As civil defense sirens wail outside, announcing another Iraqi missile strike, people steer their shopping carts calmly past the duct tape display in the Sultan Center, a warehouse-style grocery store. Mohammad Sayed, who works at a Kuwaiti military officers club in the neighborhood, pauses during his weekly shopping run and realizes it's time, finally, to take some precautions.
He invests in a single roll of tape, on sale for about $3.50, ignoring the plastic sheeting and chemical-hazard suits also on display. He has no gas mask either, but says, "It's not important."
Now that war has finally arrived, it doesn't feel much like war here this afternoon. Yes, many restaurants are empty and downtown traffic is lighter than usual. But the real panic seems to be among the estimated 1,000 journalists attempting to capture some sense of chaos in the streets.
"My family isn't scared," Sayed says, gesturing toward the new GMC Yukon from which his wife and several young children smile in amusement at the fuss created by a small pack of roving journalists outside the Sultan Center. "Saddam can't do anything to us."
He buys a little extra food -- the kids will be home because the schools just announced they will close for a week -- then takes off with a wave. The store's manager, Nehed Abed, introduces himself with a joke -- "My nickname is Scud" -- and briefs reporters: "You can say everything is under control."
The scramble for "mood of Kuwait" stories starts around noon local time, after TV reports of missile attacks on U.S. troops massed near the northern border.
A British television correspondent, based downtown, comments that everything looks normal on the streets, describing "a surreal world" and "a Hollywood existence." Except at the Sheraton, where TV crews have erected a rooftop encampment from which they do stand-ups. When the attack sirens sound, journalists scramble for their masks. They head for hotel shelters, where a few shed tears.
At a Hilton resort 20 miles south of downtown Kuwait City, headquarters of the coalition press operation, reporters clamor fruitlessly for facts. Sirens murmur in the distance, but what to do? A friendly spokeswoman with the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information switches on al-Jazeera, the Arab news network.
It's not a drill, she quickly realizes, but she has no gas mask to put on. "We're the forgotten employees," she grumbles. A Kuwaiti army colonel walks around, also with no mask. Upon hearing the hotel's fire alarm, a U.S. soldier strolling near a reporter's beachfront chalet asks what's happening. Who knows?
CNN says the missiles are greenish-gray, with yellow stripes. Maybe those could be the markings of chemical shells -- the nightmare scenario has arrived, the dying sting of the scorpion named Saddam! -- but it turns out they aren't filled with poison gas.
Within an hour, another siren ululates through the dusty air, a wavy tone that, according to a civil defense handout, means "danger," get to a shelter. This time the Marine, Army, Navy and Air Force public affairs officers are good to go. Clad in chem-bio suits and gas masks, some help herd Hilton staffers, State Department officials and journalists into basement shelters.
One bunker is already crammed with waiters and cooks, largely Filipino, trying to eat their lunches. Reporters start recording, filming and photographing the mood. For some reporters, the mood is tense, anxious, even frightening.
The mood of the workers is nonchalant. Like nearly all the immigrant service workers in this oil-rich emirate, they have no protective gear. They can't afford it. A mask costs $50 to $75, and even the better-paid hotel workers bring home only $330 a month.
The Filipinos marvel at the commotion until the all-clear sounds. "Back to work, everybody," announces a bald, officious hotel man who's wearing a nice suit.
"A good test run," says Rob Andrew, calmly heading for the sunshine. Sporting a U.S. AID patch on his shirt, he's one of the several bureaucrats deployed here to plot nation-rebuilding in Iraq.
The northbound lanes of both freeways to Kuwait City are jammed because of police checkpoints. "Saddam!" exclaims one Arab man behind the wheel of a blue Ford Crown Victoria, flinging his arms upward in frustration.
The streets of a commercial neighborhood called Hawally, which is usually bustling this time of the afternoon, are deserted. The Kuwati Airlines office is shuttered. An NBC camerman films a small box discarded in the street. It's lettered in Korean except for three English words: "Civilian Gas Mask."
A dozen waiters and cooks assemble outside Nawaf Fort, an Indian restaurant on Tunis Street, ears pricked for sirens.
"No customers," reports the maitre d', Ramshe Bangere, a Bombay native wearing a black suit and shiny silver tie. "We had one take-away order today." They don't have CNN and can't understand Arabic radio well, but they know this is weird, that people are staying home, afraid.
And what about his crew? "We're not worried," says Bangere. Besides: "We're on duty. We can't leave."
The sirens sound again in midafternoon. "How's the war in Kuwait City?" asks a Sultan Center employee named Essam El-Misbahi, a Moroccan.
You tell us.
"Everything is okay," he says. Nearby, shoppers examine flimsy white $16 hazard suits. Abed, the manager, reports selling "thousands," but this afternoon nobody seems overly interested. The duct tape bin is running a bit low, though.
Traveling south, back to the Hilton, reporters encounter six checkpoints. Warning sirens empty the hotel again as the setting sun paints the horizon a dusky rose. Near the press center, an Army captain rebukes a producer for Britain's Sky News: "Dude, when you see us putting our chemical gear on, you should really pay attention."
"Next time," the producer promises. Evidently, shock and awe haven't set in everywhere yet.
Later this evening, something streaks south, past the Hilton. Something explodes. A harsh smell -- cordite? chemicals? -- laces the briny sea air. The TV screen flickers and briefly goes black.
There's no alarm, and no confirmation of an attack, but a couple of journalists don their masks and flee for the shelter. It's empty. Near the reception desk, a white-robed manager chides them: Why the panic?
"Don't put your mask on until you hear the order," he says. "We trust the allies."
The reporters think they're getting a bit nutsy, like people who see UFOs. Within an hour, military officers report it was a missile strike apparently aimed at a Kuwaiti oil facility a mile south of the Hilton, in Fahaheel. The rocket landed in the Persian Gulf.
Around midnight, CNN's Wolf Blitzer reports an "eerie silence" shrouding Kuwait City. As if on cue, at 12:07 a.m. the emergency sirens start to wail again. It goes on like that, into the morning here, beginning to feel much more like war.