Sleeping in my own bed last night in the middle of Portland felt like a night in the deep woods compared to the three previous nights in my hotel in New York City.
The sounds of sirens and ambulances are normal in the heart of the largest city in the United States, but this past weekend, the level of background din was elevated because of the explosion on 23rd Street – which, for me and my fellow travelers, was just three blocks from where we were eating and on the same street as our hotel.
There was a sound. Yes. A sound that could have been heavy construction or the sound of a gas main exploding or just some garden-variety New York City blast related to anything.
Because of construction work that I assume is scheduled to be completed in two-thousand-never, New York these days is a maze of building sites, security fences, cranes, traffic barricades and pedestrians.
Three of the four of us at our table paused to acknowledge the noise and then kept talking, laughing and eating. I remember glancing over at the next table just to see if they had heard what I heard – a rare moment in a big city when you connect with strangers without needing something from them.
They’d heard what I’d heard but, like us, were not alarmed.
This beautiful September evening was the first night of three during our semi-annual trade show trip to New York City.
When people recall important events in their life, they often talk about how the time “felt” to them. You might hear, “It felt like it was happening in slow motion.”
According to studies, it’s not that time slows down, it’s that we remember what happened in slow motion. The theory is that during times of extreme stress, our brains record denser or richer memories.
As well, new memories are said to be recorded in our brains in a more meaningful way. For example, kids remember their summers as long drawn-out stretches of time because they are laying down new memories, whereas adults remember their summers as brief pauses in a speeding comet.
A theory that makes more sense to me – one suggested by Steve Taylor, a lecturer in psychology at a university in England – is that during unusual experiences, like sitting at an outside café four blocks from an explosion, distorted time perception is the result of the “dissolution of our normal ‘self-system.’ ” We are used to experiencing life one way, and suddenly an event forces us to experience the world and ourselves in a completely different way.
It was new, it was different and it was scary. And the time between the mysterious sound and the moment that we realized that something bad had happened seemed very long.
Police cars, fire engines, motorcycles and an enormous white van, which I assume was the bomb squad, sped by our tiny table of four. For just a second I believed it was a motorcade. It was the Big Apple, after all.
When we could not deny that something bad had happened, I said, without thinking, “I want to go home.” I sat on my hands, waiting for the end of this part of our evening.
Our student friend, Alyse, on the other hand, was as calm as any veteran New Yorker. Her comment was not “I want to go home.” It was “I’m surprised we are not on lockdown.” By “we,” she meant her school. This 20-year-old had grown up in the decade of lockdowns.
My sister took action right away by telling us what we were doing next: We would walk Alyse back to her dorm, just a few blocks away. Then she and our friend and employee, Erika, would walk with me (the only one not staying in that area) until I could find a cab. Then the two of them would walk back to their hotel, located just two blocks from the explosion.
As we all walked in the opposite direction of the blast, we ran directly into another police barricade. I asked one officer why they were there, and he said that there had been another bomb threat. Instead of feeling panicked, I took comfort in the fact that there were hundreds of people around me. We couldn’t all be making the wrong decision.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, who was not young enough to be in a stroller was on their phones madly scrolling for answers. I wondered what it must look like from the sky, and then my sister hugged me and threw me into a cab.
Lucky. We were just lucky.