You may not hear "Happy Days Are Here Again" this morning, but something like normal is back.
Pump up the soccer balls. Fill the tank without scanning the tree line. Go buy your kid a Patrick Ramsey Halloween costume (whoops, make that Shane Matthews). The everyday drill can resurface.
And I can serve up a few pieces of chestnut I've been saving:
It's always about community.
We live in one, despite persistent reports to the contrary.
We all have a stake in it.
The police can't pull rabbits out of hats. They need information from the public.
It's up to all of us to make sure that they receive it.
Have you ever heard cops talk? They have the most annoying quirks (for example, they call flesh-and-blood people "subjects"). They have the most ridiculous jargon (one cop will say to another, "I'm going 10-7," instead of, "I'm going to lunch.").
But cops have also patented the most charming figures of speech. For example, they say that an informant who used a pay phone has just "dimed someone out."
Never mind that you'd need two quarters in the inflationary days of 2002. The phrase is still apt, and the value of diming out is more obvious than ever. When a motorist picked up a phone at a rest area outside Frederick early yesterday morning, pieces started to fall into place in a large hurry.
Fear never completely recedes after a siege like the one we've just endured. The baseline resets, just as it did after Sept. 11. We will live our lives -- we'd darn well better. But we can never jam the genie of innocence back into the bottle. We sense a layer of wariness now, everywhere, every day.
No, the guy behind us in the drugstore checkout line is probably not a murderer. Still, the thought crosses our minds and hangs there, even though we wish it wouldn't.
We shift our feet. We awaken at 3 a.m. for no real reason. Our innocence is gone. So is our ease.
As a friend of mine put it, we won't be reading news stories nine months from now about a rash of births in the Washington area. Couples didn't rediscover each other during October 2002. They were too busy being glued to CNN.
And yet, common, prolonged pain may not be an entirely bad thing.
More than 5,000 complete strangers attended the funerals of the sniper murder victims. More than half a million dollars poured into community relief funds for the victims and their families.
At the Shell gas station in Kensington and the Crisp and Juicy chicken restaurant in Silver Spring, flowers are still being left -- fresh flowers, on fresh mornings. People talk about the zillion times they bought gas at that Shell, the time they chomped drumsticks on the very bench where a soon-to-be murder victim sat to rest her feet.
We felt this one.
This one was ours.
Before the horrible events of this month, people in Aspen Hill didn't think much about Ashland, Va., unless the question was which town is close to Kings Dominion. People in Ashland probably thought that Aspen Hill was that famous ski resort in Colorado.
Now, we have been bound up as one wounded beast, 70 miles from northern stem to southern stern. If we heard "Ponderosa," we winced, whether we live around the corner from that Ponderosa or not. If someone mentioned a bus driver, our thoughts surged to the latest victim, Conrad E. Johnson, and to no other bus driver anywhere.
A reader named George Clifford put it very well, in an e-mail message to me last week.
"Usually, when some horrible crime happens, we say, 'Thank God it wasn't me,' " George wrote. "With the sniper, we said, 'Please God, don't let it be any more.' "
Another high note over these difficult days: We never lost our sense of patience or proportion.
We didn't carp at the cops. We didn't complain -- not loud enough to hear, anyway -- that they hadn't solved the case yet.
We didn't allege that some great unseen "they" were failing to make our front lawns safe to mow again. We understood that the police were baffled because they were up against a very tough adversary.
I average more than 400 contacts a day with readers, by one method or another. I didn't hear from a single Washingtonian who whined that we ought to get some real cops in here -- cops like Kojak, heck, man, he'd have arrested 53 people by now.
This reassures me hugely, because TV (and perceptions formed by TV) have gnarled modern life in very dangerous ways.
Because every TV crime is wrapped up in 58 minutes, in time for the credits to roll, we expect the same neat finality in real life.
We think of police work as miracle work. We consider cops removed and remote from us. We want them to protect us in the same distant, bloodless way that we want water to flow from our tap when we turn it. Meanwhile, we crank the windows shut, rachet up the CD player and close out the world.
Put this thought in the silver linings file:
The next time this community is frozen in fear by violent loonies, people are going to use their eyes and ears to get it unfrozen. They've seen how well the system works. They've seen how being involved pays off. They won't forget.