Leonard Pitts Jr

September 14, 2001: Amid raw pain, it's good to see a glimpse of continuity

I was supposed to be working on a column, but I got restless and went for a walk.

The White House is just a few blocks west of The Herald's Washington, D.C., bureau office, and I felt - there is no other word - drawn there.

People seek one another out in times like these; they seek the solace that is to be found in human eyes and human sounds. I guess that's what I needed. So I ambled over to the commander in chief's front gate to see what there was to see.

It was a beautiful morning. Vendors out selling their tourist wares. Work crews jackhammering the street. The sun shining hot in one of those skies so heartbreakingly perfect it makes you think you might live forever. But there was something different about it, too.

You know how it is. The telepathy of strangers going through the same ordeal. A passerby's eyes meet yours, and you both know. You just know.

I couldn't have said what I expected - or even hoped - to find at the president's mansion just days after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. What I did find was an old man in a Gilligan hat, shuffling back and forth on the sidewalk wearing a sandwich board. It said:

``Free Harry Goldgar, Telepath.''

Just as if the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had not in recent days become tombs of our innocence. Just as if untold thousands of our countrymen and women did not lie dead in the wreckage. Just as if the entire country were not anxious, on edge, wondering what is to come next.

Indeed, what struck me most as I took my ease against the gate was how very ordinary the whole picture felt. The tourists, many of them speaking in languages I didn't understand, still aimed their cameras at the house. The vendor down the street still sold a chance to have your picture taken with a life-size cutout of the president. The demonstrators over in the park still brandished their signs. And this old man in the Gilligan hat still crusaded against the oppression of Psychic Americans.

The only obvious clue that something extraordinary has happened in recent days was that the police presence seemed to have increased tenfold. But officers of the U.S. Park Police agreed that the scene was average - no more people than usual, and no fewer. ``It's been pretty quiet,'' Capt. Daniel Walters told me. He said the crowds have been ``very orderly, very patriotic, very supportive of what's going on right now.''

It felt good to hear.

These last days have been filled with unholy anger and bottomless sorrow. But more than anything, they've been filled with a sense of upheaval, free fall, discontinuity. You feel like the son who gets halfway to the telephone to call mom before remembering that she died three weeks ago. When everything changes all at once, it's hard to catch up. Twenty minutes before the first bulletins came across, the top story on the local news radio station was the question of whether Michael Jordan will play basketball again. Now it's hard to remember why anybody cared.

So many things that once mattered no longer do.

That's why it's good - especially in front of the president's house - to see a brief glimpse of continuity, a tiny something that still is what it always was. It reminds us that we've been here before. Just within living memory, there has been a horrific stock market crash that led to privation and the threat of revolution, a devastating surprise attack that crippled our Pacific fleet and plunged us into global war, the brutal assassination of a president and the exile of another president who betrayed his oath to preserve, protect and defend.

We've seen upheaval before, gasped in raw pain before. And each time, we've come back. Indeed, we've come back better.

These are hurting days. It's hard to imagine the trouble that lies forward from here. But in the end, I think, we'll come back yet again.

In the meantime, know that the flag flies at half staff on top of the White House, but it still flies. And on the street out front, people gather as ever they did, to snap pictures and be with one another on a gorgeous morning late in summer.

God bless you, Harry Goldgar, wherever you are.