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New York Plague Notes (#2 & 3)

Greetings from the epicenter. A capital of culture is a nice place to be, but not the capital of a virus—or so you would think. Yet it’s sometimes better to be in the middle of a crisis than to watch it unfold from afar. Death is a drag, but the anticipation of it is even worse, so it’s a relief to draw straws and get the waiting over with. There’s a comfort that comes from being at the forefront. While the plague continues its spread across the country, the peak of infection here may have passed. 

Besides, the situation looks different on the ground than from a distance. My faraway friends call up worried, responding to reports of mobile morgues and hospital ships. Harrowing developments for sure, but they still don’t accurately reflect daily life here. Neither do photos of an empty Times Square, since it’s a place New Yorkers studiously avoid, as central to the life of our city as Ghirardelli Square and Pier 39 are to SF. An empty Zabar’s would be news fit to print. 

The streets have, however, emptied noticeably since last week. Union Square is down to one chess player, and most of the subway musicians have fled their posts. Sadly, the we’re-all-in-this-together spirit has also faded as fear has taken hold. Instead of cell phone cases, the sidewalk vendors are selling surgical masks. Paranoia seems rampant everywhere, whether it’s pedestrians keeping a twenty-foot distance on the street, or columnists in the AVA predicting an oncoming police state. Just as important as washing hands, it seems to me, is safeguarding our mental health, and striving to keep depression and conspiracy—not just each other—at arm’s length. 

I remember disasters in earlier eras, with crowds huddled around transistor radios on street corners waiting for news. Strangely, radio served just as crucial a need here in the first weeks of the COVID outbreak. DJs were the only voices offering calm and comfort to the masses while keeping the message upbeat. They acknowledged the public’s fears, yet soothed them with humor, kind words, and rousing tunes—and by delivering simple, homespun truths. DJs were the unsung heroes playing the role that government mostly left unfilled. 

Which is why, when they too began to disappear, it was a very bad sign, the proverbial canary in the coalmine. The radio personalities didn’t die so far as I know, yet one by one they were removed to “undisclosed remote locations” for their own good—playful wording that had an unintended chilling effect. Prerecorded airchecks took their place, with none of the warmth or charm. 

And that’s the feeling this week in the city that never sleeps: Life goes on, but with the hope at half-mast and a lot of the vigor gone. Pets are the only thing thriving in this crisis, as WCBS’s Broadway Bill Lee pointed out before he was unceremoniously whisked away. Cats are getting the attention they crave, and canines are being walked by their owners for a change, instead of the professional dogwalkers who shepherd whole packs at a time. 

People compare the deserted landscape and boarded-up storefronts to a zombie apocalypse, but to me it’s like living in Delaware in the 80s, which was even worse. Still, the city is unchanged in some respects. At 4:00 AM bodegas and a few restaurants have always been the only places open, and most people you meet are crazy or drunk. The change is that now 4:00 PM is no different. The city’s hidden, dark side is in plain view. The can collectors and homeless are still on every block, but the daytime population is sequestered around-the-clock, and commuters and tourists are nowhere in sight. 

The trains I mentioned running with regularity in my last report? They are few and far between now that the MTA trimmed everything but “essential services.” The predictable result is packed subway cars that make social distancing a joke. Trains are one of the few crowded places to be found, along with the plazas in Midtown which legions of young skaters have taken over now that the security guards are gone. The same goes for Washington Square, where the legendary fountain has become a skatepark, and the drug dealers are out in greater numbers than ever before. 

Besides the day-long wait outside the Park Slope Food Co-op, the only steady lines I’ve seen lately are in the Village, and not for the staples you might expect. Grubhub freelancers on bikes queue up at St. Vincent’s Triangle every afternoon for homecooked West African meals served by an enterprising woman with a van. In New York, even the delivery guys order delivery! Meanwhile on Broadway a crowd of weary people stand outside the Strand—not to get into the shuttered bookstore, but to line up single-file for the beauty supply shop next door. I braved that line myself, and it was well worth the wait. Being called “baby” by the counterwoman was probably the only affection I’ll receive this week. 

One last thing. Are you ready for some good news for a change? 

If you’re reading this, you’re alive—and it’s good to be alive. 

And in New York City, for the first time ever, you can hear the birds sing. 

Week Three 

I took a long ride through the middle of Manhattan to begin my week—and this weekly report—with a panoramic view. 

On the west side waterfront, men were boxing and moms were dancing with their kids. You wouldn’t guess this was ground zero of a pandemic except for the social distancing and face masks which have come to seem almost normal now. The widespread use of bandannas has given the city an Old West feel, and there were lots of bandits on the bike path. Some people can smile with their eyes, but not these folks—or most of the people I passed this week, to tell the truth. 

The population of Hell’s Kitchen was a bit warmer, made up of the usual split: half desultory doorway smokers and half enthusiastic waving guys in wheelchairs. But Times Square was empty, confirming reports I’d been highly skeptical of. In a five-block stretch I saw 40 or 50 people max, and half of them were cops. 

The Diamond District was rather lovely in its desolation, deserted besides a few more officers of the law and one extremely animated doorman with what we used to call a ghetto blaster pumping out Latin songs. He gave me what I’ve been looking for since this damn quarantine began: a cheer and a fist in the air. 

The nearby Japanese market was open, the Algerian embassy closed. Outside UN headquarters a solitary demonstrator beat the drum both figuratively and literally—a handheld and shallow drum of the variety I associate with Mickey Hart. “Eliminate the Communist Party of China” read his defaced Chinese flag. A lone translator edged past us to show her ID and gain entry from the security guard at the gate. Otherwise there were no signs of life. 

Ferries departed and arrived on the East River, though far less than in pre-apocalypse times. The throngs of joggers, however, seemed just as thick as they had always been. I was touched by the sight of a man running alongside his tiny daughters on bikes while the whole family kept up a marathon pace. The spray of water in the air warmed my heart, like the smell of jasmine in the breeze. Plague or no plague, spring had finally arrived in New York. 

I was reminded of a recent proclamation by our macho governor: “Now is not the time to be playing frisbee in the park with your friends.” Those were foolish words for anyone to speak, but particularly offensive coming from a powerful figure at a time when physical and mental health are essential to maintain, and ways to stay active or social at a safe distance are hard to find. Having failed to deliver the promised ass-kicking of the virus—or any meaningful tax abatement or rent relief—Cuomo made a bold stand instead against friendship and frisbees. He’ll fit right in as a presidential candidate.

That was just one example of the government’s increasingly paternalistic approach to protecting us. Loudspeaker trucks cruised at a crawl through Prospect Park, blocking joggers and ruining one of the very few remaining options for a moment of peace. Their broadcast was unintelligible despite being blasted at an ear-splitting volume, but a similar warning played nonstop on the subway, seemingly recorded by the same folks who did the voices of the parents for the Peanuts specials on TV. In case we still didn’t get the message, huge signs were erected around town telling everyone exactly how far apart they should stay.

The result was exhausting and insulting. Even someone like me who gets their news from anti-social media like the AVA is well aware of the protocol by now. “Thanks Mayor Bitch Ass” read some fresh graffiti on Fourth Avenue, though whether it was a response to this current waste of tax dollars or something else, I couldn’t tell. Meanwhile, the state’s largest healthcare provider ran ads telling anyone who felt sick to “get rest and binge-watch your favorite shows.” Nowhere did I hear the message that this pause could be a much-needed opportunity to get our lives in order, or simply a chance to read and reflect. 

I’d hoped the plague would lead to a flowering of truly direct messaging, but have only spotted a few examples so far. A poem that began “I have always been socially isolated” was taped to a lamppost in the heart of the Village, while manifestos wheatpasted near Union Square were filled with headache-inducing fine print. Graffiti has multiplied, but not to the extent I would have guessed, and mostly on the handful of upscale businesses that boarded up their storefronts in anticipation of civil unrest. “Cowards” says the note outside the Aesop outlet in Chelsea, though instead of being tied to a brick, it was printed neatly and attached with scotch tape. 

Finally, I have to take back what I said last week about the goriest developments not intersecting our daily lives. I hadn’t realized that the double wide semi I pass every day is a mobile morgue. Still, it would be shortsighted to see myself, and for us to see ourselves, as victims-in-waiting or the ones with the most to fear. This virus is not chiefly a New York or American problem. As bad as it is here—or in China, Italy, and Iran—it’s going to be far worse for the countries that are crowded and poor, not to mention countries like Yemen and Syria that are currently at war. The developing nations of the world have still barely had a chance to find their feet. I worry for them with this new plague. Relatively speaking, we are going to be alright.

One Comment

  1. Jonah Raskin April 17, 2020

    Thanks for your reports from New York. They are much appreciated by me, an ex-New Yorker who recognizes the neighborhoods and places you describe. My experience of the plague isn’t what I see in the media, which seems to stoke the fires and the fears.

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