"I'm calling to complain," said the man on the phone. I half expected it to be a Doug Flutie fan, irate over Bucky Gleason's harsh column on the former Buffalo Bills quarterback in our Sports section the other day.
Instead, I was pleased to learn that it was a former student of mine, Don Kaplan, now a reporter at the New York Post.
(I taught a journalism course for three semesters a few years back at the University at Buffalo. To my knowledge, the survey course has produced exactly two working journalists -- Kaplan and Jay Rey, a fine reporter on the Buffalo News staff.)
Kaplan's tongue-in-cheek complaint: "You really let us down. You never taught anything about dealing with bioterrorism on the job."
His employer, the Post, has been hit by anthrax. Unlike the scare at The Buffalo News last week, the problems at the Post are real -- not the result of a hoax. After the New York City tabloid received an anthrax-contaminated letter, one employee has a confirmed case of skin anthrax and another may have it.
"Are you scared?" I asked Kaplan, who lives in the shadow of St. Vincent's Hospital in lower Manhattan, not far from ground zero.
"Sure," he said. "You'd have to be crazy not to be."
And indeed, we at The News felt some of that, too. It was hard not to, as fire trucks surrounded our building and dozens of emergency personnel -- some wearing protective gear that looked more like spacesuits -- streamed into the lobby Thursday. They were responding to the alarm sounded by a mailroom employee who had opened a letter containing white powder and a single word, "jihad."
By Saturday, we knew it was a hoax. (And we also knew that a different scare at The News' Washington Bureau in the National Press Building also was nothing to worry about.)
But Thursday, that reassuring news hadn't come in yet.
Even so, I'm happy to report that News employees took it in stride. I saw nothing that looked like outright fear. People kept working, went to lunch, came back. In every department -- advertising, news, production, circulation -- the feeling was one of high alert, but never anything that came close to panic.
Or if they felt it, they never let it show.
As usual, in the newsroom, the approved way of dealing with the anxiety -- as with everything -- was with a healthy dose of gallows humor.
"All the other similar letters from Scotland have turned out to be hoaxes," I told some city desk editors, "so we should be OK."
Assistant City Editor Bruce Andriatch had this cheerful rejoinder: "But maybe it's a Russian roulette kind of thing, and we've got the only one that's real."
His quip got a general laugh. And in these jittery times, a laugh is a welcome thing.
The political magazine the New Republic has started an amusing new column called "Idiocy Watch," a catalog of all the dumb things people are saying and writing about Sept. 11 and its aftermath.
In a slightly less cynical vein, I hereby launch what I'll call "Inspiration Watch" -- an occasional noting of ideas that raise the spirits.
The first entry goes to Vincent O'Neill, artistic director of the Irish Classical Theatre, who on the night of Curtain Up! -- Sept. 21 -- walked onto the stage and talked about the role of the arts in a troubled time. I was moved by what he said, and later asked him to reconstruct his comments in writing. Here they are, in part:
"Theater at its best deals with common identity, the human predicament -- our dreams, hopes, joys, pains and aspirations. . . . It is my hope that all of us involved in the arts can, each in our own small way, contribute to (the) healing process. Each faint glow will create a light, each light a torch that we will carry proudly as an antidote to the terrible darkness perpetrated on all our peoples on Sept. 11, 2001. As the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas declared: "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
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