A comprehensive definition of Code Orange wasn't contained in this week's government-issued advisories. It couldn't be discerned in the ground-to-air missiles deployed around Washington or in the disaster drills or on the evacuation maps. It was too elusive to be trapped and then bound in duct tape.
Better indicators came in subtler forms: in the theories of regulars at the counter of a diner; in the contents of a man's bag at a boat show; in the cautious laughter of the parents of preschoolers; in the Spanish spoken at a pharmacy; in the Valentines and Teddy bears found in the hallways of a high school.
Interpretations varied, but they had this in common: The value of all the precautions, all the preparations -- for what? -- was in the measure of extra meaning they gave to everyday lives.
The Washington Boat Show, an annual event pitted in the heatless core of winter, is an exercise in escape. The seven acres of exhibits at the D.C. Convention Center appeal to fantasy, teasing imaginations into warm realms of sunshine and seawater. The outside world, exhibitors said, stays outside: Only boating matters.
"Have you seen the NightStar flashlight?" Marjie Favors asked, springing out of her booth on the showroom floor. "It doesn't need batteries. You just shake it for a few seconds, and it'll light up. So if Home Depot doesn't have batteries, you don't need them. This will still work."
Favors and her husband, Jim, said they have sold dozens of the NightStar magnetic force emergency lights this week on their Web site and are betting they'll be hot sellers during the show, which started Thursday and runs through Monday.
Most of the show's attendees travel from Virginia and Maryland -- only 5 percent are from the District, according to organizers. That means attendance rests heavily on mobility. Threats of dirty bombs and poison gas don't influence someone in the market to buy a boat, sellers said, nearly as much as the weather.
"If we get a blizzard, we'll be playing pinochle tomorrow," said Dave Sticker, a dealer from Delray Beach, Fla. "But rain, snow, radioactive cloud -- we'll be here."
And so, perhaps, will people such as boating enthusiast John Nicholson of Franconia. He said he wasn't worried about the heightened threats, but he admitted to carrying a flashlight, dust mask and battery-operated radio in his backpack, just in case.
"Are you talking about terrorism?" said boat dealer Theresa Creamer, overhearing him. "There'll be none of that. When people are here, they're thinking about boats. I'm telling you, you just get on a boat and you have no worries."
-- Monte Reel
Daily Life at a Diner
From his post behind the well-worn counter at the Village Restaurant, a no-frills diner in downtown Frederick where the 72-year-old waitress knows many of the patrons by name, Marvin Lohr, 62, has become a student of the subtle vacillations in his community's mood -- from the giddy heights of the Internet boom to the terror that seeped through everything after Sept. 11, 2001.
This week's terrorism alert registered a blip in the continuum, Lohr said -- nothing compared with the reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks. But, he said, it caused a bigger spike in terrorism talk than he expected.
Lohr hasn't bought duct tape or plastic sheeting and, judging from the talk in his diner, few others have either. But yesterday, he learned that his son -- not prone to hysteria -- was filling water jugs, just in case.
"This is the first time I've heard real concern," he said from behind a counter stacked with Sara Lee pies, laminated one-page menus and bottles of Heinz ketchup. At the same time, he said, "people are wondering if all these preparations will help."
"I figure Frederick is all right," he said. "They're going for the big targets."
Betty Huffer, 72, a waitress at Village for 27 years, breezed by with an armful of plates laden with meatloaf, roast turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans.
"My thinking is just do the best you can, and if the good Lord wants you, he'll take you," she said.
At the barber shop around the corner, and through the streets crowded with Valentine's Day shoppers seeking last-minute gifts, conversation flitted over terrorism alerts, looming war with Iraq, the dreary economy.
The media are blowing the alert out of proportion, some said. No, the government is, others answered.
But perhaps more than anything, it was the minutiae of daily life that dominated discourse.
"Are you going out for Valentine's Day dinner?" Huffer asked Lohr as she filled a plastic cup with Coca-Cola.
"Well, my idea," Lohr said, "was just to stay home."
-- David Snyder
Anxiety in the Suburbs
Until yesterday, the government's security alerts had not cast their shadows over the daily routines of Sheila Gardner and her friends. Yesterday, the Code Orange alert barged into their lives about noon, when they collected their 4-year-olds at a preschool in Burke.
Gardner headed for Chuck E. Cheese's in Fairfax County with Beth Guerra, Linda Howe and Gretchen Herman. While their children played, the women sat in a booth and talked, uncharacteristically, about the possibility of a terrorist attack -- "because we just picked up our kids," Guerra said, "and we got some information from the school."
An information sheet directed them to send extra clothes, bottled water, family pictures, a personal item such as a blanket or stuffed animal and a flashlight to school with their children next week.
"My husband and I have taken the approach that whatever is going to happen is going to happen," Herman said, "but we're not going to worry about it. The only time we think about it is when we watch the news or read about it." And when they read lists such as the one the school sent.
The others agreed -- and wondered about the validity of raising the alert level to orange. "Go ahead, Linda," Herman said, "let's hear your theory on it."
Howe hesitated a second, and then spoke. "I think that part of this whole thing is that the [Bush] administration wants to get people behind the war, and that's what this is all about. I mean, we're all on alert anyway. We should be on alert since 9/11. What will it mean when they raise it to red?"
Guerra said the warning -- and the panic buying it set off -- has been enough of an attack on the region. "This is terrorism right now," she said.
"I think she hit it right on the head," Gardner said. "Now people are going out and buying stuff and not knowing what to do. I mean, duct tape."
The women all laughed.
"My neighbor," Herman said, "went out and bought five shower curtains because the store was out of plastic."
They laughed some more and watched their children play.
-- Timothy Dwyer
Hope Is Universal
The phone rang midafternoon at the Mount Pleasant Pharmacy, with the inquiry: Any sodium chloride tablets in stock?
"Check that out for me," Sidney Alvarado told Angelo Messano.
"I guess we'll have to order it," manager Nelson Canales said.
In this tiny neighborhood pharmacy, in the heart of Washington's most ethnically diverse neighborhood, the employees know much more than most Americans about war, mass tragedies and brutal regimes. Canales, Alvarado and Bernabe Martinez are from El Salvador, and Zorina "Dolly" Mohamed is from Guyana. Frank Rocha is from Nicaragua, and John Jones, from the Dominican Republic.
They came to the United States for a better life and now, like everyone else, they're facing a terrorist threat. Codigo color naranja, Canales said: Code Orange.
"A lot has happened this year: the sniper. You can go outside and boom, you're dead," Martinez said. "Now we're under a very big threat. But that's the way war is. You never know what hour or which day."
"I leave everything to God," Mohamed said. "I'm a Christian, and God is in charge. You can do all that, you can buy a suit, and if you're to die, you're going to die."
"I believe in God, but have you heard the proverb, 'El sabio ve el peligro y se aparta'? The wise man sees danger and steps aside," Canales said. "Being Christian also means we have the responsibility to warn others. God is in control, yes, but we have to alert others who may not believe in God."
He has two gallons of water, a flashlight and jumper cables in the trunk of his Honda Civic. He's keeping his tank full of gas.
"I just bought the cables, not because I need them, because my car is new," he said. "But I want to be able to help. I don't want nobody to stay because of the dead battery."
Jones has plastic sheeting taped to his apartment windows -- for the cold, he said, not biochemical attack. Although he, too, believes God is calling the shots on this one -- "The Bible say that even a leaf can't fall off a tree if God doesn't permit it" -- he's glad the plastic is there.
"People should be prepared and ready," he said, "and pray and hope that it doesn't happen."
-- Sylvia Moreno
Love in the Hallways
Never mind Code Orange.
In the hallways of Lake Braddock High School, it was code red -- and pink and white. It was Valentine's Day, a time for clutching stuffed bears, holding hands, wearing short skirts in winter and the haves displaying gifts of balloons and roses in front of the have-nots.
But speculation about "dirty" bombs and news of "shelter-in-place" drills at schools elicited little reaction from the students, who seemed determined to shrug if off. "We talk about it as much as the 'Bachelorette,' " senior Tim Allen said.
That was good news to Ralph Gardner, who is in charge of security for Lake Braddock's 4,000 students and quarter-mile-long building. "These kids have enough on their minds, what with their trigonometry and all, than worrying about the what-ifs," he said.
Rod Manuel, the assistant principal, said the school has been intent on maintaining a "normal" atmosphere. But he said preparing for danger seems normal to students who have lived through the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the sniper shootings last year.
Even students who have concerns wouldn't show them at school, several students agreed. Freshman Johnny Arnold said he sometimes worries about his father, who works in the District for the Department of Labor. But he almost never says so to his friends.
"I think it's in the back of everyone's mind because people are afraid and don't want to think about it," classmate Bethany Hopper said. "But when something happens, then reality will hit, and no one will be able to hide their fear."
-- David Cho
Leaving on a Jet Plane
Jim Mahar, an electrical engineer from Portland, Ore., was about to leave Washington behind. In town attending a conference, he had spent the better part of a week watching television footage of area residents storming stores for plastic and bottled water. And, as he waited yesterday for an outbound plane at Reagan National Airport, he had to admit that the relative calm of the West Coast was attractive.
"Certainly, everybody is on pins and needles around here," Mahar said. "It's too bad, really."
He believes the terrorist threat probably is real, but he had to grin, he said, at the region's obsession with duct tape.
"I don't want to get too philosophical, but people in society have so many creature comforts now," he said. "They sit in their homes, and they have all this time to think, and they conjure up all these thoughts, and the media helps build a frenzy, and it feeds on itself.
"And before you know it," he said, "a ridiculous little thing like duct tape becomes a metaphor."
At the same time, he was having trouble accepting the prevailing attitude back home, that there's comparatively little reason to worry. "What's really interesting," he said, "is how people back in the West, my friends included, can say, 'Well, we're protected here.' But we're all Americans, whether you get hit on the East Coast or the West Coast.
"It's kind of like if you're in an SUV and you hit a motorcycle and you don't care because you won't get the worst end of it," he said.
-- Sue Anne Pressley
Chris Brown, 30, shifted the heavy bag on his shoulder as he waited to go through the security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport.
Brown, a computer consultant who flies weekly between his home in Alexandria and Los Angeles, was going back to a city consumed with caution. Usually, he said, he views government warnings about terrorist threats with skepticism, part of a political agenda.
Today is different.
"This is the first time I've felt nervous," Brown said. "The evidence seems a lot more credible. I feel it's more concrete and believable."
If the United States invades Iraq, he said, the threat will increase even more, especially in the big city next to Alexandria.
"But I can't not get on a plane to go home," he said.
-- Kim C. Edds