U R A fever

April 29, 2009

At three p.m. Steffie was still wearing the protective mask.  She walked along the walls, a set of pale green eyes, discerning, alert, secretive.  She watched people as if they could not see her watching, as if the mask covered her eyes instead of leaving them exposed.  People thought she was playing a game.  They winked at her, said hi.  I was certain it would take at least another day before she felt safe enough to remove the protective device.  She was solemn about warnings, interpreted danger as a state too lacking in detail and precision to be confined to a certain time and place.  I knew we would simply have to wait for her to forget the amplified voice, the sirens, the night ride through the woods.  In the meantime the mask, setting off her eyes, dramatized her sensitivity to episodes of stress and alarm.  It seemed to bring her closer to the concerns of the world, honed her in its wind.

At seven p.m. a man carrying a tiny TV set began to walk slowly through the room, making a speech as he went.  He was middle-aged or older, a clear-eyed and erect man wearing a fur-lined cap with lowered flaps.  He held the TV set well up in the air and out away from his body and during the course of his speech he turned completely around several times as he walked in order to display the blank screen to all of us in the room.

“There’s nothing on the network,” he said to us.  “Not a word, not a picture.  On the Glassboro channel we rate fifty-two words by actual count.  No film footage, no live report.  Does this kind of thing happen so often that nobody cares anymore?  Don’t those people know what we’ve been through?  We were scared to death.  We still are.  We left our homes, we drove through blizzards, we saw the cloud.  It was a deadly specter, right there above us.  Is it possible nobody gives substantial coverage to such a thing?  Half a minute, twenty seconds?  Are they telling us it was insignificant, it was piddling?  Are they so callous?  Are they so bored by spills and contaminations and wastes?  Do they think this is just television?  ‘There’s too much television already–why show more?’ Don’t they know it’s real?  Shouldn’t the streets be crawling with cameramen and soundmen and reporters?  Shouldn’t we be yelling out the window at them, ‘Leave us alone, we’ve been through enough, get out of here with your vile instruments of intrusion.’  Do they have to have two hundred dead, rare disaster footage, before they come flocking to a given site in their helicopters and network limos?  What exactly has to happen before they stick microphones in our faces and hound us to the doorsteps of our homes, camping out on our lawns, creating the usual media circus?  Haven’t we earned the right to despise their idiot questions?  Look at us in this place.  We are quarantined.  We are like lepers in medieval times.  They won’t let us out of here.  They leave food at the foot of the stairs and tiptoe away to safety.  This is the most terrifying time of our lives.  Everything we love and have worked for is under serious threat.  But we look around and see no response from the official organs of the media.  The airborne toxic event is a horrifying thing.  Our fear is enormous.  Even if there hasn’t been great loss of life, don’t we deserve some attention for our suffering, our human worry, our terror?  Isn’t fear news?”

Applause.  A sustained burst of shouting and hand-clapping.  The speaker slowly turned one more time, displaying the little TV to his audience.  When he completed his turn, he was face to face with me, no more than ten inches away.  A change came over his wind-beaten face, a slight befuddlement, the shock of some minor fact jarred loose.

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