses on the strip, particularly its restaurants. When the Weekly spoke last Sunday to Francoise Koster, who, with her mother, Jackie, owns La Poubelle, the French cafe was virtually empty and had not received a single reservation that day. ”Typically you could not get in here tonight without reserving a couple of days in advance,“ Koster says. ”We used to close at midnight, but we’ve had to change that to 9 p.m.“

The Kosters have also had to cut their staff by six people and now work in the kitchen themselves. And, like John Papadakis, they are rearranging their menu for the first time. ”The filet and the duck, which run between $17 and $25, aren‘t selling,“ she says. ”People are only ordering crepes and pasta.“ La Poubelle’s pricier fare will soon vanish from the menu, only to be offered as weekend specials.

The Franklin Avenue Business Association, which represents the strip‘s shops and restaurants, is confronting another headache -- the transformation of the strip and surrounding areas into a preferential-parking zone. The enforcement of such a zone, which would occur after 9 p.m., will especially hit hard this commercial district, where businesses tend to remain open until 11 p.m. or later. John Polifronio prefers to take the long view of the Franklin Strip’s problems. ”Businesspeople tend to complain anyway,“ he says, ”so when a really dramatic event happens, they really complain. When the scare wears off, things will be all right. If there wasn‘t so much double talk and hysteria, we might know where we stand.“


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