As detectives scoured every inch of the bomb scene in Chelsea on Sunday, New Yorkers were conducting their own investigations. However, theirs were turned inward, as they felt around for the psychological shrapnel that an explosion on a busy city street is designed to release, as damaging in its way as the kind that tears into flesh.
A walk around Manhattan revealed glimpses of these inquiries, quiet, but as intense as those beneath klieg lights.
Suzie Shapiro got as close as she could to the scene on Sunday.
“It’s less scary if you see it,” she said, adding that she had done her best to explain the explosion to her two young children at home. “This is the reality of being a kid right now.”
On an uptown-bound subway on Sunday, a group of doo-wop singers performed just as they do every other day, but added as they left the train, “Be safe out there.” Moments later, the train bypassed the 23rd Street station near the bomb scene “due to a police investigation.” The conductor spoke in bored tones over the intercom, as if it were like any other incident.
From her apartment a block away from the explosion, the singer Rosanne Cash wrote on Twitter: “We are safe and well. Appreciate the love and concern.”
And another neighbor nearby, Graham Mills, 52, seemed unsurprised.
“It was only a matter of time,” he said. “There’s kind of this New York spirit that’s like, whatever. Let’s get on with life.”
Getting on with life in New York has been a work in progress for at least 15 years.
In 2010, a car bomb found in a Nissan Pathfinder parked in Times Square did not detonate. The episode rattled the city even as residents spoke of the proverbial dodged bullet. However, that bullet is always out there, as Saturday night reminded everyone.
No lives were lost. Had New York dodged another bullet?
Eleven-year-old Natalie Wollen did not think so. She said she did not want to leave her Chelsea apartment all day on Sunday, but did so to walk her dog.
“I’m still scared,” she said, her lips quivering. She had heard reports — later retracted — of a third bomb. “If there were three already, there could be another one,” she said.
Another dog walker, Sipho Simela, 31, stepped out into the day, but with a shrug, perhaps more appropriate to his age. “My wife was like, ‘What are you going to do?’ he said. “And I said, ‘I’m going to walk the dog.’”
Years after Sept. 11, 2001, some New Yorkers still use that day as a guide, a measure for examining anxiety not unlike the minimum-height sign outside a scary ride in an amusement park. When something like this happens, they ask themselves, does this day feel as bad as that day, that line on the wall of my psyche? Better? Worse?
“I don’t feel anywhere near that kind of intensity,” said Merril Stern, sitting in a Starbucks near the blast site.
Tyschelle Doucette from Queens was greeted by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and she told him, as if seeking to reassure the leader of a jittery city, “I was here for 9/11. If it’s happening, it’s happening.”
The mayor called her an example to other New Yorkers.
For Will Finnegan, 31, a former marine, the news of the blast brought him back to the full-alert levels he worked in while deployed for five years in Afghanistan, he said.
He went to work checking on friends in the neighborhood.
“I understand how to mitigate stress and fear,” he said.
Likewise, his roommate, Brandon Lanham, 31, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said, “I’m almost too calm to a fault.”
He said he found solace in the aftermath of the blast: “I’m assuming it’s someone that wants attention and is an American. It was not well-placed.”
For others, the images of the explosion, as seen on television and smartphone screens — a bright flash and people running away, looking back over their shoulders — belonged somewhere else. Somewhere far away.
“New Yorkers, we see now, here, what we have seen only abroad,” said James Mitchell, 54, an Access-a-Ride driver. “Chickens have come home to roost.”
He thought back to 2001, and found something more troubling in the Chelsea explosion, he said.
“It’s different, because the target is more random than specific,” he said. “It really makes me feel that life is getting really cheap in this world.”
Natalie, the 11-year-old walking her dog, said she is like everyone else born in the past 15 years. “Since we weren’t alive for 9/11, we’ve never been alive in a time when we aren’t scared,” she said. “I’ve learned to accept that this stuff is going to happen.”
Downtown, sitting on a bench in the West Village, a 51-year-old mother, Maria Lugo, might beg to differ.
To be a parent in these times is to know fear, she said.
She grew up in the Bronx, where “I wasn’t even allowed to go outside and play.”
Now she has a 13-year-old son.
“I am still worried about the bullies, the drug dealers, the killings, the shootings, the stabbings. Plus, I am also concerned about this,” she said.
She is struggling, like so many others, to place the Chelsea bomb in the context of her life and manage the anxiety it brought.
“It hasn’t eased up,” she said. “When can you say, ‘You know what? It’s okay’? You’re always worried about something.”
Back in Chelsea, across the street from the scene of the blast, a three-year-old boy, Aiden Li, gave his account of the event: “I heard the thunder,” he said. “I climbed up on papa.”
His father, Kyle Li, did not correct him. However, he mourned what he said he lost Saturday night.
“Across from my house, that dumpster is sitting there in pieces,” he said. “And now the whole city looks different to me.”
J. David Goodman, Lauren Hard and Emily Palmer contributed reporting
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