Powder on My Mind
There are people in this city who jerk reporters around with supernatural stories or phony leads that test the gullibility of newsmen hungry for a good story. So when former gospel disc jockey Stanley Jones [his name has been changed] told me the Yemeni men running the deli on his street were really Al Qaeda terrorists, and they'd been planting anthrax spores around his neighborhoodit was on his couchand one of their lieutenants was hitting on his new wife, Carrie [not her real name], and warned her not to go to her World Trade Center job on September 11, and that she received letters filled with mysterious powder (postmarked Trenton!) and then, then she prophetically met Kathy Nguyen in a thrift shop, days before her death, naturally, I thought the man was full of shit.
"Buddy, there's powder everywhere," he saidon the doorframe, atop the deadbolt plate, on his neighbor Frank's doormat. He thought it was dust from the ceiling. Plasterboard maybe, but there were no holes, no marks or punctures. The powder was giving him headaches, he said, screwing with his memory, and Carrie had developed lesions on her back, breasts, and stomach.
"I'm scared shitless," he said. "I'm sitting here, on my couch. I got it covered in plastic and the door's propped shut with a chair." He affixed his home video camera to his peephole, plugged it into a time lapse VCR, and has been monitoring his hallway for suspects.
"Paranoid? No way," he says. "These guys are trying to fucking kill us. . . . I mean, I'm hugging my two machetes waiting to hack their damn heads off!"
In these new times of terror, funny things can happen to the mind: Fear and imagination take hold. One lady I know has stopped buying her peppers from a Turkish man, who, as of late, has been acting unusually curt. Why? Panic. Paranoia. Whatever. I confess: Sometimes when I look toward the sky, I see planes slice into the sides of buildings. The Joneses, I thought, were two more victims suffering the same delusions.
So where exactly was the mysterious powder coming from?
"Sunshine News," he said, referring to the grocery on the corner, the name of which has been changed in this story. Stanley and Carrie said they've known the guys who run the place for years. Hakim, Petey, and Abdul, the owner. But early this August, before anyone could imagine a day like September 11, and all that followed, according to Stanley and Carrie, life at the deli began to change, and so did theirs.
There were more Arab faces, suspicious-looking people doing suspicious things, you know, like the time one of Sunshine's delivery men showed up at Stanley's 42nd birthday party wearing a gas mask, and the box of Heinekens he brought had white powder in it. Still, that was nothing. "Talk to Carrie," Stanley said.
Her voice was soft, smart, British. "It started back on my first day of work," she said. After taking a job at one the world's leading insurance firms, located high up in 2 World Trade Center, she went into the store for a pack of Salems.
"Why you all dressed up?" she remembers Abdul asking. She told him about the WTC job and he replied, "That's not a good place to work."
A few days later, she claims to have received two packages at work. One was addressed to the firm's president, the other to her vacationing boss. Both packages were caked in white powder and delivered by a man in a makeshift uniform, wearing gloves. Inside, there was a note, haphazardly typed. It said the recipient had been a supporter of Israel and would "expire." The letter was signed "Abdul."
Around that time, she also received a note at home, postmarked Trenton. When she unfolded the message, there were only three words printed"You are dead,"and powder spilled on the couch.
Soon after, one of the new men from the deli started waiting in the WTC lobby for Carrie to take her cigarette breaks. He asked her out to dinner, saying he would be leaving town for good. "He was handsome," she said, "dressed in a dark suit, maybe from Saudi Arabia or Morocco." Usually, she ignored him, but she does remember, on September 10, he insisted that she not go to work the next day. He said the towers were going to explode; the right hand of God was on his side; and Carrie, only 34, "was too beautiful to die young."
The next day, as it happened, she was late to work.
This couldn't be true, could it? They sounded normal. Why would both Stanley and Carrie lie? They were working people. Why would they feed this fairy tale to The Village Voice?
"If anything happens," Stanley explained, "I want someone to know. I went to the cops and they left us out to dry; they were laughing in the background when I talked to them. I went to the FBI, and they didn't do nothing. So if you're not Daschle or Brokaw the government doesn't give a damn? And I still got this anthrax on my chaise lounge. . . . So I said to myself, 'I got to go to the press.' "
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 and received 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 Throatand 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 dieherself 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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