photo: ratko radojcic

Michigan Avenue shut down for a suspicious package today. (It was not a bomb.) 

The suspicious object attached to a flagpole on North Michigan Avenue this morning was not an explosive, nor was it a Teddy bear. It was a black cloth wrapped with a steel rebar and a metal spring.

But this cloth was not harmless: It shut down one of Chicago’s busiest streets, forcing the rerouting of multiple buses, the evacuation of a Walgreens, and the presence of the Bomb and Arson unit, who employed one of those bomb manipulator robots and a man in a blast suit to “dismantle” the object. Police are calling it a prank, and no one was hurt.

Nor was anyone especially scared. An hour later, after everything had returned to normal on the site, I overheard a member of the bomb squad telling a pair of reporters that someone had also left the word “Israel” on the flagpole that, because of the greasy residue it left, seemed to have been written in cheese.

“Cheese?” one of the reporters laughed. “Wow. Couldn’t they have invested in a Sharpie?”

Yesterday, we went through a similar drill a block away while police and fire officials closed down the Michigan Avenue bridge to investigate a bottle of pink liquid on the riverwalk below. Officials determined it was drain cleaner. That's two shutdowns of the street in two days.

We have no way of knowing whether to laugh or cry at Clothgate (or Pinkstuffgate). I remember shortly after 9/11, my el stop got evacuated when someone reported a strange green liquid on the platform. It turned out to be guacamole, and no one was laughing then.

Our hired protectors are right, of course, to take perceived threats seriously, and if these recent episodes are a matter of crying wolf, they’re certainly preferable to the alternative. But this is the weird place in which we find ourselves at the moment: Still reeling from the Boston Marathon tragedy, we know that anyone could make a bomb and leave it anywhere. I’m less concerned with bombs than with the uncertainty.

Whether these were pranks or warnings, that’s how terrorism works: It holds people hostage in their everyday lives until they don’t know what’s real and what’s not.

Right now, we have no way of discerning between a genuine danger and a dumb kid with a cloth and some cheese who knows how easy it is to disrupt a sizable swath of the city. And that scares me every bit as much as a bomb would.