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Dorothy didn't cheer


Back when it was still in East Germany, we found ourselves in the Leipzig railway terminal (at the time Europe’s largest) at an end-of-workday rush hour. As New Yorkers, we were not at all bothered by the crowds of people scurrying every which way all around us. It was actually rather enjoyable.

After the commuters left, however, I started to feel uncomfortable. It was as though someone had set off a neutron bomb. The buildings were still intact, but there was not a person to be seen. We walked along empty streets past closed shops to our car. The city had lost that which made it a city, its people.

There used to be one section of New York that at times approached that artificial desolation. It was the financial district at night or on a weekend. I’d sometimes take visitors to see the emptiness, as though it were a natural wonder, but I didn’t like going alone.

This week, the New York Times ran an extra 18-page section called “Rediscovering Downtown.” I’d call it an advertising supplement, but the paper has been doing so many good deeds lately that they might have donated the space. One page had a large map showing the many new express-bus and ferry terminals that are being used to compensate for the few subway stations and the PATH-train terminal still closed.

I was down in the financial district earlier this week, near the site of the World Trade Center. It is unquestionably no longer empty at night or on weekends. There’s a new life that hadn’t been there even before September 11.

There are ad hoc shrines everywhere, as might be expected, but they are being lit at night, which is certainly not what I would have expected. I don’t know who is doing the lighting. Is it construction workers borrowing generators and rigging lamps on towers? Is it some government agency? It’s a new wonder in the area.

Court decisions have determined that certain sidewalk vendors in New York — booksellers, for example — may not be prohibited from offering their wares, as long as they don’t block traffic or create a public-safety problem. Others — offering toys or clothes or food — must be licensed or prepared to run from the police.

There are extra police near the site, and unauthorized sidewalk vendors have set up right in front of them. The police seem more protective than threatening, which is as it should be. The vendors add to the life of the area, and that adds to its safety.

Long before Rudolph Giuliani was credited with reducing crime in New York (a trend that began in his predecessor’s term and occurred all over the country), many New Yorkers gave credit to an earlier mayor, John Lindsay, for making Central Park safe. He did it not with increased police but with “Fun City” events that brought people into the park at night.

Nighttime business is booming near the World Trade Center site. I waited about fifteen minutes to make a purchase from one vendor (he had a good deal on million-dollar bills) before giving up. He was too busy. I was delighted to see that Middle Eastern restaurants in the area are crowded again, too.

Like many other New Yorkers, I get energy from crowds. You’ve probably seen the old photo of a million happy New Yorkers on the beach at Coney Island. These days, on Independence Day, if I’m in the city, I like to head to the FDR Drive, one of Manhattan’s few limited-access highways, which is closed to that night to vehicular traffic so people can crowd onto it to watch the fireworks.

On New Year’s Eve, there used to be a spontaneous parade from the Plaza Hotel into Central Park, along the Mall, down the stairs, into a throng surrounding the Bethesda fountain. Many people brought alcoholic beverages, and they were freely shared among one and all. Maybe that’s why the parade was eventually outlawed, though I cannot recall a single altercation in the inebriated New Year’s crowd.

Central Park is still great fun as the year changes. We like to stand at the south end of the park at Seventh Avenue. We have a clear view to the ball dropping in Times Square. Then we turn around and watch the fireworks in the park. Finally, we walk home past the costumed participants in the Midnight Run.

New York’s New Year’s crowds are about as diverse as it’s possible to be on this planet. We come in all sizes, shapes, ages, colors, beliefs, practices, preferences, and income levels. Anyone who wants a hug and or kiss can get one, and anyone who doesn’t isn’t hassled.

It would be great if everyone everywhere could be like that all the time, but that’s unlikely. Those preferences of ours lead us to like what some people do and to dislike what others do. Then we move from liking and disliking certain acts to liking and disliking those who commit those acts. And, especially under the tutelage of teachers, parents, and political and religious leaders, dislike can turn to hate.

“Let’s have their families wiped out; maybe that is the only thing they understand.” That isn’t a quote from some Middle-Eastern zealot. It was said this week by Christine Huhn, widow of one of the World Trade Center victims, after hearing the gist of the recently released videotape implicating Osama bin Laden in the September 11 attacks.

I can understand her anger, and I believe that she wouldn’t really kill the children to whom she referred, even in her grief and outrage. Children are children, no matter whose children they are.

Unfortunately, when one doesn’t know a child it’s possible to be convinced that it’s not a child at all but merely something to be used to hurt one’s enemy. Perhaps that was how those responsible for the September 11 attacks were taught to view their victims. Perhaps they considered them less than human. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“Owing to [the Jews’] obstinacy and refusal to believe, they have become dogs. We have today in Rome, unfortunately, too many of these dogs, and we hear them barking in all the streets and going around molesting people everywhere.” Killing a dog that’s molesting people might even be considered a heroic act. The speaker of that quote was Pope Pius IX, beatified last year by Pope John Paul II.

Americans say they cannot understand how Osama bin Laden could be happy about the death and destruction of September 11. My feelings about the recently released Osama bin Laden tape seem to match those of another widow of a World Trade Center victim, Lorie Van Auken. “It makes me feel very sad and very ill that somebody could be so happy about those events when we feel so completely the opposite about them, so distraught and sad.” But have WE never been happy about the deaths of those we considered OUR enemies?

Did no Americans cheer when an atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima and killed those we referred to then as “Jap devils”? If one wants to hear people cheering death and destruction, one need only enter a movie theater showing an adventure movie.

Margaret Hamilton, a New Yorker, became famous worldwide because of her role in an adventure movie of sorts. She died before there was a World Wide Web, but she often autographed photos “WWW” because of that role. She was the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Her character was certainly trying to kill the child Dorothy. “I’ll get YOU, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” Was she doing it out of grief and anger caused by her perception of Dorothy’s role in the death of her sister, the Wicked Witch of the East, or was she just after a special pair of shoes?

It doesn’t matter. She was just a fictional character, and one of questionable human descent at that. She had green skin, flew, commanded monkeys, and was vulnerable to death by water splash.

The Munchkins certainly celebrated her sister’s death with the movie’s most joyous song. And the “adults” seemed very pleased that Dorothy killed the Wicked Witch of the West as well. But Dorothy, herself, was not happy to have killed. In my opinion, no death is cause for joy.

TTFN, Mark