Orange Alert

In the shadow of an Orange Alert or how to get to work during a national convention? Experience speaks in Boston

June 4, 2008

I say, good luck to anyone in Denver who has to work during the upcoming Democratic National Convention on August 25 through 28. Yes, we are still in the shadows of Osama, or our fear of Osama, or both, which means your city, including your purse and your person, must be made secure. My memories of the last DNC in Boston are securely lodged in my brain next to recollections of a trip to the former USSR.

That Monday four years landed with a bigger thud than any other Monday I can remember. Added to my morning routine was checking the local t.v. news to find out just how bad it was going – the commute into town, that is, with all the detours, delays, and road closings. The media was in its “before a nor’ester (storm from northeast off Atlantic)” mood, anticipating the very worst with a relish befitting a hungry hyena at a zebra crossing.

Like most Bostonians, I heard about and dreaded the DNC, as we called it, for weeks. Lucky girl that I was, I worked beside a prime terrorist target, the Prudential Center, a nest of the city’s tallest buildings, street connectors and shopping malls. A few weeks earlier, my company distributed a “disaster recovery call list” assigning certain managers the job of calling certain employees. Information would be passed down the network of contacts until it reached people at the bottom – me for instance. Then the week before the convention I found a pocket-size card on my desk outlining building evacuation plans. We were to go to a general meeting area in the basement of one of our buildings and assemble by floor. If the meeting place is not “available or if the situation is dangerous,” reads the card, “please go home and await further instructions from our manager/contact person.” That would be the person assigned to alert me on the call list.

I began preparations by developing a new commuting strategy that I announced to my boss on Friday afternoon in the event that I got held or blown up on the way. That way he would know where to dig for my remains and/or that I was not intentionally late. My normal subway line, which passed through the DNC area, would be affected, so I opted for another line and a bus. On Sunday afternoon, I started crunching my work stuff into a fanny pack and transparent folder – in the event I would be shaken down by secret service. According to a flyer distributed to commuters, “All baggage, briefcases, packs, and boxes are subject to search. (And how would I feel when they figured through my, you know, female things”) What about my sandwich, chips and banana? Word had it you could not carry anything on the subway larger than a loaf of bread, which my normal bag exceeded by many miles.

Of course, the danger of hysterical fellow commuters pushing, shoving and crushing one another was just as real as that of nuclear backpacks. At least the latter were neat. I would need to wear my best underwear and something that didn’t wrinkle. Also, I would need shoes for running down stairwells and through subway tunnels, in the event of an evacuation.

Surprisingly a lot of people decided not to come into the city. Granted, the thought did occur to me to hightail it to my parents home in North Adams, MA, a city unknown to terrorists and, as we are wont to conclude, most Boston politicians. But I am a temp, which means no work no pay, which means I had to weigh hard the options of not eating vs not surviving. I chose food.

Meanwhile, the Monday morning anchorpersons continued to predict nothing but delectable doom – Route 93, a major thoroughfare into the city and insufferable even on Sundays, piling up already. Surely, the reporter implied, by my planned departure time of 7:15 a.m., the roads, the trains, and civilization as we know it would be in a gridlock so tight the asphalt would bleed. Alewife, a Cambridge subway station and five story parking garage, would be overrun by refugees from the many detoured trains and closed roads. Refugees like me.

But in fact traffic that day was sparse. Usually brimming with street musicians and bustle, Alewife Station was unusually funereal. But then, who wants to sing or talk in front of hulky armed warriors (a new form of police or branch of the military?) conspicuously glaring at everyone who slid through the turnstiles, or the transit people with orange vests watching us wait on the ramp. Surely, in their eyes, we were all terrorists. And I stood there on the platform insecure “in my person, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” to incorrectly cite our forgotten Bill of Rights. Terrorists, we seem to have concluded, have no rights, and as a potential terrorist on this Monday, neither did I.

O.K., I thought trying to sink into a book as the train sped on its way, Downtown Crossing, where I would change trains, will meet my expectations for Monday morning bustle. Surely, it will give me some breath of the normal.

But no. No odors of roasting nuts, hot dogs or pee. No guy on the ramp singing good songs badly. No even mildly weird weirdos, street people, or distributors of poorly rendered leaflets — like the one I got the other day promoting Jesus for president. (Where did the put the street people? Were they safe? Would they ever come back?)
Just neat and silent commuters waiting for the train on a newly waxed floor. From the look on their faces lined up against a wall, there were ready for the firing sqad.

I should have been happy. After all, I was actually going to have time to imbide several Dunkin Doughnut hazelnuts before work. And just a few weeks ago, I was holding my breath to avoid a particularly poignant smell at Back Bay Station. You have a choice there of walking up a flight of stairs and crossing a busy road or walking through a convenient tunnel under the street. Most people chose the stairs and the deadly traffic because the tunnel seems to have become a latrine and the stench can be overpowering. Today it was clean, pristine.

I got really scared. There was something terribly wrong or missing, and it just seemed like some of the lights were out.

Granted, as the week wore on, all the perfection got a few, just a few pimples. The street musicians started to reappear, and there was a bit more conversation on the platforms. But the bustle never reached normal, and my uneasiness turned to wondering whether I should allow one of those warriors, no matter how heavily armed, to search my purse. Don’t they need a warrant?

Midweek, after the company fed us for two days as a reward for just being there, I started to venture out at lunch. On Thursday I noticed a thinly attended folk concert in the South Garden beneath the Prudential building. Sitting outside I watched other office workers relax on the lawn and started, at least started, to let the music take me to its own special place. It was a blue skied, soft eyed summer day. But my little trip to a hill in Scotland was broken by a chopper hovering like I have never seen a chopper hover on the right then the left side of the Prudential building. I gathered that the pilot was either an armed warrior or Al Qaeda striking again. Should I hide or should I run? Either my life or my privacy was in jeopardy and unable to concentrate, I went back to my cube.

“So what’s that helicopter doing?” I heard an uneasy coworker ask.

“What was it like?” asked a manager who opted to work at home and call in for messages.
“Well,” I said, “it was like Russia.” Yes that was it. I remembered that the subways in the old Soviet Union were so quiet and clean, and there was always someone watching your every move.

“When were you there?” he asked, and I remembered it was before the arrival of democracy.

“It’s not like that any more,” he chided.