Postcard from New York: Blood on the streets

New York may lack a Groucho Club, a Garrick, a Hurlingham, and other contenders in the home-away-from-school, Drones' tradition, but this is not to say that New York has no exclusive societies at all. Alumni of the Ivy League can gain admittance to stately and soporific college clubs, where the stuffed wart-hog heads in the lounge look infinitely more animated than the men who sit beneath them. After a Nobel Prize or two, creative types can eventually hope to swell the ranks of the very Jamesian Century Club, where they will pop in for chicken soup and a brief confab every solstice or two. But by far the most elite club of all is the city's premier youth gang, the Bloods, whose attractions are so alluring that people lately have been going so far as to slit a vein in their bids to win membership. It is perhaps unfortunate that the veins they slit are not their own. To become a full-fledged Blood, entitled to sport cigarette-burn insignia and assorted "wilding" paraphernalia, aspirants must slash a total stranger.

Clubs by their nature are exclusive, and so it is that, New York being richer in total strangers than in Bloods, potential victims outnumber potential new gang members by about three thousand-to-one. The equation has fuelled a certain concern, not to say paranoia, in the city recently, which sprouted to the surface last week when a new-members drive among the Bloods coincided with two of New York's biggest stranger-draws: the downtown Halloween parade, which contains platoons of transvestites, women dripping with snakes, men wearing nothing but gauze loincloths, and also, every now and then, someone in costume; and the 28th annual New York marathon, attended by 30,000 diehard runners. This year the word was out that those who doubted their stamina would pull them through the 26.2 mile sprint had better stay home, or risk being picked off from the herd like straggling springboks, to become prey to marauding Blood-wannabes with a box-cutters. On the parade, costume wearers who traditionally line the processional route were advised to choose chain mail over tulle.

For the first time in months, conventional wisdom had it that New York's streets would be more dangerous than New York's schools. Nonetheless, no one was taking any chances. 150,000 students played truant with official sanction, while a fifth column of men-in-blue seeped into Martin Luther King High, Washington Irving High, and other centers of learning to protect those who dared come to class. Meanwhile, thousands of cops were dispatched to patrol busy intersections, where they were instructed to keep an eye peeled for what was mysteriously called "gang activity or any simulated gang activity." Only a week earlier, the mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, had vowed to put more policemen in schools, and with this early delivery of his promise, his re-election last Tuesday was clinched, or at the least, the martial mood made Manhattanites afraid not to vote for him.

In the end, not a single gang-related incident occurred on Halloween. Not one ambitious youth was Blooded. By Sunday, marathon day, local adrenaline had so waned that runners were not afraid to saunter. And by Wednesday, the day after the mayor's re-election, a number of skeptics had began to murmur that the great Blood Scare might just have been City Hall's most audacious Halloween prank ever - and the mayor's way of saying "Boo!"