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July 16, 2004
One chirp, then another -- short, barking chirps -- chip! -- a cardinal's sounding of the alarm. Soon, an answering chip! from a branch nearby. It's his mate: Yes, I know I see the cat, too. And soon, the pair is joined by what we take to be their grown children: now there are five cardinals in the branches of the dogwood and the neighboring oak, all chirping sternly at little Noodle, who isn't much bigger than they are. She has climbed the dogwood, one of many favorite activities in her newly permitted trips outside. They seem not to be afraid of her: Mother Cardinal glares from a branch only a couple of feet from Noodle's nose. I think they are not so much warning each other about her as they are warning her: Don't even think about it. We outnumber you. One false move and you've got a beak in your head. Noodle is attentive to the swarm of birds above her, but cowed by their number and noise. She stays right where she is for a while. Then she slips and falls her way back down to the ground.

For a family with four outdoor cats, we don't see many dead birds. Not one this year. Birds have excellent early warning systems for predators: they grab a seed and fly somewhere else to consume it. They scope out available brush and inaccessible branches in advance of need. And, of course, birds can fly.

But mostly, they have each other. They station one of their number as a sentry -- that bird waits to eat until the others have finished, sounding the alarm if someone dangerous comes into view. They have a system: special alarm calls: short, urgent chips!, as opposed to the more elaborate and lyrical song of a courting bird, or the long, loud, impressive aria of a male claiming his territory against other males.

The conductor comes on the loudspeaker and tells us to be sure and take our belongings with us when we get off the train. He also says we should let him know if we see a strange package. If we see anything strange. Anything we think shouldn't be there. I sit in the seat I was glad to have snagged and look at my fellow passengers, trying to spot the undercover cop. I wonder what the color of the day is today: NYPD plainclothes cops all wear roughly the same color scheme -- blue jeans and a blue tee shirt, something yellow, something white. The color changes each day, so they can recognize each other. I have heard it announced on radio stations, presumably so that would-be criminals can get something of a head start.

Who is the sentry? Is it the young woman sitting across from me? The man in a red jacket who just walked through the car? I watch their eyes: the sentry's eyes will be moving, watching, I say to myself. Or maybe not; maybe he'll be pretending to sleep. I look at their calves, searching for the bulge of an ankle holster.

I read the emergency instructions: wait for instructions, don't pull the emergency cord, don't exit the car. Then I think of all the situations in which it would become necessary to break those rules. I think of the powerful third rail, shielded against accidental contact by a steel cover -- touch the third rail and you're dead, enough current to run a hundred 20-car subway trains racing through your body in less than a second.

We may have more decision-making power over our fear than we think. We can let it deprive us of what pleasure remains to us, or we can put it in its place. So many things of which to be afraid. So many things bigger than we are. No reason not to be afraid -- but no real benefit to fear, either. Fear won't save your life, or that of your neighbor, although common sense may. And a keen eye. And looking out for one another.
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