Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama don’t have to worry about coming into direct contact with poisoned letters addressed to them, because their mail is opened at a sorting facility.
No such luxury for us mere mortals in the newsroom of Courier Life Publications, which has had its share of red alerts over the years, compliments of disgruntled fans.
Assorted grouches have stalked us, phoned in death threats, fired off hate mail, appeared on our doorstep to wring their hands, plastered public notices demanding boycotts, and even crashed a car into the exterior of our building, igniting a fire.
One incident, however, stands head-and-shoulders above the rest.
It was a spring day, about five years ago, at the dank hovel on Sheepshead Bay Road that passed for our newsroom. We were on deadline — as usual — pummelling our keyboards like furious pianists, our lyrical clickety-clacks interrupted every now and then by a loud ripping noise, as the editor lacerated another letter with a paper knife from the mound of mail on his desk.
Suddenly, he announced with a nervous laugh, “White powder just fell out of this envelope!”
He summoned me over. I approached hesitantly. The letter, its postmarked smudged illegibly, contained a few cryptic words tossed together in a boggling message. The white powder was unmistakable. I bolted faster than you could say “anthrax.”
Next came a comedy of errors that raised bungling to an art.
Word of the mysterious white powder spread like wildfire throughout the building, unleashing platoons of co-workers, who rushed to the editorial office like bees to a honey pot. Before long, the editor, his assistant, the receptionist, several members of the production department, and the janitor had all touched the offending letter, and were now roving about panic-stricken as we waited for the flatfoots to arrive.
The cops evacuated the editorial staff to the street, but incredibly told the editor and his assistant to remain put inside. They told us not to leave because we had to be fingerprinted. No sign yet of the hazmat team.
Outside, we lolled on Sheepshead Bay Road, debated the afterlife, checked our pulses and foreheads, chain smoked, and nipped in and out of the bar down the block. Minutes turned into hours, day turned to dusk, a squadron of FBI and Secret Service agents hogged up Sheepshead Bay Road, but still no sign of the hazmat crew.
Apparently, there was only one unit for several regions, and by the time our’s pulled up — six hours into our ordeal — we were half-tanked and beyond care — but thankfully still alive.
Forensic agents wearing what looked like space suits padded into the building. They emerged some time later, to raucous cheers from us, accompanied by the editor and the janitor in crisp, white, hazmat suits that resembled feety pajamas with hands, and the assistant glumly lagging behind in a filthy one.
We bade them a cheery farewell, as they sheepishly boarded the van for tests.
Weeks later, we were informed that the white powder “wasn’t fatal,” but never told of its exact origins.
The assistant continued to have his doubts, checking his vitals everyday, convinced that his hazmat suit was more contaminated than the letter had ever been.