In a time of containment, the city searches for a way forward.
Plagues happen only to people. Animals can suffer from mass infections, of course, but they experience them as one more bad blow from an unpredictable and predatory natural environment. Only people put mental brackets around a phenomenon like the coronavirus pandemic and attempt to give it a name and some historical perspective, some sense of precedence and possibility. The coronavirus, indifferent to individuals, has no creed or moral purpose, but it becomes human when it hits us—neither microscopic nor historic, just the size we are as we experience its effects. As Albert Camus wrote in “The Plague,” the 1947 novel that’s becoming to this disruption what W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” was to the aftermath of 9/11, the microbe has no meaning; we seek to create one in the chaos it brings.
The final weekend of semi-ordinary life in New York arrived on Friday the 13th. In the week that followed, New York became a ghost town in a ghost nation on a ghost planet. The gravity and scale of what is happening can overwhelm the details of daily life, in which human beings seek a plateau of normalcy in abnormal times, just as they always have in blitzes and battles. Nobody has any confidence at all about whether we are seeing the first phases of a new normal, the brief calm before a worse storm, or a wise reaction that may allow, not so horribly long from now, for a renewal of common life. Here are some notes on things seen by one walker in the city, and some voices heard among New Yorkers bearing witness, on and off the streets.
It happened slowly and then suddenly. On Monday, March 9th, the spectre of a pandemic in New York was still off on the puzzling horizon. By Friday, it was the dominant fact of life. New Yorkers began to adopt a grim new dance of “social distancing.” On a sparsely peopled 5 train, heading down to Grand Central Terminal on Saturday morning, passengers warily tried to achieve an even, strategic spacing, like chess pieces during an endgame: the rook all the way down here, but threatening the king from the back row. Then, when the doors opened, they got off the train one by one, in single, hesitant file, unlearning in a minute New York habits ingrained over lifetimes, the elbowed rush for the door.
In the relatively empty subway cars, one can focus on the human details of the riders. A. J. Liebling, in a piece published in these pages some sixty years ago, recounted the tale of a once famous New York murder, in which the headless torso of a man was found wrapped in oilcloth, floating in the East River. The hero of the tale, as Liebling chose to tell it, was a young reporter for the great New York World, who identified the body by type before anyone else did: he saw that the corpse’s fingertips were wrinkled in a way that characterized “rubbers”—masseurs—in Turkish baths. Only someone whose hands were wet that often would have those fingertips. On the subway, in the street, nearly everyone has rubbers’ hands now, with skin shrivelled from excessive washing.
At the other end of the day, in Central Park late at night, the only people out were the ones walking their dogs. Dogs are still allowed to have proximity, if only to other dogs. They can’t be kept from it. The negotiations of proximity—the dogs demanding it, the owners trying to resist it without being actively rude—are newly arrived in the city. Walking home down the almost empty avenues, you could see the same silhouette, repeated: dogs straining toward dogs on long-stretched leashes, held by watchful owners keeping their distance, a nightly choreography of animal need and human caution.
At J.F.K., in Queens, during that strange weekend, people huddled and waited anxiously for the homecoming of family members who had been stranded abroad, with the understanding that homecoming now comes at a cost: arriving passengers have been asked to self-quarantine for two weeks. J.F.K. had been spared some of the nightmarish lines and confusion seen at Dulles, in Washington, and O’Hare, in Chicago, following Donald Trump’s abrupt decision the previous Wednesday (relayed in a garbled announcement) to suspend most travel from Europe. But no one is spared the emotional ambivalence of the moment: every feeling pulled out hard, like an attenuated nerve. Parents are keenly aware that, in bringing their children home to what is meant to be safety, they are bringing them to an increasingly unsafe place.
“Barren” was the word that Lisa Cleveland, who lives in New Jersey, used for the normally bustling airport. She spent part of Saturday morning waiting for her teen-age children Zoë and Xander, who had been staying in the Netherlands. Their father is a Dutch citizen. “I’m still trying to understand the risks, but he’s been tracking this for more than two months,” Cleveland said. “He’s that guy.” Getting the kids back to the U.S. before further barriers went up wasn’t easy. “Xander and Zoë—she likes the double dot over her name, otherwise it becomes a Dutch word that rhymes with ‘cow’—were in Amsterdam. We struggled and struggled to find them tickets home. Someone told us that one of the airlines was going to go bankrupt.”
When she saw Zoë and Xander at last, Cleveland said, “it was just such an enormous relief. And more emotion than you can easily imagine. This is the first day I’ve been able to smile in weeks. But now they have to do a mandatory self-quarantine for two weeks.”
Zoë said, “Not that I’m not glad to be home, but I’ll miss school. The mood on the plane was weird—half the plane was wearing masks.” Because safety masks were sold out in Amsterdam, she and her brother decided to wear masks that their parents had bought them out of an abundance of caution. They were 3M respirators, the kind an industrial worker might wear in the presence of toxic aerosols. “I felt people were judging us,” Zoë said. “It’s a crazy mask. No one else on the plane had on such a serious mask.”
Crises take an X-ray of a city’s class structure. After 9/11, it was the Middle Eastern and South Asian taxi-drivers who suddenly became visible, lining their cabs with American flags for fear of being taken for jihadis. Now particular visibility falls on bicycle deliverymen, Mexicans and Indians, the emissaries of Seamless, who modestly shoulder the burden of feeding the middle class. On the East Side, outside a Thai restaurant at 7 p.m. on Saturday, a single deliveryman balanced five bags of food hanging from his handlebars. His livelihood hinges on his getting meals to people who are self-isolating, a luxury he doesn’t have. Although he was grateful for the work, he said, he was a little frightened about his own exposure. Asked how many more sacks he ferries during his shift these days, he shrugged and said at least ten times the usual load.
Just as the medical system depends on the lowest paid of the health workers—the orderlies and custodians—the food system, now that restaurants have been limited to takeout and delivery, depends on a whole cadre of men pedalling bicycles. They are literally overburdened, and, that night, this one got off to an unsteady start, like a plane in wartime trying to take off with too large a load of refugees. He glanced up at a high-rise condominium being built on Madison Avenue and Eighty-ninth Street. Construction work continues right through the closures—no letup in the noise and activity, even on the weekend. The workmen, in their puffy vests and hard hats, were side by side, though they didn’t seem particularly worried, or constrained. The exigencies of Manhattan real estate and development are evidently undeterred by the crisis.
What’s strange about this energetic construction of more luxury housing is that, in the existing apartment buildings nearby, on the impossibly wealthy blocks of Fifth Avenue, scarcely a light can be seen. Nobody’s home. Most of the truly wealthy have gone, by helicopter or private jet, to the Hamptons or to an island somewhere. There can be something vexing about the thought that those whose wealth relies on the intense, close-ordered entanglement of the city abandon it in its hour of need, or dread, but they do. Still, who would not decamp to a remote island if she had one? “Boccaccio-ing,” someone calls this business of fleeing the city, in honor of the Italian author, who wrote of fleeing Florence during the Black Death, and telling stories with his companions for ten days up in the hillside villas of Fiesole.
In West Harlem, Sam Rivera certainly can’t leave. At a residential facility run by the Fortune Society and known as the Castle, his job is to oversee the rooms and the souls of about eighty-five men and women, almost all released from prison not long ago, some as recently as this month. They come in and out of his office all day, seeking help and solace. “It’s crazy, but the system is still churning,” Rivera said. He is a huge man, with a beaming, steady smile. “They’re still discharging people from Rikers and elsewhere, even as we go through all this. So we have a steady inflow of people coming home, even while we’re trying to lock down the people we already have.”
This is Rivera’s second plague. Incarcerated himself when H.I.V./aids hit New York’s state prisons, in the nineteen-eighties, he still remembers the shock of working in the isolated wards where those who fell ill with the disease were sequestered: “Everyone was so frightened that they pretty much put on a hazmat suit to go into those places. Except me.” His experience led him, once he was out of prison, to join the aids-care movement, where he met and worked with Anthony Fauci, the current director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Now that Rivera is responsible for the residents of the Castle, he thinks hard about what to do. His memories of the aids epidemic are strong, and they give an oddly positive cast to his take on today’s crisis.
“We’ve stockpiled three weeks’ worth of food, and we’re sending staff to screen visitors at Rikers,” he said. (City jails have since suspended in-person visits.) “But it’s not a deadly virus for most people—it’s not as deadly as aids. I think we’ll get to the point where the next announcement will have to be, What are we doing for people who have to manage the elders and those with compromised immune systems? I’m coping two ways. I’m not overthinking it. I expect to get it one day. I’ll feel sick, and I’ll manage it, I’ll come through it, and my body will build immunities to it. And that will be a blessing.”
Despite his brio in the face of the virus, Rivera worries about the vulnerable residents in his charge. “We have a number of people in the Castle who are living with H.I.V., and we’re really monitoring where and how they are,” he said. “The problem is that they don’t like following up. Most of them have had bad experiences with the medical system, or sometimes no experience with it. But, if anyone has flu-like symptoms, then we are able to get a test, right now, at Columbia Presbyterian, which is great. All we can do is watch and move forward, day by day.”
Panic-buying has been in evidence all over town, if unevenly executed. Many chain supermarkets and food stores are stripped bare of groceries, in a way that calls to mind the days just after 9/11. Back then, people gathered “Armageddon baskets,” filled with expensive things—steak and Perrier. Now they assemble survival kits. Toilet paper and canned beans are treasured. (There is no chance, the grocers assure the city, of running out of either.) Still, there’s a pattern to the emptying of the supermarkets. Every potato, every carrot, every onion in a West Side Citarella is gone, as is every package of pasta and every jar of tomatoes in an uptown Whole Foods. Yet many of the less tony supermarkets, the nearby Key Foods and Gristedes, have remained well stocked and serene throughout the rush.
“You realize what this means?” a college student who grew up in New York said, about the depredations of upscale shoppers. “It means they believe that it’s every man for himself. They don’t really believe in community or that people will or can share. Their instinct, despite living in one of the more affluent spots in the world, is that they’re on their own.” The plague, as Camus insisted, exposes existing fractures in societies, in class structure and individual character; under stress, we see who we really are. The secession of the very rich, the isolation of the well-off, the degradation of social capital by inequality: these truths become sharply self-evident now.
The current crisis is, in some respects, the mirror image of the post-9/11 moment. That turned out to be a time of retrospective anxiety about a tragedy unforeseen. The anticipatory jitters weren’t entirely unfounded—anthrax killed a hospital worker in Manhattan—but they arose from something that had already happened and wouldn’t be repeated. By contrast, the covid-19 crisis involves worries about something we’ve been warned is on the way. The social remedy is the opposite of the sort of coming together that made the days and weeks after 9/11 endurable for so many, as they shared dinners and embraced friends. That basic human huddling is now forbidden, with the recommendations for “distancing” bearing down ever tighter: no more than five hundred people together, then two hundred and fifty, then fifty, then ten.
At the same time, the emphasis on social distancing and even isolation is part of an epidemiological study in statistical probability. If we delay the communication of the virus from patient to patient, the curve of new cases may flatten, so that fewer people at any time will need hospitalization, reducing the stress on the system and keeping health services available for all the other countless ailments that strike a city of eight million. In a way, the self-seclusions are exhibits not of personal panic but of public-minded prudence: we are trying to save the lives, above all, of the most vulnerable. But, of course, the plague-in-progress may progress despite it all.
“Love in the Time of Cholera” is Gabriel García Márquez’s great novel of another plague time—with cholera, we’re told, referring to both the name of the terrible disease and the condition of being colérico, angry and impassioned. Love in the time of coronavirus was bound to happen—in crisis and despair is born desire—and it already has. Kids forced to leave college and return home to the city talked about long-sought last-minute assignations on the night before the general expulsion.
Sometimes desire in anxiety can be more delicate. In Grand Central Terminal, what some call “the tile telephone”—the whispering gallery in front of the Oyster Bar, under the beautiful basket weave of arches—has never been so clear. The noise of the station is usually so intense that the tiled ceiling turns mute. Now, for the first time in forever, the abatement in the roar and press of people allows couples’ murmured endearments, spoken into one corner, to race up through the solid Guastavino tile and carry all the way over to the diagonally facing corner.
A pair of young friends encountered there that Friday weren’t out-of-towners; this was Kyle and Leah, and they’re New Yorkers through and through, who decided that this was the moment, finally, to really see Grand Central. The appetite for the joys of structured sightseeing is indomitable. Another young woman, Amaya—visiting from Durham, North Carolina, and crushed to find the city so inhospitable—stood in the corner, smiling and singing to a friend on the other side.
But it was on Saturday, when the sky was blue and the temperature hovered in the fifties, that the irresistible urge to find pleasure brought out flocks of young people to various outdoor spaces. “I’ve noticed that a lot of people my age are headed to Prospect Park and are taking advantage of a beautiful day, a large space where they can mingle,” a thirty-one-year-old woman said, early on Saturday afternoon. “They sort of keep social distance, but also connect.” Many photographs, shared widely on social media, seemed to show the millennials lounging thoughtlessly close, prompting a Twitter uproar.
The uproar did seem to reflect a determination on the part of young people in New York to go on living like young people in New York. “Last night I went out to a restaurant,” the same woman said. “And the wait was half an hour. So we went to a different restaurant, and at that one, when the waitress was bringing out drinks, she got confused about where to go, since they had just changed their seating—I think to have more space between tables. ”
Like life-hardened Sam Rivera, these younger New Yorkers have touching if perhaps worrying faith in their own invulnerability. “I don’t think people in my cohort are that terrified,” the woman went on. “Most people seem to believe that they will get the virus and they will survive having it. The vibe is pretty much one of acceptance, even a little bit of excitement. I hate to say this, but it’s become a distraction from the election. Also, a lot of my friends are cooking. Like ambitious stockpot recipes—soups and stews—and a lot of baking, too. Pies and cookies. I myself am currently deep-cleaning my apartment, knowing that I’ll be stuck in it.” Meanwhile, she said, “my family is from New York, and my father has been fearlessly going to the gym. I think there’s a bit of yolo fear to it—he wants to make the most of his life. But I have pleaded with him to stop.”
That same Saturday, Maggie McGlinchy, a bartender, worked all evening at Bernie’s Restaurant, on the border of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. “It was full,” she said on Sunday. “But it doesn’t take much to fill the restaurant. The actual volume was low, and it seemed as though no one wanted to be seen to be fully enjoying themselves. I sold a lot of Martinis that night—mostly Martinis, or Old-Fashioneds or Manhattans. No wine or artisanal ale. Everyone was trending the spirits.
“At Bernie’s, I’m on a first-name basis with possibly a third of the customers—it’s definitely a home base. In the past two nights, a lot of my customers are people who wanted to come in and support us. Most of my tips were over twenty per cent. That’s the other thing about social distancing—so much of what it means to be comforted is to be . . . not distant. Stay positive, I’d say—we’re feeling well right now and let’s hope it stays positive and do you want another drink?” But by Sunday night all the bars and restaurants in the city had been ordered to stop table service in the next few days, an unimaginable act a week earlier, as strange as if the island of Manhattan had floated out to sea.
McGlinchy said that she is looking for a new job, but there are no new jobs for bartenders, because there are no bars.“What do I have going forward? I have a month’s rent and a warm e-mail from my former employer,” she said dryly on Tuesday morning. “I’ve had some regulars send me twenty bucks over Venmo. Last tips.”
The full weight of the shutdown will fall most heavily on the Maggies of the world, who have little or no financial cushion. (Later, Bernie’s set up a GoFundMe campaign for the staff.) Hundreds of thousands of people in the service and entertainment industries—from bartenders to the “swing” theatre actors who pride themselves on leaping into whatever role has been left open by an unwell lead—are out of work, for a time that has no known limit.
There are, as well, the small, crushing disappointments that, though reasonably lost in the larger life-and-death clamor, are very real to the people they have happened to. The actress Ilana Levine had just opened in a new play, “The Perplexed,” by Richard Greenberg—a comeback of sorts for her—when all theatres, concert venues, and night clubs were closed. “You know, I had been on Broadway a lot when I was younger,” she said. “But then came L.A. and children. . . . And out of the blue I got this call to do this play of Richard’s, with the idea that, after all this time, I’d be back on the stage in New York, which I missed desperately. So all of these things I’d been dreaming of happened, and with it came so much fear and anxiety: ‘Can I make it work?’ ” She laughed at the idea of what fear and anxiety meant a few days earlier—having too much to memorize.
“The play is about family and struggle and old hurts and people having to be, in this sort of Sartre way, perpetually closed off in the space of one room with each other,” she continued. “So now the play and the reality are one, in ways I could never have imagined. Except I don’t get to do it in this world, with an audience.” The evocative set, designed by Santo Loquasto, of a New York town house, has not yet been struck from the Manhattan Theatre Club stage, she said. “So all of us keep thinking of that set, and how we want to get to it, be on it—the company, even without an audience, just to work together on it. Actors are not people who know how to isolate. We are suddenly physically frozen at this moment.”
The young musical-theatre actress Abena Mensah-Bonsu, cast in a significant role in a new show, “Nollywood Dreams,” had been commuting in from New Jersey, feeling all the ancient excitement of a big break. Now she sits at home and is eager to get back to the theatre. “Acting is the opposite of social distancing,” she said, echoing Levine. “Even if you’re introverted, as I am. So, when we sit in place, we long to be engaged with someone.” On Broadway, the theatres are empty, but the lights have still been on, as though the theatres were willing the shows to continue.
One irony of this pandemic is that, while it exposes the gaps in our social and medical safety nets, it also punishes people for behaving well. Communities with the healthiest intergenerational relationships seem to be at greater risk than those that sequester older people in nursing homes. Italy, one study shows, has been so hard hit by the coronavirus because there the young and the old have the beautiful habit of mingling together. Grandparents are accustomed to being with their grandchildren.
In the days before the shutdown, the Lubavitcher community in Crown Heights became a virus hot spot, perhaps because the Hasidic sects, too, have kept at bay the alienation of generations that is so much part of American life. “Do you want to know how things appear, or how they are?” Mica Soffer, the editor of a Jewish news Web site, said that Sunday. “It’s been extremely hectic. As far as the community itself, I guess we weren’t so much prepared. It’s in China, it’s in Europe—we didn’t realize how quickly it would get here. Our community is so connected. We live in an urban area—you’re always around people. It’s Brooklyn, after all! Late last week, I had a shiva call, a wedding, and an engagement party. Everyone has a million things they need to go to—families are large.”
She went on, “Most families here have elderly parents and grandparents—it’s a big part of life. Purim was last weekend—you’re talking about people being exposed. We didn’t realize at first. We didn’t know. There was a lot of contact. Very much part of our day-to-day life—especially with the men going to shul three times a day, and Torah classes every single day. One of the things that’s so amazing is that everybody kicked into high gear to put up yeshivas online within two days.
“In Crown Heights, davening still goes on, it always has to be there, within the realm of whatever number the health department says. No more than ten people in Israel. A rabbi told me, ‘Faith is not the absence of reason.’ We don’t give up on the interventions. God blessed us with doctors, not as something apart from us but as something there to help us. My father told me this: God is in charge, and God watches over us. Every time I get really panicky, there’s that sense that God is taking care of us. I’m an anxious person and it’s not easy. But I have to access that. Rabbi Nachum said, ‘Gam zu l’tovah’—‘This, too, shall be for the good.’ ” On Tuesday, rabbis closed the Crown Heights synagogues. “Now,” Soffer said, “many people are praying outdoors, six feet away from each other.”
The self-exile of the very wealthy from the city that made them rich is hardly uniform. A feeling of social responsibility, of solidarity, is embodied by Elizabeth Smith, who is the head of the Central Park Conservancy. She and her husband, Rick Cotton, the head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, became among the first public officials in New York known to have covid-19. Now all she wants is to get back to the Park.
“I’ve never been in the tabloids before,” Smith, who is in her late sixties, said from her Manhattan apartment, where she was convalescing, and in her second week of seclusion. “In my family, you’re in the paper when you’re born and again when you marry. And the fact of the matter is that the virus gets . . . very virulent. I wasn’t feeling well on Saturday—all the typical flu symptoms, like a fever, but a relatively mild case of the flu for me. I stayed in bed, had my moments of panic, but I was fortunate to be paired with Rick, who was positive but asymptomatic. And I was well enough to stay in touch with the Conservancy and find out how everyone was faring—the morale and the health of the staff—and the Park itself, too. It has the tremendous power of offering peace and respite to people. The amazing people are the city workers. They keep showing up. They show up at work and they do the right thing. There are lots of selfless people, lots of people who take public service seriously.”
Even if she hadn’t fallen ill, Smith said, she would have wanted to stay in the city. “We have a big responsibility to the public,” she said. “You know, when Frederick Law Olmsted made the Park, it was just with that in mind: most people don’t even have a chance of leaving New York. It’s for all those people who couldn’t leave the city, to get to the Adirondacks.” Smith is the chair of the Library of America, which published a collection of Olmsted’s essays, letters, and other reflections in 2015. “Believe it or not, I never quite got through Olmsted’s writings,” she admitted. “He was a genius and a beautiful writer.” She is now immersed in the volume: “I’m not in the Park but I can stay in the Park.”
Emptiness and absence contradict the very concept of the city. The point of a city is social proximity; to see people deliberately spaced out, like the walking but never intersecting figures in a Giacometti, is to see what cities aren’t. In a historical sense, cities are always organisms of a kind, like coral reefs, where a lot of people come together to barter spices and exchange ideas and find mates, and endure the recurrent damage of infectious disease.
The question is whether the current upheavals could somehow alter New York forever. Some beloved places may stay closed. Some new practices may be perpetuated. The digital trends toward disaggregation of experience may get a boost, at a cost to everything we love about the city. There’s an eerie gap between the raucous and argumentative world of the Internet and the silence of the streets. Outside, new patterns of wider spacing and greater caution assert themselves: Is that masked man contagious and to be avoided by crossing the street? Did we forget to sanitize after touching the gate to the park? And, with them, the terrible self-monitoring of plague times: Do I feel normal? Is my temperature high? Feel my forehead.
Until last week, no one ever thought that Camus’s “The Plague” was about the plague. It was the text through which generations of high schoolers were taught how not to read literally. It was always taken as a fable or an allegory, specifically of the German occupation of France. The people in Camus’s plague town of Oran did not in any way deserve to suffer from the disease, but the crisis revealed all the various human responses of cowardice, denial, and courage. The point was not that actual plagues tell us much, but that the pressure of extreme and unexpected events forces the flaws in our common character to the surface.
This plague has proved an equal-opportunity evil, striking theocratic states like Iran and authoritarian ones like China, and more open ones like our own and those in Europe. Some hard balance of authority and openness is obviously essential to going on at all, but this is not news. We have always known that having the confidence to act, and the clarity to see if the way we act is good, is vital to our continued existence. Our continued existence! It used to be a kind of metaphor, really meaning “the easy perpetuation of our familiar way of life.” No more.
By midweek, even the dance of wariness was muted: New Yorkers, largely sheltering in place, still allowed themselves to walk their dogs, but walked them alone on each street, with the next dog and owner at least a stoplight away. The dogs, puzzled not to have the greetings of others of their animal kind, sniffed doggedly in the dark, though now only at the scent of their solitary owners.
PAGINA 100 POPAYAN COLOMBIA
Photo: Philip Montgomery
By: Adam Gopnik