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January 28, 2011
The scene: Near midnight, January. Wednesday.
Times Square, NYC. One of the world's busiest crossways. A fresh blanket of heavy, wet, billowing snow across the most populous city in the U.S., the city's sixth major snowstorm in the still-young winter season. Even though we are muffled and layered, furred and gloved, booted and hatted, the wind whips compact particles of ice and stinging snow into our faces at a curt clip. The temperature is below freezing. Even a few minutes out in the unending white slathers our clothing with an inch-deep packing of rime, like crusty shaving cream, only less creamy. Heads hunch into wool, down and fur collars, and the thoughtful brace themselves against the fluffy cold onslaught with sturdy umbrellas. We have no brollies, and press on.
Dramatis personae: My companion and myself
The buses are running slow as retired slugs, and the train is too far in the deep crunch, and it's late, so the schedule is sparser than it runs all day. Even as the global warming is ankle-deep hard slogging already, we decide to walk the mile and a half uptown to our respective homes. Maybe catch a slice at the all-night pizza right near his apartment.
We pass in front of the AMC movie theatre on 42nd and 8th, hard by the glimmering, somber New York Times building, one block south, and across the street from the often hive-busy Port Authority. Even with the 19th century daguerrotype-look of tonight's diorama, this is a happening and vibrant part of the city. Not any kind of backwoods culvert.
We notice a knot of men dressed all in black. They are outfitted in full Kevlar regalia, their clothing tight to their fit forms, with black half face-masks covering their noses, chins and lips. They have full black, big machine guns, which are not resting by their sides in a relaxed stance. The weapons are held at the ready. The frogmen-like special forces eye everyone who passes. Look up, scan down, watch warily.
It's New York, in the middle of the arctic night, but this is, after all, Hollywood East-are they actors, hired to promote a new flick? We're pretty savvy, but the presence of these military in gear that spells Trouble stops us in our tracks.
"Are you guys real? Or...maybe actors? Are you promoting something?" I ask, my usual reticence and shy Ms. Demeanor not fretting during the usual doh-si-doh indulged in by citizens when faced with constabulary of any kind. Aren't most people discreetly guilty until relieved by business as usual restores itself?
One guy graciously speaks to me from behind his face-mask. "We're real." He holds the firearm at an angle, skywards, but not at rest. He does not stop panning the street with his eyes as we speak. His fingers lightly stroke the long black gun.
"Why are you here?" I pursue, baffled. I am well aware that the Big Apple is in major debt in the multi-billions, and these men--who, I notice, are up and down the street -- do not come cheap. Actually, this is the first time I have seen such military troop-type men on the street since 2001.
"Uh, you know," says the tall military guy with a huge black rifle and the restless eyes. "Um, 9-11..."
I am taken aback. "Do you mean there was some kind of alert--you're here in response to some kind of...current intelligence?" I am not being charming. No need to worry about this woman. She's not wearing a mask, she's smiling, and she's being just, you know, charming as all get-out. She's in a long mink, and a funky hat, now entirely white.
He nods. Yep.
The other Kevlar'ed men nearby also nod, watching me, my companion, and the street, as the snow swirls down and the wind buffets us all with flurries and flakes of ice and snow.
It's not by accident these men in their serious gear are here, this late, this cold, in this area. With our mental calculators ever more sharply attuned to the grimace of imminent city bankruptcy, the reality of a threat this impending, this live, is a sudden concussive realization. They know something the mayor has not announced to the residents of the city. People can go about their usual business, unaware of the evident risk these men have been told about. I listen to two or three radio news shows all day, keep my BlackBerry on my desk, and my TV is on news -- yet have heard nothing about this threat.
But the threat is right here. Men in black dotting our wide white streets. Men with no-BS weapons. Pretty much aiming at anything untoward.
Net-net takeaway: They wouldn't be here if there was nothing to worry about.