The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

Hullabaloo in Times Square

May 4, 2010

I often walk through Times Square where the Incompetent Bomber parked his 1993 Nissan Pathfinder last Saturday with the alarm clocks wired to the M88 firecrackers in the canister between the five-gallon gasoline containers and the three propane tanks, the bags of nonexplosive fertilizer, and so I take a personal interest in the case.

I'm fond of Times Square, which is an out-of-body experience offered for free to the general public, the colossal flash and razzmatazz of 10-story LED hi-def imagery rolling and bouncing among the JumboTrons and billboards in the glass canyons above the statue of Father Duffy by the TKTS booth. It is pure hullabaloo, millions in advertising canceling itself out by sheer overload, and one block away is beautiful Bryant Park and the serene reading rooms of the New York Public Library, where, for all you know, the scholarly gentleman across the table from you may be studying the art of explosives. It's a free country.

Saturday night, at the time the Nissan was discovered and cops started to evacuate the area, I was at a show on 43rd Street two blocks away, unaware of any threat, and I maintained unawareness for the next several hours, catching a taxi on Sixth Avenue and proceeding to a Chinese restaurant on 65th and packing away some giant prawns and fried wonton in the company of others. We ate freely and jabbered about all sorts of things, and nobody came running up to ask if we'd heard about the car bomb. People in Williston, North Dakota, probably got the news before I did. This often happens in the Communications Capital of America: Large events transpire two blocks away and you sit happily ingesting your Seven Joys of Tofu and reminiscing about your childhood in Anoka, Minnesota. That's what I love about the city, that feeling of being utterly out of touch, as if you were in the Australian outback.

Bomb experts did not agree on the deadliness of the device. One retired New York bomb guy said it came within a "millisecond" of creating a fireball 30 feet high that could've killed hundreds of people and "caused horrific lung damage and fried the hair and faces of anyone within a 50-yard radius." He was the guy the tabloid Daily News decided to quote. The Times quoted another bomb guy who referred to the device dismissively as "a Rube Goldberg contraption" -- "It's the 'swing-the-arm-with-the-shoe-that-hits-the-ball-and-knocks-over-a-stick-that-knocks-something-off-a-shelf,' and it is all supposed to work." He did not offer a scenario of tourists with fried faces stumbling down 45th Street, clutching their scorched lungs. The bomber, he said, thought he'd invented the atomic bomb but was somewhat short on ability. The Daily News guy recalled a car bomb years ago that blew the hood of the car 21 stories into the air, suggesting that this might've been of that magnitude. The Times guy was slightly amused by the perp as being ambitious but certainly no Ted Kaczynski. A knowledge-impaired terrorist.

Both bomb guys agreed on the fact that the bomb had not detonated.

By early Tuesday morning, the cops had put the collar on a Pakistani gentleman at JFK, and now, as I write, hundreds of detectives and agents of the Joint Terrorism Task Force have set out to gather too much information about him.

The Times reports that New York City operates 82 surveillance video cameras between 34th and 51st streets and Sixth and Eighth avenues, and I hope the city fathers aren't mesmerized by Cheneyesque visions of fireballs and fried faces and persuaded to station 82 officers to observe those monitors in eight-hour shifts, a mind-numbing occupation.

We have more than enough security people in this country now. Highly trained TSA operatives with headsets for instant communication stand by the scanners in airports in Boise and Santa Barbara and remind you to put your computer in a separate bin and remove your shoes. You walk around any downtown and see all the beefy guys in fictitious uniforms whose job it is to stay awake and scowl. This is not the same country I grew up in, but never mind.

Next Saturday I will be back in Times Square, and I plan to walk around and enjoy the crowds and the lights. I'll walk across 45th Street past the Nissan's parking spot to the Eighth Avenue subway and take it uptown. Call me irresponsible, but I may stop and think of the millions of dollars spent on self-erasing advertising cascading mindlessly overhead. God bless America and now let's go eat.


© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

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