Who’d have guessed the public would run amok at the first word that H5N1 is back?
Even as they joked about Swine Flu II, the masses must have been listening to us. Not that we convinced them to take any useful measures, but we evidently scared their daylights out. People responded with passionate denial until the news came yesterday that seven Brooklynites had caught viciously fatal cases of bird flu, with dozens more cases suspected.
As it happens, I was obliviously loading my rusty old VW Fox with protective gear. The sun was shining, the street quiet. I smiled at some kids and their scruffy dog. I packed so many boxes I couldn’t see much in the rear-view mirror.
Then I drove off without checking the Internet for news. I’ve been trying to be less compulsively informed lately and the radio in my car was stolen years ago. (I just sing Gene Clark’s Radio Song, about how every tune they play is about his lost love while he drives cross-country to find her.
Traffic was weird, intense. It thickened by the second and people were unusually hostile. They were yelling, gesticulating, honking, ignoring cops as they pressed through lights of any color. I’ve never seen worse gridlock, a deafening, throbbing muddle of sirens going nowhere.
In midtown I decided there must have been a terror attack—that the safest thing was to keep going and get the news at a gas station up north. When I saw people wearing masks, I put one on. Any kind of barrier might help against whatever, right?
It took three hours to cover 10 miles to Washington Heights. Access to the George Washington Bridge was frozen, as if it were closed. Unimaginable. Had someone blown it up? Emergency lights and sirens were fired up in all directions.
I opted to head north through the Bronx and Westchester, as did most everyone else.
The End of My Road
Somewhere above 190th Street, near the bottom of a long hill, a Hummer pressed out of a side street and into my car. He tried to push me out of his way like a stray garbage can. He crushed my right front wheel, backed off, and inched away.
I got out to chase the behemoth, pen and pad in hand. He sat in the block ahead, revving his engine and bumping cars. His windows were smoked. I don’t think that’s legal here. I banged on his door. No response.
I headed to the Hummer’s rear to log the license plate. The side burst open and a fist slammed into my face. A hand snatched my notebook.
I looked back through broken goggles to see people pushing my vehicle out of the road. An old red van rammed my trunk, causing the Fox to lurch into a teenager. I think it broke his leg.
Next thing I saw was a younger kid running off with a box of my masks.
The crowd pushed my car to a bus stop and dispersed. The injured kid vanished. I still had no idea what had set the city off. My nose was bleeding.
I tried to call my insurance company for a free tow to a repair shop, but cell service was jammed. I know the New York Police Department wanted the power to shut down mobile phone service in the event of a terrorist attack. Whatever they did wasn’t quelling public anxiety.
No one would talk to me. They kept their windows rolled up. I closed mine, stood by the car door, hoping someone would pause to explain things.
The End of My Load
Instead three guys showed up with shopping carts and the youngster who’d stolen the masks. As they emptied my passenger compartment and trunk, they let me notice they were armed. No one directly threatened me. Nor did anyone grope for the wad of cash in my pocket. They pretended not to notice I was trembling. Does everyone do that when they’re being robbed?
A short man with a big head explained the furor as best he could: Bird flu was back, unstoppable. This he registered by flapping his hands and coughing with a fatal expression. He took pains to tell me they needed my gear for their families. “Todos para los niños,” he said, holding a box of children’s masks and taking snapshots of little ones out of his wallet.
He pointed to my cracked goggles questioningly, then to my gloves.
I pointed to the empty car and shrugged. I had packed it mostly with masks and some personal stuff, which they let me keep.
As if to prove his honesty and good faith, the man handed me an old taser. He frowned when he saw me wonder if it might be useful on the spot. He grinned when I put it away.
I had to get home by subway. I don’t remember making my way to the station. I was flat-out terrified—of people, the air, noises. I mostly rode between the cars, a crime here. I kept my eyes closed as clammy, sooty August air whipped around me in the tunnels.
I was in shock. If I made it home, I would be trapped there. My lungs were burning from disuse by the time I got my door open and gasped for air. I still haven’t eaten much.
Don’t worry—I have plentiful supplies to sell you. But no car, little money, and a refuge I can’t reach. We’ll all need better luck than I’ve had.