The evening news, to which I generally paid no attention whatsoever in 1982, suddenly showed a shot of our supermarket. I recognized the large orange “G” in Giant, the layout of the parking lot. I looked for our gray station wagon and found myself watching grainy black and white pictures of a man skulking in the aisles, fiddling with boxes on one of the shelves. It was hard to tell what he was doing, no matter how many times the clip was aired. I shrugged and moved onto constructing an elaborate cave out of tin foil for my Strawberry Shortcake dolls.
Grown-ups whispered at soccer practice, teachers spoke soberly to each other during recess. And every night our grocery store was on the news. The anchorman with the slicked hair and wide tie kept talking about our town. A pair of brothers, a flight attendant. All poisoned. There were barriers and drapes over the painkiller section at the market.
When the 12-year old girl died, I started paying closer attention. Now this was not just an adult problem. And I had lots of questions.
So I interrogated my father. At the time, he was a chemist at a nearby petroleum facility. Sideburns, v-neck white t-shirts under button downs, tennis every week.
“Who is he?” I asked pointing to the man in the crude video.
“Well, ah, nobody knows for sure … but, um, the police are looking for him,” my Dad said optimistically.
“What was he doing at our store?”
“Ahh, he was trying to hurt someone.”
“Who?” I asked. My questions were quicker than his answers.
“Well, no one knows that either.”
I narrowed my focus to things he might know. “Do we have Tylenol at our house?”
“Did we what?”
“Did we have Tylenol at our house?” I asked slowly.
“Um, er, well … yes. But we threw it out.”
“Where did you buy it?”
“Uh … I’m not exactly sure.”
“You mean it could have been where that man was?” I cross-examined, pointing dramatically at the television screen, which was now showing a cat food commercial.
“Well, I suppose so. Maybe,” my father admitted. As a scientist, there was always, always a right and a wrong. Black and white.
“Did you or mom take any of the Tylenol that you maybe bought at that store?”
“Well, yes, a few.”
“A long time ago. We are fine. No medicine hurt your mom or me.”
“Did I take any?”
That led to a long lesson about the difference in adult and pediatric medications. This was exactly the kind of conversational exit ramp my father was looking for and suddenly we were calculating the differential in body weight between him and me.
After that, my parents stopped watching the evening news. At least in front of me.
But there was nothing that could really limit exposure. Fear was palpable, crackling in the air. Now everyone else felt about supermarkets and painkillers the same way I felt about sirens and stormy weather: the mundane could be very, very dangerous.
Just a few months later, there were dire warnings about Halloween. This was not the standard “razor blades in apples” lecture but a categorical ban from the Mayor of Chicago who announced on the news that you should only eat what your parents personally purchased. There was no quality control or chain of custody for candy you begged off strangers while dressed in disguise. The vulnerable community, still tender and smarting from the risks of over-the-counter medication, listened. We ate no sweets.
The weather turned cold. And I believed it was a gift straight from God that tornadoes were unheard of from November to April. The period between Thanksgiving and Easter was safe.
But as soon as the crocuses began to sprout, I began to inspect the clouds.
Tylenol could be entirely avoided. Halloween comes only once a year. But weather is perpetual and tornado season was long.
To this day, I don’t mind that it takes me 15 minutes to open headache medicine – to remove the plastic wrap, unseal the box, find the tiny perforations on the shrink-wrapped “sealed for your protection” label, open the child-proof cap, and use a knife to pierce the foil lid. I actually love it because being poisoned by that particular bottle is now not something I need to worry about. At all. And I am grateful for that peace of mind.
I don’t understand the mechanism that triggers OCD, or why those events that happened 35 years ago shaped my psyche in such a powerful way. What if I had been 10 instead of five when I learned about tornados? Or what if I had been just a little more oblivious to the outside world when the Tylenol was laced with cyanide? Then would I be worrying about the clumps of fur I saw along the sidewalk on the way to the bus stop this morning?
There’s no way to know and it doesn’t really matter. To focus on that would simply be another transference of my obsessions. And I have been transferring them all of my life. My brain’s tendency to fixate on things has been the only constant for me. What started out as tornados, anonymous serial murders and Halloween has transformed and evolved over the years. Just when I think I’m released from my fears because I no longer live in tornado alley or because the government requires tablets and shrink-wrap, my brain jumps to another preoccupation like dieting, communicable diseases and wild animals.
I’ve only been back to Chicago once since we moved. On September 14, 2001. I had been in Albuquerque with a colleague for a conference and we watched the second plane hit the tower live on the news. With all flights grounded indefinitely, we were forced to take a cross-country train ride and ended up in Chicago. We had a few hours before our connection, so we sat in a lovely restaurant with a striking view of Lake Michigan. There were no other patrons in the restaurant that evening and as we returned to Union Station a few hours later, the streets were empty.
The whole country was in hiding – fearful, preoccupied, suspicious.
I knew those feelings well.
Once again, I was just like everyone else.