Powder on My Mind

Fear Seeps Into the Cracks of a Block in Queens

But so far, this was not a story. No evidence. Carrie's first packages burned on 9-11; the letter she threw out. If everything they told me was true, and at least some part, no matter how small, could be verified, maybe Stanley's tale could make good copy. No, better. "Bin Laden's Bodega!" But it was too fantastic. Too paranormal. So I sat on it.

Then Charlotte Brown [not her real name] called. She owns the thrift shop across the street from Sunshine, and she too noticed the surge in Arab faces andreceived a letter, about the same time as Carrie, delivered by a Sunshine man wearing a ski mask. "Did you take your medication yet?" it read, and it was laced with a brown, oily substance.

Charlotte wasn't surprised. She says everyone knows she's always sick with kidney problems, and ever since she signed the lease on her shop two years ago, her Arab and Indian neighbors have been trying to make her move. They tease her about leaving, she says, make off-color remarks, anything to get her out. After all, it's the only property on the avenue with a base-ment. "For delis," she says, "it's a gold mine."

There's more. Charlotte was watching TV a few weeks ago and noticed one of her former customers had made international news: Kathy Nguyen, the Bronx resident who mysteriously died from inhalation anthrax, had been in her Queens store.

"I know it was her," says Charlotte, "I remember: She said she worked at Ears and Throat—and then she started talking to Carrie [who was also in the store at the time]." Stanley's wife?

"[Nguyen] told me things about my life nobody else would know," Carrie says. They spoke for two hours, exchanged numbers, and later talked a few times. Both Carrie and Charlotte remembered that when Nguyen was last in the shop, she eyed an emerald-colored Chanel dress, and that day, they also had discovered a teacup filled with more powder.

Charlotte got sick, developed lesions, and was tested for anthrax: negative. Carrie got sick, developed lesions, and was tested for anthrax: negative. Kathy is dead.

"She was predicting things, like a psychic," Carrie remembered about their relationship. "And everything, so far, has come true. She said six more people will die—herself included. Two are gone so far," said Carrie. "Then, she said, a reporter would come." Who, me?

In the morning I called the FBI. No response. I tried the NYPD, wanting to check phone records and police reports. A spokesperson said the Nguyen investigation was "active," and therefore no information could be disclosed. The PR department from Carrie's firm still hasn't returned my calls.

I was stuck, I had nothing. I needed to go to Sunshine News. On the train my mind was split: I didn't believe anything Carrie, Stanley, or Charlotte had said. I also didn't think they were lying. And that being the case, if the deli was really some doomsday anthrax death factory, why the fuck was I going?

Skittish men with faint mustaches and puffy coats were standing on the avenue waiting for the bus and looking at me funny. There it was, on the corner, Sunshine News, just across from Charlotte's shop, just like Stanley had said. I circled the block four, maybe five times—"scared shitless"—just like Stanley had said. My palms were sticking. Could I be exposed? I spied at the deli from the small plastic window inside the phone booth across the street.

I asked shop owners if they'd been feeling sick or noticed any suspicious behavior. You know, men with gas masks, delivering powder, talking about terrorism? I felt like a cop. I was making them nervous and paranoid. Just like me.

Finally, I walked inside. The place smelled like piss and old dog food. It was empty, except for two men, one at the meat counter, the other, at the cash register, reading an Arabic newspaper. Hot 97 was playing over the radio, and I strolled the four aisles for a clue. Maybe they'd just been having fun scaring the hell out of the neighbors. Are terror pranks considered treason now? Do I just ask, "Excuse me, sir, perhaps you might know someone who sank the World Trade Center? Are there more men in the back mixing anthrax spores with Ajax?"

Then again . . . I might die out here, in the Sunshine stock room, in Queens, or days later in a hospital bed. I was sucking short little breaths to reduce the chance of exposure. This was stupid. Ask the fucking questions. I approached the counter.

"Pack of Trident, sugar-free," I said.

"Anything else?" the man asked, looking up from his newspaper with dark, unforgiving eyes.

"Nope. That's it."

Three weeks later, after mustering enough courage, I called Sunshine News, to confirm anything that had been said. Abdul, the owner, answered. I repeatedly asked him if he knew anyone named Stanley Jones or his wife, Carrie, or Charlotte Brown. Said Abdul, "No."

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