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Thursday, October 31, 2019


Moody image of North Park’s Taco Stand was taken by photographer Susan Williams.  The photo is a millennial pastiche of Edward Hopper’s famed 1942 painting titled the “Nighthawks.
If you follow Trip Advisor, the popular travel and foodie blog, you might have read that a La Jolla Mexican style take out was named among the best in the nation in the fast food category.

Ranking fourth in Trip Advisor’s top 10 list was the Taco Stand, a chain of four San Diego County.  The U.S. Traveler’s Choice award went to the La Jolla version, which has been in business there since 2013 operating under Showa Hospitality’s umbrella.

Just so you know the Earl of Sandwich (New Orleans) came in first with In and Out’s Los Angeles operation and Miami’s following.

Holden DeMayo, dining critic notes with pride his North Park neighborhood has one of the four winning Taco Stand outlets (3000 Upas Street on the 30th Street bend). 

“Taco’s are a bit small,” says DeMayo, “but the place doesn’t skimp on the cilantro or guacamole.”

Taco Stand is a welcome addition to the fine collection of restaurants (1 bar and 1 brewery tasting room) along the 30th Street Bend with Upas Street. 
Tacos con cilantro

Wednesday, October 30, 2019



GUEST BLOG / By Ray Satterfield /The War of the Worlds, the science fiction novel by English author HG Wells telling of a space ship from Mars landing on Earth and causing panic, death and destruction, was published in 1897. On this day in 1938 actor Orson Welles allegedly caused real-life panic across America when he presented the story in an all-too-realistic radio broadcast.

Dance music on the Columbia Broadcasting System was interrupted by an announcer reporting that “Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory” had detected explosions on the planet Mars. The music came back on for a while, but then came another announcement that "at 8.50pm a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in New Jersey."

Then came a report from the scene by newsman Carl Phillips. He spoke of a 30 yard-wide metal cylinder making a hissing sound. Then the top began to "rotate like a screw." He went on:

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed. . . Wait a minute! Someone's crawling. Someone or . . . something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be . . . good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake.

"Now it's another one, and another one, and another one. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it . . . ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable.

"I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it's so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate."

Orson Welles was 23 at the time of the broadcast, working with the Mercury Theatre Company. He went on, of course, to become a highly acclaimed actor, writer and film director.

Citizen Kane (1941), which he co-wrote, produced and directed and in which he performed the lead role is now hailed by some critics as one of the greatest films ever made.

Wells' Martians as featured in a 1927 Amazing Stories reprint edition, artwork by Frank R. Paul

But that was in the future. On this day he was describing the War of the Worlds.

Many listeners had missed his announcement at the start of the program that this was just a story told by actors. They thought it was real, especially as Welles had decided to present the story in a newscast format.

And when it was reported that seven thousand members of the state militia had been obliterated by a Martian "heat ray" and that New York was being evacuated, there was, according to reports at the time, widespread panic.

Anxious phone calls to police, newspaper offices, and radio stations convinced many journalists that the show had caused nationwide hysteria. By the next morning Welles’s face and name were on the front pages of newspapers coast-to-coast, along with headlines about the mass panic his broadcast had allegedly inspired.

With his livelihood (and possibly even his freedom) on the line, Welles went before dozens of reporters, photographers, and newsreel cameramen at a hastily arranged press conference. Had he intended, he was asked or did he at all anticipate, that War of the Worlds would throw its audience into panic?

“If I’d planned to wreck my career,” he responded, “I couldn’t have gone about it better.”

But in 1960 a more candid Welles was to offer an explanation for his inspiration for War of the Worlds: “I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would actually seem to be happening,” he said, “and would be broadcast in such a dramatized form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play.”

Today, of course, he would have been laughed out of the studio. But those were more innocent times.
The Infamous “War of the Worlds” Radio Broadcast Was a Magnificent Fluke
Orson Welles and his colleagues scrambled to pull together the show; they ended up writing pop culture history

Orson Welles (arms raised) rehearses his radio depiction of H.G. Wells' classic, The War of the Worlds. The broadcast, which aired on October 30, 1938, and claimed that aliens from Mars had invaded New Jersey, terrified thousands of Americans. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
GUEST BLOG / By A. Brad Schwartz, Smithsonian Institute--On Halloween morning, 1938, Orson Welles awoke to find himself the most talked-about man in America. The night before [Oct. 30], Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air had performed a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, converting the 40-year-old novel into fake news bulletins describing a Martian invasion of New Jersey. Some listeners mistook those bulletins for the real thing, and their anxious phone calls to police, newspaper offices, and radio stations convinced many journalists that the show had caused nationwide hysteria. By the next morning, the 23-year-old Welles’s face and name were on the front pages of newspapers coast-to-coast, along with headlines about the mass panic his CBS broadcast had allegedly inspired.

Welles barely had time to glance at the papers, leaving him with only a horribly vague sense of what he had done to the country. He’d heard reports of mass stampedes, of suicides, and of angered listeners threatening to shoot him on sight. “If I’d planned to wreck my career,” he told several people at the time, “I couldn’t have gone about it better.” With his livelihood (and possibly even his freedom) on the line, Welles went before dozens of reporters, photographers, and newsreel cameramen at a hastily arranged press conference in the CBS building. Each journalist asked him some variation of the same basic question: Had he intended, or did he at all anticipate, that War of the Worlds would throw its audience into panic?

That question would follow Welles for the rest of his life, and his answers changed as the years went on—from protestations of innocence to playful hints that he knew exactly what he was doing all along.

On the evening of October 30, 1938, radio listeners across the U.S. heard a startling report of mysterious creatures and terrifying war machines moving toward New York City. But the hair-raising broadcast was not a real news bulletin—it was Orson Welles' adaptation of the H. G. Wells classic "The War of the Worlds." A. Brad Schwartz boldly retells the story of Welles' famed radio play and its impact.

The truth can only be found among long-forgotten script drafts and the memories of Welles’s collaborators, which capture the chaotic behind-the-scenes saga of the broadcast: no one involved with War of the Worlds expected to deceive any listeners, because they all found the story too silly and improbable to ever be taken seriously. The Mercury’s desperate attempts to make the show seem halfway believable succeeded, almost by accident, far beyond even their wildest expectations.

*          *          *

By the end of October 1938, Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air had been on CBS for 17 weeks. A low-budget program without a sponsor, the series had built a small but loyal following with fresh adaptations of literary classics. But for the week of Halloween, Welles wanted something very different from the Mercury’s earlier offerings.

In a 1960 court deposition, as part of a lawsuit suing CBS to be recognized as the broadcast’s rightful co-author, Welles offered an explanation for his inspiration for War of the Worlds: “I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would actually seem to be happening,” he said, “and would be broadcast in such a dramatized form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play.” Without knowing which book he wanted to adapt, Welles brought the idea to John Houseman, his producer, and Paul Stewart, a veteran radio actor who co-directed the Mercury broadcasts. The three men discussed various works of science fiction before settling on H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds—even though Houseman doubted that Welles had ever read it.

The original The War of the Worlds story recounts a Martian invasion of Great Britain around the turn of the 20th century. The invaders easily defeat the British army thanks to their advanced weaponry, a “heat-ray” and poisonous “black smoke,” only to be felled by earthly diseases against which they have no immunity. The novel is a powerful satire of British imperialism—the most powerful colonizer in the world suddenly finds itself colonized—and its first generation of readers would not have found its premise implausible. In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had observed a series of dark lines on the Martian surface that he called canali, Italian for “channels.”

In English, canali got mistranslated to “canals,” a word implying that these were not natural formations—that someone had built them. Wealthy, self-taught astronomer Percival Lowell popularized this misconception in a series of books describing a highly intelligent, canal-building Martian civilization. H. G. Wells drew liberally from those ideas in crafting his alien invasion story—the first of its kind—and his work inspired an entire genre of science fiction. By 1938, The War of the Worlds had “become familiar to children through the medium of comic strips and many succeeding novels and adventure stories,” as Orson Welles told the press the day after his broadcast.

After Welles selected the book for adaptation, Houseman passed it on to Howard Koch, a writer recently hired to script the Mercury broadcasts, with instructions to convert it into late-breaking news bulletins.  Koch may have been the first member of the Mercury to read The War of the Worlds, and he took an immediate dislike to it, finding it terribly dull and dated. Science fiction in the 1930s was largely the purview of children, with alien invaders confined to pulp magazines and the Sunday funnies. The idea that intelligent Martians might actually exist had largely been discredited. Even with the fake news conceit, Koch struggled to turn the novel into a credible radio drama in less than a week.

On Tuesday, October 25, after three days of work, Koch called Houseman to say that War of the Worlds was hopeless. Ever the diplomat, Houseman rang off with the promise to see if Welles might agree to adapt another story. But when he called the Mercury Theatre, he could not get his partner on the phone. Welles had been rehearsing his next stage production—a revival of Georg Buchner’s Danton’s Death—for 36 straight hours, desperately trying to inject life into a play that seemed destined to flop. With the future of his theatrical company in crisis, Welles had precious little time to spend on his radio series.

With no other options, Houseman called Koch back and lied. Welles, he said, was determined to do the Martian novel this week. He encouraged Koch to get back to work, and offered suggestions on how to improve the script. Koch worked through the night and the following day, filling countless yellow legal-pad pages with his elegant if frequently illegible handwriting. By sundown on Wednesday, he had finished a complete draft, which Paul Stewart and a handful of Mercury actors rehearsed the next day. Welles was not present, but the rehearsal was recorded on acetate disks for him to listen to later that night. Everyone who heard it later agreed that this stripped-down production—with no music and only the most basic sound effects—was an unmitigated disaster.

This rehearsal recording has apparently not survived, but a copy of Koch’s first draft script—likely the same draft used in rehearsal—is preserved among his papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. It shows that Koch had already worked out much of the broadcast’s fake news style, but several key elements that made the final show so terrifyingly convincing were missing at this stage. Like the original novel, this draft is divided into two acts of roughly equal length, with the first devoted to fake news bulletins about the Martian invasion. The second act uses a series of lengthy monologues and conventional dramatic scenes to recount the wanderings of a lone survivor, played by Welles.

Most of the previous Mercury broadcasts resembled the second act of War of the Worlds; the series was initially titled First Person Singular because it relied so heavily on first-person narration. But unlike the charming narrators of earlier Mercury adaptations such as Treasure Island and Sherlock Holmes, the protagonist of The War of the Worlds was a passive character with a journalistic, impersonal prose style—both traits that make for very boring monologues. Welles believed, and Houseman and Stewart agreed, that the only way to save their show was to focus on enhancing the fake news bulletins in its first act. Beyond that general note, Welles offered few if any specific suggestions, and he soon left to return to Danton’s Death.

In Welles’s absence, Houseman and Stewart tore into the script, passing their notes on to Koch for frantic, last minute rewrites. The first act grew longer and the second act got shorter, leaving the script somewhat lopsided. Unlike in most radio dramas, the station break in War of the Worlds would come about two-thirds of the way through, and not at the halfway mark. Apparently, no one in the Mercury realized that listeners who tuned in late and missed the opening announcements would have to wait almost 40 minutes for a disclaimer explaining that the show was fiction. Radio audiences had come to expect that fictional programs would be interrupted on the half-hour for station identification. Breaking news, on the other hand, failed to follow those rules. People who believed the broadcast to be real would be even more convinced when the 8:30 station break didn’t air.

These revisions also removed several clues that might have helped late listeners figure out that the invasion was fake. Two moments that interrupted the fictional news-broadcast with regular dramatic scenes were deleted or revised. At Houseman’s suggestion, Koch also removed some specific mentions of the passage of time, such as one character’s reference to “last night’s massacre.” The first draft had clearly established that the invasion occurred over several days, but the revision made it seem as though the broadcast proceeded in real-time.

As many observers later noted, having the Martians conquer an entire planet in less than 40 minutes made no logical sense. But Houseman explained in Run-Through, the first volume of his memoirs, that he wanted to make the transitions from actual time to fictional time as seamless as possible, in order to draw listeners into the story. Each change added immeasurably to the show’s believability. Without meaning to, Koch, Houseman, and Stewart had made it much more likely that some listeners would be fooled by War of the Worlds.

Other important changes came from the cast and crew. Actors suggested ways of reworking the dialogue to make it more naturalistic, comprehensible, or convincing. In his memoirs, Houseman recalled that Frank Readick, the actor cast as the reporter who witnesses the Martians’ arrival, scrounged up a recording of the Hindenburg disaster broadcast and listened to it over and over again, studying the way announcer Herbert Morrison’s voice swelled in alarm and abject horror. Readick replicated those emotions during the show with remarkable accuracy, crying out over the horrific shrieks of his fellow actors as his character and other unfortunate New Jerseyites got incinerated by the Martian heat-ray. Ora Nichols, head of the sound effects department at the CBS affiliate in New York, devised chillingly effective noises for the Martian war machines. According to Leonard Maltin’s book The Great American Broadcast, Welles later sent Nichols a handwritten note, thanking her “for the best job anybody could ever do for anybody.”

Although the Mercury worked frantically to make the show sound as realistic as possible, no one anticipated that their efforts would succeed much too well. CBS’s legal department reviewed Koch’s script and demanded only minor changes, such as altering the names of institutions mentioned in the show to avoid libel suits. In his autobiography, radio critic Ben Gross recalled approaching one of the Mercury’s actors during that last week of October to ask what Welles had prepared for Sunday night. “Just between us, it’s lousy,” the actor said, adding that the broadcast would “probably bore you to death.”

Welles later told the Saturday Evening Post that he had called the studio to see how things were shaping up and received a similarly dismal review. “Very dull. Very dull,” a technician told him. “It’ll put ’em to sleep.” Welles now faced disaster on two fronts, with both his theatrical company and his radio series marching toward disaster. Finally, War of the Worlds had gained his full attention.

*          *          *

Midafternoon on October 30, 1938, just hours before airtime, Welles arrived in CBS’s Studio One for last-minute rehearsals with the cast and crew. Almost immediately, he lost his temper with the material. But according to Houseman, such outbursts were typical in the frantic hours before each Mercury Theatre broadcast. Welles routinely berated his collaborators—calling them lazy, ignorant, incompetent, and many other insults—all while complaining of the mess they’d given him to clean up. He delighted in making his cast and crew scramble by radically revising the show at the last minute, adding new things and taking others out. Out of the chaos came a much stronger show.

One of Welles’s key revisions on War of the Worlds, in Houseman’s view, involved its pacing. Welles drastically slowed down the opening scenes to the point of tedium, adding dialogue and drawing out the musical interludes between fake news bulletins. Houseman objected strenuously, but Welles overruled him, believing that listeners would only accept the unrealistic speed of the invasion if the broadcast started slowly, then gradually sped up. By the station break, even most listeners who knew that the show was fiction would be carried away by the speed of it all. For those who did not, those 40 minutes would seem like hours.

Another of Welles’s changes involved something cut from Koch’s first draft: a speech given by “the Secretary of War,” describing the government’s efforts to combat the Martians. This speech is missing from the final draft script, also preserved at the Wisconsin Historical Society, most likely because of objections from CBS’s lawyers. When Welles put it back in, he reassigned it to a less inflammatory Cabinet official, “the Secretary of the Interior,” in order to appease the network. But he gave the character a purely vocal promotion by casting Kenneth Delmar, an actor whom he knew could do a pitch-perfect impression of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1938, the major networks expressly forbade most radio programs from impersonating the president, in order to avoid misleading listeners. But Welles suggested, with a wink and a nod, that Delmar make his character sound presidential, and Delmar happily complied.

These kinds of ideas only came to Welles at the last minute, with disaster waiting in the wings. As Richard Wilson observed in the audio documentary Theatre of the Imagination, radio brought out the best in Welles because it “was the only medium that imposed a discipline Orson would recognize, and that was the clock.” With the hours and then the minutes before airtime ticking away, Welles had to come up with innovative ways to save the show, and he invariably delivered. The cast and crew responded in kind. Only in these last minute rehearsals did everyone begin to take War of the Worlds more seriously, giving it their best efforts for perhaps the first time. The result demonstrates the special power of collaboration. By pooling their unique talents, Welles and his team produced a show that frankly terrified many of its listeners—even those who never forgot that the whole thing was just a play.

*          *          *

At the press conference the morning after the show, Welles repeatedly denied that he had ever intended to deceive his audience. But hardly anyone, then or since, has ever taken him at his word. His performance, captured by newsreel cameras, seems too remorseful and contrite, his words chosen much too carefully. Instead of ending his career, War of the Worlds catapulted Welles to Hollywood, where he would soon make Citizen Kane. Given the immense benefit Welles reaped from the broadcast, many have found it hard to believe that he harbored any regrets about his sudden celebrity.

In later years, Welles began to claim that he really was hiding his delight that Halloween morning. The Mercury, he said in multiple interviews, had always hoped to fool some of their listeners, in order to teach them a lesson about not believing whatever they heard over the radio. But none of Welles’s collaborators—including John Houseman and Howard Koch—ever endorsed such a claim. In fact, they denied it over and over again, long after legal reprisals were a serious concern. The Mercury did quite consciously attempt to inject realism into War of the Worlds, but their efforts produced a very different result from the one they intended. The elements of the show that a fraction of its audience found so convincing crept in almost accidentally, as the Mercury desperately tried to avoid being laughed off the air.

War of the Worlds formed a kind of crucible for Orson Welles, out of which the wunderkind of the New York stage exploded onto the national scene as a multimedia genius and trickster extraordinaire. He may not have told the whole truth that Halloween morning, but his shock and bewilderment were genuine enough. Only later did he realize and appreciate how his life had changed. As we mark the centennial of Welles’s birth in 1915, we should also remember his second birth in 1938—the broadcast that, because of his best efforts but despite his best intentions, immortalized him forever as “the Man from Mars.”

Tuesday, October 29, 2019


Amaryllis Fox's eye-opening new book retells the story of her ten years in the most elite clandestine ops unit of the CIA, hunting the world's most dangerous terrorists across 16 countries.

 The following excerpt was made public by the publishers of “Life Undercover, Coming of Age in the CIA” by Amaryllis Fox.

In the glass, I can see the man who’s trailing me.  I first noticed him a few turns back, his path-correlated with mine in the mess of Karachi back alleys.  Our reflection mingle in the tailor’s window.  He is horse-faced and tall.  His palms open and close as he walks.  “The security of the veil,” a poster reads above burqas and hijabs.

Ahead of me, the bus I’d planned to board comes and goes, covered in an ecstasy of pigment and pattern.  Every square inch is painted with bright shapes and swirls, intricate and infinite, like a Mardi Gras parade float, a diesel temple to the pleasure of the eye. It has the look of a free thing burdened, a slow-lumbering dragon, weighed down by its own beauty and the commuters that hang from its belly and back.  They are my favorite thing about Pakistan, these buses.  Against the dust and the smog and the honking of horns, they are startling, like the discovery of a kindred soul behind the otherwise dull face of a stranger.

It won’t delay me long, letting this one lumber by.  Another bus will come through in a few minutes on its way to M.A. Jinnah Road.  Better not give Mr. Ed the impression that I’m trying to lose him.  Nothing raises suspicions more than shaking surveillance.  It’s what always makes me laugh about the CIA operatives in the movies.  All the roof gymnastics and juggling of Glocks.  In real life, one chase sequence through a city center and my cover would be blown for life.   Better to lull them into a false sense of security.  Walk slowly enough for them to keep up.  Stop at yellow lights when driving.  Give them a good look each time I come and go.  In other words, bore them to tears.  Then slip out and save the James Bond business for when they’ve been left to tranquil sleep.

Let’s call my tail, Mr. Ed.  I can see Mr. Ed fiddling with cooking utensils at a market stall while we wait.  It’s not clear which flavor of surveillant he is. First, guess is usually the local service—a counterintelligence officer from the government of whatever country I’m in.  But in this case, I’m not so sure.  Pakistani intelligence operatives are good at what they do.  Their surveillance teams are usually six or seven strong,,.so that they can swap out the guy who’s trailing me every few turns to minimize the chance that I’ll notice.  This man seems to be alone.  Not only that, but there’s a foreign angle to his face.  Despite his traditional dress, the kameez worn long and loose over his trousers, he has the air of central Asia about him.  A Kazakh, maybe, or an Uzbek.  Most likely, he checking me out in preparation for tomorrow’s meeting.  Al Qaida has had an influx of central Asian recruits of late.  Putting newcomers to work as spotters is pretty typical.  Gives them a chance to learn the city while the group’s recruiters size them up.

Jodia Bazar
I watch him weave his way through the stalls that line the side of Jodia Bazar.  He picks up part of a carburetor and turns it around in his hands.  Something about the way he examines it makes me wonder whether maybe he’s of the third variety—an aspiring arms broker who knows I work with Jakab, the Hungarian purveyor of all things Soviet surplus.  Of course, there’s always the underwhelming fourth possibility: he’s plain old would-be predator, eyeing a 28-year-old American girl traipsing through foreign streets alone.  After all, there’s Occam’s razor to consider.  The simplest explanation is usually the right one.

Government or goon, any tail is cause to abort an operation.  No sense meeting a source or picking up dropped documents with an audience in tow.  Even harmless creeps can turn less harmless when they think they’ve witnessed something worth telling.  Luckily, I’m not on my way to an operational act.  Not until tomorrow.  Today is pure reconnaissance.

Jakab told me the intersection of Abdullah Haroon and Sarwar Shaheed.  That was all he knew, he said.  He wasn’t even supposed to know that.  He’d probed his buyers for the info, under the guise of selling them the right bomb for the job.  He’d need to understand the target, he told them to be sure the material would be enough to register on a Geiger counter.  Enough to win them the attention they sought.

When the next bus arrives, I board slowly and easily, as if I’m not headed to check out the target of a potential nuclear terror attack.  Mr. Ed climbs up top, to sit on the roof of the bus.  I take a seat in the women’s compartment.  Outside, the afternoon is fading into gloaming and the motorbikes begin to turn on their lights.  There’s time, amid the crush of evening traffic, to take in the buildings, most of them older than the country itself, monuments to a time when Pakistan and India were one, the playthings of colonists and kings. I feel the kinship of it, being a Yankee,  shrugging off of England’s yoke.  I can picture the men and women around me tossing crates of tea into the harbor in their kameezes and shawls.  We are rebel lands, they and us.  If only all that rebellion didn’t spill quite so much blood.

I can see the intersection emerge from the traffic and the donkey carts, up beyond the faded tarps, strung taut between buildings to lend shelter from the now-set sun.  On one side is the National Bank of Pakistan, a reasonable guess at their objective, I suppose.  After all, the mullahs cleared the twin towers as legitimate military targets, claiming that America kills Muslims as much by impoverishing the innocent as it does by tank treads on the ground.  But the building doesn’t feel right to me.  It’s concrete and uninspiring, postwar brutalism at its most scathingly bare.  It doesn’t exactly scream Western excess.

I wait until the driver slows and jump back into the dust of the city.  Mr. Ed lands softly on the far side of the bus.  I cross Abdullah Haroon Road (nee: Victoria Road) slowly enough for him to follow, and then it dawns on me as I reach the other side.  In front of me, set back slightly behind chained gates, is what looks to be a miniature castle, a tiny stone fortress amid the rickshaws and pigeons.  It’s the Karachi Press Club, the bastion of free speech and independent journalism, famed home to protest, debate, and the only bar serving alcohol in the country.  Dollars to doughnuts, this is their target.  Nothing like getting bombed to get you bombed in this town.

Karachi Press Club was ransacked by armed intruders in November 2018
From what Jakab said, this attack would be intended as a warning—a shot across the bow of any country where the press flows as freely as the booze.  Clean up Pakistan first, then turn attention to the infidel.  It’s an elegant positioning, but the truth is that it’s a lot easier to plan and execute an attack here than in Times Square.  Al Qaida has been working toward a nuclear capability since at least 1992, when Usama bin Laden sent his first envoys to Chechnya in search of fissile material lost in the crumbling Soviet shuffle.  But washed up nukes are elusive, expensive, and highly temperamental.  Makes sense they’d aim for a dry run close to home.

That means I’m looking at two scenes simultaneously: first, the potential attack in front of me and, second, the implications for a follow-up attack on U.S. soil.  Writers and thinkers from across the world come to speak at the Karachi Press Club, including Americans.  A ten-kiloton nuclear weapon would vaporize every building and every person I can see for half a mile.  Detonated outside the New York Times building in midtown Manhattan, the same device would incinerate Times Square, Penn Station, Bryant Park, and the New York Public Library, plus countless condos, apartments, bodegas, preschools, and taxicabs in a blast burning hotter than the sun.  Because light travels faster than sound, the half-million or so people in that first radius would turn to vapor before they even heard a boom.  For another half-mile in every direction, radiation would kill most people within days.  Cancer would ravage their outer neighbors for years yet to come.

Terrorism is a psychological game of escalation.  It’s not the last attack that scares people.  It’s the next one.

Think it’s frightening to see our embassies hit overseas, as they were in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998?  Try watching a fortified destroyer blown up on active duty, as our USS Cole was in the Gulf of Aden two years later.  Think a strike on our military is scary?  How about a mass-casualty attack on our homeland, like the one we watched unfold in horror on a cloudless Tuesday morning the following September.

The question of Al Qaida since 9/11 has been where to go from there.  What could offer more haunting imagery than jetliners plowing into skyscrapers?  What could be more destructive than killing 3,000 people on a random weekday morning?  Eventually, the only thing left is a mushroom-shaped cloud.  Eventually the only viable escalation is a blast so bright, the few surviving witnesses will see its image burned on their retinas for the remainder of their lives.

Mr. Ed is watching a woman walk through the Karachi Press Club gates.  Her head is covered with a 1970s Pucci-style scarf.  The bottom of her kameez is patched with flowers.  The whole look is demure and Islamic with a joyful Partridge Family wink.  Beside the gates, a man sells flowers, cut and bunched.  He shouts discounted prices at drivers’ windows.  On the sidewalk behind him, there’s a sign for a children’s dentist.

I feel the horror of it froth inside me.  The evisceration.  The hideous, useless waste of potential.  I want to run at the horse-faced man, want to rush him and shake him and ask him how he can consider killing a woman who sews flowers onto her clothes.  How can he consider killing half a million like her?  But for all I know, he's a run-of-the-mill street stalker.  I’ll have my chance tomorrow.  One shot to tell al Quida why they shouldn’t detonate a nuclear weapon in a major city center.  One opportunity, face-to-face with the group that wants to bring this country to its knees.

Leave the man alone, I figure.

Then he takes out a mobile phone and makes eye contact with me as he dials.

Note: Amaryllis Fox’s book “Life Undercover, Coming of Age in the CIA” is available in bookstores and online.