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Zero Tolerance


Ouch! Eek! This is your columnist’s reaction to being in New York City. I’m at a hotel called the Martinique, on 32nd Street near Fifth Avenue. This and a dime would once have got me a cup of coffee, but Manhattan has very little to offer these days that isn’t glitzy, overpriced, packaged and canned. You can thank Giuliani for that, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” who turned the Big Apple into one giant mall over eight years of iron rule. Crime is down at the price of character — funny how democracy works.

The Martinique is now part of the Holiday Inn chain, which is why I’m here, because they give me “points” to sleep in their beds. I have a card that says so: “Sleep With Us and Earn Points!”

Right now I have about 80,000 points — it might be time to cash them in for something. I get notices all the time asking me: “Would you like to go to Florida? Would you like to go to Disney World?”

Well, I went to Disney Land in 1958 in Anaheim, California, when I was 4 and Walt himself was still alive, so they have nothing to show me in Orlando. How many rides can you take in a teacup?

Too many phone calls and too little sleep. I called my editor. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll have something for you tomorrow morning.” But what?

More about Ground Zero? They’ve dug almost everything out now; there’s nothing left to be found — except, of course, the victims. Most of the people who were killed on September 11 weren’t glamorous at all, but waiters, bus boys, secretaries, etc. A “reviewing stand” has lately been erected overlooking the hole, so that Americans from all parts can take pictures and prove they’ve been there. This is much to the irritation of the people actually digging, trying to find a leg or an arm that once belonged to somebody who was loved, and is now desperately missed.

The tragedy of “9/11” isn’t about “Arabs” or “Muslims” or anything else the New York Times section called “A Nation Challenged” wants to pretend. It’s about death, and silence, and the diggers at Ground Zero are rightly annoyed by all the gawkers at their work site.

Do I sound bitter? You bet! I had dinner tonight with a gorgeous man whose eyes refused to leave mine in the elevator and who spoke with a thick accent. Surely, this is something people can understand. Everyone wants a little fantasy in a New York hotel, right? In the elevator, no less. But when I said to him, “Français?” he laughed and said, “Non, de Liban” — that is to say, from Lebanon.

Do you all remember Lebanon? I doubt it. It was the war zone of record in the 1970s, and that’s a long time ago. The most beautiful sliver on the Mediterranean, sung in the Bible. Its capital city, Beirut, was reduced to rubble and ash by guns and bombs sold in the name of democracy. So what else is new? The President of the United States shouldn’t be choking on pretzels, but on oil and hypocrisy. I say this as one whose family is half “Arab,” and who knew Beirut before it was destroyed.

So, I looked at this lovely man in the elevator and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

But he only laughed again and answered, “Not your fault.” And this is how all of us go to sleep at night, isn’t it? Not your fault.

I don’t know where this is going. It’s too much to be here in New York, too much for me. I thought I might write about the current “plagiarism” scandal afflicting America’s popcorn historian, Stephen Ambrose, but now I find I don’t have the heart. Eighty million books sold and the author turns out to be a cheat. Who cares? Offenses that would get a student expelled or a journalist fired are taken, in Ambrose’s case, as just a minor peccadillo, the inevitable consequence of being so terribly important and so awfully busy churning out books.

“His methodology may not be in keeping with all the academic rules,” says Ambrose’s publisher, the venerable Simon and Shoe-Store, “but compared to his overall body of work, it’s insignificant.”

Right. Douglas Brinkley, aptly described in USA Today as “Ambrose’s collaborator,” adds for the record: “The nail that stands the tallest gets hammered. No one has walked taller in creating a new consciousness in American history.”

As if “walking tall” was the goal of writing, and as if “a new consciousness in American history” was the same thing as history itself. Or as truth. Which it’s not.

Not your fault. Not your fault. Then whose?

There was nothing left for me to do but go to bed — alone — rack up another 10 thousand points and dream of more honorable times. And there I leave you, dreaming on. Ouch! Eek!