In New York City, the constant sound of sirens is something you build immunity to, just like the smell and the congestion. We live here because at some fundamental level we like being around a lot of other people. But it has consequences. So, life now is particularly strange when you imagine that all of those people are still here — that is those who haven’t decamped for their second houses elsewhere — just not on the street.
A friend in my building told me that his wife informed him at the beginning of the crisis, “See, this is why we should have gotten a second house.” He shrugged his shoulders. And I agree. There are places I’d prefer to be at the moment. But this is my city. And every evening at 7 pm when people cheer and clap and ring bells from their buildings for the medical folks, I feel better. I’m reminded of Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca: “Well there are certain sections of New York Major that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”
Because you won’t find any of us, Major. Everyone but our heroic medical professionals (and those miscreants crowding each other in the parks) is home watching Netflix. Or almost everyone. A week or so ago, I was walking the dog at night and a woman went by marveling into her cell phone about how her mother had tried to trick her children into believing she was home by turning off the video in their zoom chat. But the voice of a cashier at a certain well-known local food emporium gave away her real location. “What’s the point of all of us resting in place when my 80-year-old mother is going to Zabar’s?” the woman complained. “I am bringing her food now.”
When we do go outside, it feels like New York on major holidays or New York in August. The streets are wonderfully empty. If we do cross paths everyone averts their eyes and hugs the edge of the sidewalk. We have always done some version of this, but it usually includes surreptitiously judging each other’s shoes.
We might brush elbows with a celebrity, but we act like we didn’t even notice. Then run home and tell everyone we know. Now elbows are the only thing we can touch.
Usually when we walk under scaffolding in the rain we keep our umbrellas up. We do this despite the certainty that we will bang against an umbrella coming the other way. It’s as if we are doing everything we can to remain defiantly in our own worlds. To maintain that illusion even though the other umbrellas bumping ours provide some pretty persistent counter- information.
It’s the same thing about the sirens. We hear them, and there’s a part of us that acknowledges that there are bad things happening in this city that could conceivably happen to us but somehow, we have convinced ourselves it’s okay to go about our business.
Now however, the sirens are sounding for us. All of us.
They are warning us that even though we have some of the best healthcare in the country here, we might not be able to access it if we get sick. And nothing will change that. Not who we know, what we’ve done. Nothing.
When we arrived back in the city from a vacation on March 17th, New York had just become a center of the crisis. Friends called to suggest we go somewhere else, but we couldn’t stay where we’d been and our family summer house is in another country the border to which our president promptly closed. A friend from another state sent us four N-95 masks. When they arrived, I shipped them straight off to my brother who is a doctor in Connecticut. He definitely needed them more.
My younger daughter and I then went up to Saratoga to collect her things from college. While there, I tried to pick up toilet paper for my sister in Jersey City where there is a chronic shortage. I liked to think of myself as having run toilet paper into Jersey during the war like Bogart’s Rick running guns into Ethiopia. Alas the vast expanse of shelves in Target were empty. Those in the Walmart across the highway had only one or two packages left. A guy in the aisle turned to the guy next to him and said, “You know why they don’t have toilet paper problems in England? They have bidets.” I got out of there fast. It felt like the zombie-Covid apocalypse.
Since then we’ve been hunkered down. Four of us and a large dog in a two-bedroom apartment. At the beginning of the quarantine we only had a somewhat questionable thermometer from the days when our kids were little and had earaches and stomach flus. It very cheerfully listed our temperatures as degrees of subnormal, varying from one moment to the next. One morning my daughter complemented me on my “very productive cough.” (Not the scratchy dry type we’ve all been worrying about. Most likely GURD.) My wife was exposed to someone who subsequently became sick so she self-isolated for two weeks. She has not shown any symptoms. We are all fine.
We are enjoying each other’s company. My wife is a trust and estates lawyer whose job usually requires her to put in long hours at the office and one of the benefits of this is I get to see her more often. My elder daughter, who is an aspiring comedy writer, put stickies on various parts of the apartment that make it seem more familiar to someone who is used to being in an office — “breakroom,” “conference room,” “after-work drinks.” We have had zoom drinks with dear friends and exercise classes and other interactions via the interwebs. Including the amazing D-Nice’s online dance party.
It will get a little more challenging as the weeks go on — we are only just finishing week three now: and there is no end in sight. It will be summer certainly before any semblance of regular life returns. We have to think of being in this for the long run.
Of course, we are just sheltering; while life in our city’s hospitals for the doctors and nurses is by all reports a nightmare. It’s hard to stop reading about it. But to keep ourselves sane we have been limiting our news consumption. We used to watch PBS Newshour every night, but that show’s penchant for trying to get both sides of every story, however laudable normally, seems particularly outdated now. This is just not a story that has two sides in my opinion. We had a system in place for dealing with a pandemic complete with people in China who could have taken a close look at what was coming and helped us prepare. We had multiple advance warnings. We had plans, we had committees. Our president blew it. He has had to be dragged, flattered, prodded and tricked into doing his job.
The Times reporting on the question of whether or not everyone should be wearing masks has not been much better. Though I accept the idea that it might be better to wear them; suggesting that nine million hypochondriacs living in close proximity on an island should perhaps consider doing anything is tantamount to telling us it’s a matter of life and death. We might need them, but the medical professionals really do. And there aren’t any.
Still, skeptical though I was, I went online to start looking at DIY masks. Early on I had seen a video with a woman making them from paper towels and stapled-on rubber bands and had ordered rubber bands just in case. As I scrolled through, I saw mystifying entries for masks made out of avocado, bananas and even milk. I remarked on these to my elder daughter and wife who burst out laughing. “Different kind of masks,” my daughter said, charitably.
So now I try to limit myself to watching only one thing, the inspiring and sustaining Cuomo Brothers routine. Today’s highlight: the guest appearance on Andrew’s press conference by Chris, stuck in his basement with the virus in which Chris related his Covid hallucination that Andrew, the governor of New York had come to him wearing a ballet outfit and a magic wand.
Would that he had one. If we come out the other end of this in any kind of shape it will be our responsibility first to find a way to get rid of our president but more importantly to accept that this was just preparation for the battles that are coming. Battles we will never win if we continue to believe in our own exceptionalism. America’s thoughtlessness has had a long and unfortunate run. And it is our worst side. We have a better one too, just like everyone else. It’s outward-looking, hopeful, responsible and humble. It accepts the idea that the world’s challenges are our challenges, not the other guy’s. The sirens are sounding for us. And it’s time to listen.