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So thank God for e-mail

September 12, 2001

BUT CHECKING IN on those you care about when the phones aren’t working is impossible. It just adds to the mayhem already thick in the air around us.

So thank God for e-mail. Instant messages pop up on my screen, frantic, insistent. TV used to be the global village. Now, as this catastrophe shows, the global village is on a different screen.
“Are you OK?” is asked a thousand times, a thousand different ways. “Where are you exactly in Manhattan?” “Are you alone?” “Everything OK?”
The answer is: Yes, OK in body but not in mind. Who could be OK? No one is OK.
Nothing has happened to me, directly. But thank God for e-mail.


As the morning unfolded, I determined that nothing had happened to the people I love and the people they love, neither in New York nor in D.C., nor in the air. So why do I feel paralyzed right now?
An occasional call gets through on the cell phone, posing The Question. The question gives way, whether it comes online or via voice, to a shared expression of shock and horror. There are no words, but still, you need to talk, communicate somehow.
So thank God for e-mail.
Watching the tragedy on television, you need to reach out, to verify that at least someone out there is sharing the horror, that something is still “OK.” Whatever “OK” means. If you saw it in person, you need to report it to someone else. Somehow, that helps. (But helps what?)
If you can’t access the news, you can ask others for information.
This e-mail thing adds a new dimension to the TV, to the reality that TV is depicting.
Some reports are more extreme than others, bringing the reality of downtown Manhattan to my cocoon-like uptown apartment.


“I have never been so freaked as when I saw 1 come down!!” writes Max, the daughter of a family friend, who I have never met in person. I am on her e-mail list even so, and earlier in the day I had received her mass mailed message that she is OK. She was on her way to work in the Twin Towers, so she must be spooked. She saw me online and just needed to talk. Her husband is stranded in Queens, but she is safe in Brooklyn now, but alone.

Joe instant messages, as he has all morning (he had implored me to turn on the TV in the first place at 9 a.m.): “You cannot believe the thousands and thousands of people streaming down my street to get to the queens bridge to get home, on foot. And you can see the smoke from down 1st Ave.”
“I’m in my office next to grand central,” Tom instant-messages, in response to my query asking how he is. “The terminal is closed, there’s a military sweep going on downstairs and we feel like hostages — interestingly with cell phones down, I’m doing a lot of IM’ing.”
Then there are the distant correspondents, in between more banal expressions of desire for lunch and to get out of the house, as well as media and strategic analysis. And countless “Oh my gods.”
“It’s chilling to feel so helpless. I love New York and cannot bear this,” wrote one friend from Amsterdam, the mother of a new baby. “Are you OK?”
“Just write and send one word that you are OK,” wrote another friend, in Zurich, though he knows I never go downtown. “I’ve been trying to call but cannot get through.”
All this virtual communication was lovely, but none of it was quite so meaningful as the face-to-face communication I had earlier in the day.


At about 9:30 a.m., as the mayhem began to unfold, the doorbell at my apartment sounded. My doorbell never rings without an announcement from downstairs. It turned out to be the next door neighbor, whose name I do not know.
She hugged me in a long embrace. We both stood there for a minute, looking at each other, not quite knowing what to say. She said she rang because she knew I lived alone and she was “worried” about me. She had to go out, to midtown somewhere, and I asked her why. As if I was caring protectively for an old friend or family member. As if going to midtown Manhattan in broad daylight was dangerous.
Because suddenly, it was.
So thank God for human contact. But thank God for e-mail, too.

By Lisa Napoli, writes for MSNBC’s Business, Technology and Living sections. Copyright © 2001 MSNBC.


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