January to June 2020
With a sly grin, Edward pulls something from his pocket and hands it across the table to us, a gift to begin our dinner. Maria, smiling next to him, is in on the joke. We’ve just sat down at Sant Ambroeus in the West Village. The place is small, crowded, lively, and a three-course meal is half price – it’s Restaurant Week.
The present is a soft black rectangle wrapped in clear plastic, a little bigger than a cell phone. A wallet? A cloth napkin folded tightly? It’s plain looking and mysterious. I pull at the clear wrapping, at the flap stuck on with adhesive, notice black strings on the sides of the cloth, and touch the material. Soft, papery, lots of layers. Black face masks! – a packet of ten. That faraway virus is in the news, still at the periphery of our consciousness, though it’s impossible to unsee nightly images from China of people in full hazmat gear hovering over hospital beds. The fact that our masks are black – so chic! So New York! So Ed, with his darkly prescient presents. The four of us crack up.
“Just like the passports you sent us,” I tell Ed.
He’s hoping the masks will be another jokey present that we won’t end up needing, like the “Canadian passport” notebooks he gave us in early 2017. Blank notebooks whose inside covers are full of handy hints about surviving North of the border: Words to the Canadian National Anthem; words and phrases comparing American English to Canadian; Z vs. Zed. And for any word that ends in er, switch the letters: center vs. centre.
Masks in my purse, we’re onto other subjects: travel plans, courses James is teaching, the well-being of our adult children. The Restaurant Week crowd is noisy, almost raucous. It’s a strain to talk, to listen. Afterward, rearranging ourselves on the sidewalk, we vow another dinner soon, someplace quieter. Quick kisses in the cold and we scatter, James and I uptown to the subway, Ed and Maria on foot to their apartment by Washington Square Park.
Trump bans air travel to and from China.
I send A. an email about our plans to meet in April in Vietnam, like we did two years ago. “I hope you won’t think it’s wimpy of me to postpone going to Asia at the moment.”
The reply is almost instantaneous: “God no. I’ve been thinking the same thing myself. Not the best time to visit that part of the world.”
I am writing the last pages of a brief memoir in tears. 41,287 words. Countless drafts, the usual doubts and fears, Kate’s long-ago encouragement like a mantra: It will help people going through what you went through – my little health crisis. In a week I have to do a final PET scan to see if I’m clear of the deadly disease I caught before it became too deadly. Do you call it deadly just if it kills you or if it might but doesn’t?
My agent is out of town until Feb 23, so I’ll send the manuscript to her a few days later, and once I’m done with the scan on Feb. 24th.
MSNBC at 6pm. 71,000 infected people mostly in China, 1770 dead, mostly in China. 70 more cases confirmed on the cruise ship in Japan – a total of 356.
Trump says President Xi thinks the virus will go away by April because it doesn’t thrive in heat. Which he probably made up on the spot.
If the PET scan results are OK, maybe a trip to Miami for 4 or 5 days? Clear my head after months of nonstop writing. I have a free frequent flyer ticket. Cheapest room at the Nautilus Hotel for next week is $249 plus taxes, breakfast included. James will stay in NYC to teach.
My fingers dance across the keyboard typing the cover letter with the title of the manuscript: Life is a Near-death Experience. In 1985 when I published my first novel, the style was titles with two words. Mine was Slow Dancing, but there was Family Dancing, Museum Pieces, Self-Help. Now complete sentences are a thing: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. A Woman is No Man.
Maybe Life is a Near-death Experience.
Tomorrow I’ll know how close to death my life is.
A PET scan is the opposite of denial, the body laid bare, a thousand snapshots of my cells.
Nothing to eat or drink except water because when I get to the hospital, I have to down a quart of sugary goop that gloms onto any cancer cells – that’s what the imaging picks up. Cancer, if there is any, lights up on the scan. I still don’t like to say the word.
Last week, Dr. D. said: Be sure to give them my cell phone number and I’ll call you with the results.
As I’m leaving the hospital, Nancy texts me: Stock market down another 1000, after doing the same yesterday. She is a newcomer to the market, whereas I’ve been doing it for decades, but we grew up with parents who didn’t have an extra kopeck to put into a savings bank, much less money to invest.
We keep Ed’s black masks by the front door, and now they’re not so funny. I look for more on Amazon – also not funny. $59 for a packet of 50 flimsy masks. Prices already jacked up for panic buying. I grab two packets that’ll arrive in 6 days.
On the line where it says, “Frequently Bought Together,” they’re pushing hand sanitizer, but most are sold out or sky high. I nab three tubes for James, Emily and me. She’ll stay with us the weekend of March 13 for a concert, and I’ll prepare a care package for her.
9am. The phone rings. Dr. D.‘s name on the screen. The PET scan results – more than a week late. I’m a wreck from waiting, wondering what could be wrong.
So sorry I didn’t call you earlier, he says, we had a family emergency, I had to go out of town. The scan is fine.
Did I hear him right? Did you say it’s fine?
Yes. It’s perfect.
No problems at all? You’re sure?
Of course I’m sure. You’re going to live a long time!
He is a kibitzer but not a doctor who says things are fine when they aren’t, though it takes a while for me to absorb the message: I’m fine. I’m going to live a long time!
I say this to myself all day long, including at the gym, where I run for 40 minutes and note that I don’t feel winded. My body is not a disaster waiting to happen, a crisis invisible to the naked eye. It will take some time to readjust my thinking, to snap out of two-plus years of fear and treatments and uncertainty.
You’re going to live a long time!
When I get home, I’ll check the flights and the hotel. Maybe I can leave tomorrow because why not?
Nautilus Hotel: $239.00.
The news at 6 o'clock: COVID-19 is in 70 countries, and there are 90,000 cases. Footage of people in hazmat gear stumbling around crowded hospitals. Longshots of the Diamond Princess stranded off the California coast. The governor of CA refuses to let it dock.
Sunday March 8
When I wake up at 7.30, I walk down to Trader Joe’s for some panic buying. Three packs of TP (18 rolls), five cartons of almond milk, four bags of almonds, four packs of chicken thighs. If I do this two or three more times in the next ten days, we should be OK for a while. If only we liked survivalist food: Beans, rice, pasta. All we eat are fresh vegetables, salads, chicken, and fish, except when we go out.
Monday March 9
Stock market down 2000 points. Nancy calls: “Should I sell?”
But I am thinking: Should I sell? I know James will say no. He is against panic-selling, but shouldn’t we add the word “panic” to every activity, including vacuuming?
There’s an email from S.: Want to live dangerously and have dinner with us, either out or here?
No thanks! S. and her husband spent Saturday at a Columbia basketball game. The Diamond Princess docked today in Oakland, and people in hazmat suits helped them off. Twenty-one cases. Everyone will go into quarantine in four or five locations.
The virus will probably hopscotch across the country, West to East, the way the weather does, the way cultural trends do. Casual Friday, wife-swapping, primal therapy, hot stone massages, kale, juice bars.
That hopscotch will give us a few weeks before it hits New York full on, but I am already hyperventilating, and the last thing I plan to do is live dangerously. The medical crisis of the last two years has been danger enough for a lifetime. And James is still taking the subway to CUNY on 42nd Street, but he consents to wear a mask and gloves, winter gloves, so his skin doesn’t touch the poles.
Is it too soon to do another panic shop?
H.’s book launch on Wednesday at the Corner Bookstore. I want to show up, but how can I get out of the party afterwards? What to say? And I invited my friend P. She is fearless, travels all over Asia and never takes malaria drugs. P. will think I’m a wimp for being so nervous.
James insists on teaching on Wednesday. I insist that he doesn’t.
“We have to compromise,” he says.
“This is not about compromising. This is about you might die.”
“As long as CUNY is open, I’m going.”
CUNY is now the only college or university still open in the city, and students have taken to Twitter to protest.
Coachella is postponing their stupid ass festival but CUNY won’t close school????? #CloseCUNY.
When I tell James about #CloseCUNY, he says, I’m teaching my class tomorrow. Don’t worry.
His program is for retired people, and some are in their 80s, even 90s.
Old people are the most vulnerable, I tell him. How can they keep the program open? Are they insane?
I talk to F. on the phone. Her husband thinks he’s leaving in the morning to play concerts in Paris and Berlin. He doesn’t quite get it, she says.
We’ve got the same problem here.
De Blasio hasn’t closed the public schools.
I call K. who is a grad student at Bank Street and teaches in a public school part-time. She’s freaking out too, but she has inside information. De Blasio is closing the schools, she says, but he’s not sure when. How do you know? I ask.
A friend was in the steam room at the Harvard Club with an official at the Department of Education.
This is hilarious to both of us.
The steam room at the Harvard Club. Where all the best public servants hang out. Where state secrets are swapped in the buff.
But of course.
Laughter is good medicine, but drugs are better. I send an email to the shrink I saw when I was sick and tell him I might need another prescription for the Duloxetine I was taking then and that I stopped last September. It’s an antidepressant that also has an anti-anxiety note that I’m going to need – and it takes a few weeks to kick in. I don’t need the full dose you take for depression, just a cushion, a little lift, like elevator shoes.
Pilates class down the street at 11am, everyone on edge, most wearing masks and latex gloves. We do the exercises, wipe down our mats afterwards extra hard, though how can it matter if the bottles are filled with lavender-scented organic hippie soap instead of Lysol? Our teacher says she’s not sure whether the class will meet on Friday. I’ll let you know, she says. She had a fever last night and went to Urgent Care and had a test. I take a step back in horror and remember that she touched my fingers last week, showing me how to hold one of the bars. I slither out of the studio.
Across the street at Zabar’s, I buy two bags of coffee, a jar of almond butter, and three packs of ground turkey. I would buy more, but I don’t want to look like I’m hoarding, like I know something that no one else knows.
At 1 o'clock, P. texts to say she won’t come to the book launch because she has sniffles and doesn’t want to spread her germs, but I think she’s been reading between the lines of my texts and knows I’d be happy to get out of this myself.
I’ve read that the virus can linger on books for three days, so I decide that I’ll go early to the store, buy two copies, and leave – as long as H. isn’t there already – and not open the bag for three days. I walk across the park because I’m afraid to take the bus. It’s calming just to be there, the winding paths, canopies of trees, a bit of the country in the city. Nothing looks out of whack, the usual streams of people going East and West and around in circles at the reservoir. As I weave through the foot traffic and lay eyes on the water, I feel a petit frisson of New York pride. The Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir. The one time I saw her on the corner of 86th Street and Fifth Avenue, she wore black sunglasses the size of saucers and the longest, brightest red wool scarf I’d ever seen, draped around her head and each end flung back over her shoulders, her best incognito. Was it really her? I looked down and saw dark narrow pants and chestnut-coloredItalian leather boots that looked like they cost $500, in 1990. Yes, it was Jackie.
My phone rings when I’m still on the runners’ path – it’s the shrink responding to my email.
“I’m not depressed now,” I tell him, “but I’m very anxious, and I have a feeling it’s going to get worse.”
“Do you have a place you can go for a few months?”
“What kind of place?”
“Upstate? The country?”
“No.” What does he know? Will this be over in a few months? It won’t reach the countryside? Did he learn pandemic preparedness in medical school? “Nowhere else to go.” Do I explain that even if I had the money, I wouldn’t want a place in the country, that I don’t actually like the country except for four or five weeks in the summer?
“I’ll phone the pharmacy right away. I’ll give you a 90-day supply.”
I’ve come too late to the bookstore to slip in and out. H. is there and the small shop is full of people, but I hold up my hands nervously, as in Hello, don’t get near me.I won’t hug her or chat. She can see I’m a wreck, and I’d prefer to leave, but it seems so … impolite. Almost everyone goes up to her but keeps their distance except two younger women who kiss her quickly.
A man sits on the folding chair next to me, and I don’t do what I’d usually do, turn and ask him how he knows the author. I am trying not to breathe, trying to keep my breaths shallow, but the more I do that, the worse it is, because soon I’m wanting to suck in huge gulps. I love H.‘s reading and the stories she tells about writing the book, but I’ll fly out of here the instant it’s over.
Back home through the park. A clear sky, a crisp sunset tinged with yellow over the West Side skyline, and people still walking and talking as though this Wednesday is like last Wednesday and the one before that. Am I the only one losing it?
The news when I get home is that Tom Hanks and his wife have the virus. They’re in Australia.
Minutes later, Trump cuts off plane travel from Europe.
Emily’s concert this weekend is canceled, and she will not be coming to stay with us.
Nautilus Hotel: $199.00.
Thursday, March 12
A tweet flies across my screen: “Wouldn’t it be something if what brought down Trump was a Chinese virus named after a Mexican beer?”
Justin Trudeau’s wife has it.
The #CloseCUNY tweets are fast and furious.
At 5 o'clock I show a new batch to James. “I’m not teaching tomorrow. They’re closing. They just announced it.”
At 11pm, I see a tweet that Rachel Maddow interviewed a science writer for the Times who said 30 million people could die.
The next morning, I talk to J. on the phone. “Last night on Rachel, a Times guy said 30 million people could die.”
“No!” she says. “Maybe only ten million. Or five million.”
“I think we’re talking about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”
I can barely remember those few hours of bliss getting used to the idea that I don’t have cancer anymore. That I am going to live a long time.
Saturday March 14
Andrew Solomon posts on his Facebook page:
“I now understand something I never understood before. Why didn’t rich Jews in Berlin escape during the rise of the Nazis? I understand that workers in Poland couldn’t, but they could. But the sense that your pleasant life can’t really be disrupted is profound. I am torn between terror, and a strange, lingering disbelief.”
Nautilus Hotel: $159.00.
Would it be any fun at all in an empty hotel by myself? Empty sidewalks. Empty beaches. Neutron-bomb-like weirdness. Camus: “What gives meaning to travel is fear.” Is a hotel room in Miami Beach now adventure travel, like solo rock climbing or bungee jumping in the rainforest?
Later I find an op-ed in the Times, by three teachers:
“We are writing this on behalf of 64 teachers at New York City’s Stuyvesant High who love their students and love their school. That is why we need the city to close it.
"A day after Governor Andrew Cuomo banned public gatherings of more than 500 people in New York City, we are being asked to teach in a building of over 3,000 students, most of whom arrive after long commutes on multiple trains and buses across multiple boroughs…
"Our students are distracted and terrified. Many live in small apartments with grandparents that they do not want to infect. One student spent six periods crying in a department office out of concern that she would spread the virus to her grandmother living with cancer. Compounding their terror is the racism many of our Asian and South Asian students are experiencing as they commute to school. Not only is this a viral epidemic, it is a threat to our global mental health.”
I am haunted by the girl crying, by the students hounded on the subways.
Sunday March 15
Me to James: De Blasio says this might last for six months.
James: Don’t worry, everything he says is wrong.
He starts teaching and taking classes tomorrow on Zoom. He is incredibly calm, but he is almost always calm.
F. texts: We are ready to trade the Steinway for a supply of toilet paper.
Daniel Goldman, who led impeachment for Adam Schiff, has the virus. He had to drive to Connecticut for a test at 5am.
I always thought this would be Trump’s undoing because I remember how brilliantly Obama handled the Ebola outbreak—bold, proactive, on top of it. And I could see at once that T. couldn’t do anything that requires a scintilla of discipline.
The Fed announces – on a Sunday! – that it’s lowering interest rates to zero, to give the stock market a boost, which even I know is ridiculous, because it gives them nowhere to go when things get even worse. And they will. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Monday March 16
By 11am, NY, NJ, and CT announce widespread closings: movie theaters, gyms, hair salons. Restaurants and bars open only for take-out.
Nancy calls at noon. Her husband just got off the phone with his office – administrators at Columbia – and was told that New York City will shut down in 72 hours. We won’t be allowed outside. I must tell friends in the neighborhood – but not before I get the supplies I need, because my friends may buy up all the paper towels at CVS before we get there. Would I have betrayed fellow Jews in Nazi Germany to save my own life? Would I have bought my plane tickets out of the country and then told them Hitler was coming for them? Are our morals born with us, like our IQ, or are they acquired, honed, developed over time? How hard will mine be tested in the weeks to come?
James and I take all the tote bags we have because the city outlawed plastic bags on March 1, and fan out across the neighborhood, he to CVS for toothpaste, paper towels, soap, and KIND bars, and me to Zabar’s for more of anything we consume. As I pass by the bakery counter, I have a culinary epiphany. If we’re stuck inside for two weeks, we might as well have a few minutes of pleasure. I fill my basket with two corn muffins, two cinnamon rolls dripping with frosting – stuff we never eat – and an $8 box of cookies: Salted Caramel Chocolate Chip.
As I rush up Broadway, arms aching with bags, I pass the fancy new pharmacy where I once saw CBD gummies and thought of getting them for G.’s anxiety. It never crossed my mind to get them for myself. Until today. The Duloxetine hasn’t kicked in yet, and this is anxiety for the ages. For $27 I get a jar of multicolored gummies – 300 mg of CBD. The young – very young – woman at the counter is wearing a mask.
“Do these work?” I ask.
“The drops work better,” she says.
“What do they do exactly?”
“Take away anxiety. In case you’re feeling any.”
We burst out laughing. The city is under siege.
When I check in with F., she’s on her treadmill, watching the news and crying. She was at two orchestra rehearsals last week and the conductor kept saying, “It’s just the flu!” One musician said she liked the idea of playing on the Titanic.
“Can you fucking believe that?” F. said. “The Titanic? And then the concert was canceled.”
It is not a good sign when the Titanic – the ship, not the movie – becomes a frequent reference point.
All the tables and chairs are gone from Zabar’s Café and Starbucks on 81st St. Only take-out and delivery as of 8pm. The tri-state governors are acting as a small country. Maybe this would be a good time to secede and no one will notice.
The clinic in the Catskills where Nancy works as a pediatric PT has closed.
I don’t turn on the news often, but when I do, I hear that healthcare workers don’t have PPE. Personal Protective Equipment. They are reusing masks. People are making masks at home and bringing them to hospitals. Nurses are using plastic garbage bags as protective gowns. A guy on NBC says the CDC has issued a memo telling healthcare workers to use bandanas when there are no more masks. In China, they have full hazmat suits and goggles. We have trash bags.
On Twitter, I see a request from a doctor at Columbia Physicians and Surgeons requesting PPE, and I go to my stash, the black masks we’ve barely touched and the two packets of 50 that finally came days before. I call the phone number and reach an office at the hospital. “I have 50 face masks I can donate. They’re in a sealed package.”
Three hours later, I wrap them in aluminum foil so the person I’m meeting on 76th Street will know who I am. “I’m social distancing,” I tell her on the phone, “so I’ll just hand them off to you quickly.”
We spot each other on West End Avenue – a young woman with long brown hair carrying a plastic grocery bag that she opens and holds away from herself as we get closer.
“Thank you.” She smiles. I have no idea who she is or what she does, but she goes to a hospital every day without enough PPE, and all I have to do is stay home and #FlattenTheCurve.
On the other hand, I don’t need to watch the news to be scared. Emails come in many times a day with advice. Yesterday, for instance, these highlights:
1. COVID 19 is more dangerous than most people realize. It spreads very easily. It hits certain people disproportionately, including elderly, immunocompromised, those with diabetes, and other ailments. It has claimed the lives of perfectly healthy young adults.
2. The germs put out by people onto surfaces last for a long time, possibly weeks. It is wise to assume that all surfaces and objects in public spaces are full of infectious germs.
3. Our household is treating the outside world, any place where people go, as if it is completely covered by infectious germs.
4. We have tried to decontaminate our home by disinfecting every surface frequently touched by our hands in recent weeks. We wash our clothes and shower when we enter the house. The goal is to make our home a pristine, safe, clean living space, like an operating room.
I talk to K. again to find out how she’s doing. She just moved from years of living with a roommate way up Riverside Drive to living alone, down in the 90s on Broadway. “This really wasn’t what I had in mind when I wanted to get my own apartment. Solitary confinement.”
I’m reluctant to mention the terrifying email about turning our dwellings into operating rooms, washing clothes whenever we come in – not that we could, living in apartments without washers and dryers – but I have to say something, to make sure she’s safe. But she’s getting the same emails I am.
“Don’t you find a lot of advice you hear about buying groceries is for people who live in houses with garages and mudrooms?” she says sweetly. “You know what? Fuck you and your mudrooms.” The last part is not nearly as sweet.
Our neighbor directly across the hall plays the trumpet, as he often does, but today it’s only “Moon River,” not “Hello Dolly” or “A Fine Romance.” It’s pure, aching melancholy, nostalgia not just for Audrey Hepburn gazing into Tiffany’s window having coffee and a bialy, but for every single thing that’s gone, which is everything, including our innocence, the certainty that we would never find ourselves here, cut loose so far out to sea. So long Breakfast at Tiffany’s, hello Twilight Zone.
Just as the trumpeter’s long, last note fades, I hear the city’s other soundtrack, the blare of sirens, which come and go all day and night with chilling regularity. They must be ambulances because there can’t be fires every fifteen minutes. And many must be transporting COVID patients, because there are no cars on the streets to get into accidents and no street crime because even the criminals are afraid to go outside.
When James and I take walks in Riverside Park, which we never do otherwise – we go separately to the gym, or we used to – we talk and never look at our phones. He is used to being with people all day at his school, teaching two courses every term, and taking three others, and having lunch with his friends a few times a week. Now he’s on Zoom, and though the courses are on Wagner and literary criticism and makers of modern India, they’re talking about their children and their grandchildren and their terror in ways they never otherwise would. All this vulnerability comes out in James as a softness and a patience with people’s frailties that isn’t often near the surface.
Emily calls every few days or we call her, and when we hear from her, we’re talking about how she and Scott are coping and how we are coping and whether we’re going out and how scared we are and how the levels of our fear go up and down and down and up, pretty much all day long.
We are all in one enormous support group. But can we be in recovery if the trauma is still going on?
Since I’m still off TV and newspapers, Nancy sends me news she thinks I can use: “Astronomical increase in cases in NYC in next 2 weeks.”
When she calls, she says, “Don’t you want to leave the city?” She lives in New Jersey, in a house with a backyard.
“And go where?”
“Maybe you can go to Ellie’s since she’s in the assisted living.” Our cousin in Connecticut had to move suddenly, without time to clean out her house.
“But then we’d be in West Hartford.”
“It’s better than New York.” She watches the news about the makeshift hospitals in Central Park, the governor turning the Javits Center into a hospital, hotels and restaurants closed. Even though we grew up in the city and she lived here until she was forty-five, she thinks the New York on the news is where I live.
“We like it here.”
“But you can’t go out.”
“We take walks in Riverside Park. We buy food at Zabar’s. The shelves are packed.” And we’re on our third box of Salted Caramel Chocolate Chip Cookies, made in small batches somewhere in Texas that find their way, even now, to 80th Street and Broadway. It hardly qualifies as suffering. “It’s fine. Really.”
“Just think about it.”
Many of the people in James’ school for retired people have left for their country houses. They are Zooming from Southampton, Bridgehampton, Cooperstown. Their apartments in New York are in buildings that are now half empty, two-thirds empty. Everyone had fled, except us and James’ friend who lives on Madison Avenue. On March 5, her microbiologist cousin told her to stay inside, and she hasn’t budged.
I am fleetingly jealous of the people in the country not because of the country but because wherever they are, they have bigger kitchens than we do.
“Imagine your groceries are covered with glitter,” the man says calmly. “Your goal is not to have any glitter in your house, on your groceries, on your hands, or especially on your face.”
A blast of good news comes on this video making the rounds. It looks homemade, by a doctor who is demonstrating what to do with groceries once you bring them into your kitchen from the great outdoors.
There are dozens of steps to follow, like putting together an Ikea dresser, including soaking fruit in soapy water, but the good news – maybe the first good news in two weeks – is that eating food, once you’ve washed your hands and everything around the food, is unlikely to give you COVID-19.
The second piece of good news, not quite as useful: Nautilus Hotel: $99.00.
Three family members call us today and say: Things look bad in New York City. Are you all right? Is there somewhere else you can go?
We’re fine, we tell everyone, we’re lucky. We don’t have jobs driving buses or working in grocery stores or hospitals. I go to Zabar’s at 8 o'clock in the morning because it’s the closest grocery store, and this early there are fewer people and less virus in the air – in the store, the hallways of our building, and the elevator. But even at 8am, there’s a line outside. It’s cold out, and we’re still in shock, having to live this way. People barely look at their phones or at one another. Every time I enter the store, I’m amazed to see the shelves stocked with the ordinary things I want – packages of ground turkey and chicken thighs, baskets of onions and cauliflower – and more surprised to see the usual profusion of gourmet food, a wall of French cheeses, rows of Italian salamis, handmade raviolis with wild mushrooms, and huge refrigerated cabinets of lox and white fish and trays of chicken marsala and chicken Provençal and grilled salmon with capers and dozens of other dishes in the midst of what feels like – what is – worldwide devastation. I’m sure that one day I’ll come in and the shelves, the counters of plenty, will be empty.
News seeps in on Twitter and Facebook and from people I talk to on the phone. At 7pm we are going to open our windows and cheer for the healthcare workers and everyone else on the frontlines. In Italy on lockdown, people sing opera from their balconies, but all we’ve got are our windows and our big mouths.
I don’t remember it’s supposed to happen until I hear a rumbling outside and then I run to the window facing the river and push it up. Though there isn’t a single person at any of the hundreds of windows I can see, I hear the most extraordinary sounds coming from every direction, and the sound gets louder and louder and stays that way for three or four minutes, a swell of clapping, shouting, whooping, of people screamingyay and woohoo and yay.I’ve managed to turn on my phone and record 40 seconds of the swell and the images of dozens of buildings spread out for blocks without a single open window, a single human face, and still the roar of the crowd coming from somewhere, weeks of pent-up fear and grief and disbelief and loneliness and rage all funneled into this expression of our immense gratitude.
The streets are eerily empty. There is no more alternate side of the street parking, the four-times-a-week madness when New Yorkers have to move their cars all over the place so the streets can be cleaned. If you have a parking place, you don’t have to leave it. And you shouldn’t, because you will never find another one. I can stand smack in the middle of West End Avenue and take pictures of no traffic, no cars or trucks in either direction. It’s like a movie set or the scene in a nightmare. Yesterday morning, I waved to a man crossing the street, and he waved back. We both wore masks, but I could see he was smiling.
Checking in on people.
A friend who lives alone in the Village tells me at least half the people in her building are gone, out of town. She tells me she has her family’s contact information and her living will in a sack, hanging on the knob of her front door with instructions that she does not want to be put on a ventilator. And she leaves the door unlocked – all the time. Just in case.
Later the same day: When I see a tweet that Bernie Sanders has dropped out of the presidential race, I turn on the TV for the first time in weeks. Of the two old white guys left standing in this race, we’ve got our man, and one less public struggle to wage. The broadcast segues to Cuomo’s daily press conference just as he’s saying, “There were 779 Coronavirus-related deaths in the state in the last 24 hours. It was the highest one-day total yet…. The death toll will probably be this high or even higher for the next several days, but we are flattening the curve, thank God, thank God, thank God.”
An interview with Fran Leibowitz in The New Yorker about how she’s doing. “I feel that I am like the designated New Yorker,” she says. “Everyone else can leave.”
Make that three of us.
Later the same day: Lisa Belkin posts this on Facebook:
“Sad news this morning that my aunt, Maxine Levy, died late last night, after being hospitalized for COVID-19. She and my uncle said their goodbyes by Facetime on a borrowed iPad.
"Looking at the screen, she tried to fix her hair, saying ‘I don’t look like your bride anymore.’
"He answered, ‘I will always be your groom…’
"Stay inside, everyone.”
First Zoom dinner with friends who have decamped to their house in the Hamptons. At the building they left in New York, ten of the workmen have COVID.
A friend writes that two of the doormen in buildings on her block have died.
Amidst the slaughter, a simulacrum of the life we knew goes on. Concerts and conferences are canceled, but books continue to be published even though bookstores and book tours are on hold. Novelists Caroline Leavitt and Jenna Blum start an organization – A Mighty Blaze – to help promote new books from the safety of laptops. Between what they’re doing and Zoom and Facebook Live, the joint is jumping with readings and book chats.
A friend sends a link from Axios with this message: “They’ve known all along.”
“In late January, President Trump’s economic adviser Peter Navarro warned his White House colleagues that the novel coronavirus could take more than half a million American lives and cost close to $6 trillion… By late February, Navarro was even more alarmed, and he warned his colleagues, in another memo, that up to 2 million Americans could die of the virus.”
According to Steve Bannon, after he wrote the memo, Navarro was sidelined off the task force. Also Bannon: “In this Kafkaesque nightmare, nobody would pay attention to him or the facts.”
I shout out the window at 7pm so loud that for days my throat hurts, and I’m afraid I have the virus. Now when I hear the shouting, I take a lid to a pan and a big spoon to the window and bang the spoon repeatedly against the rim so it reverberates. If I ever tell the story of the pandemic years from now, trying to explain our terror and sadness and disbelief, and that we had no idea how or when it would end and whether we ourselves would survive, I will want to say that I was one of the people who made noise at my window to express my immense gratitude to the essential workers.
That’s how it feels in the moment, but late at night, listening in the dark to the atonal symphony of sirens, I wonder if there is also some shame in that stew of feelings, shame that all of us shouting out the windows are doing no more than that in this crisis, when so many others are unwittingly taking care of the sick and becoming sick themselves, when grocery store workers and subway drivers are dying. Yes, we are told to stay home and flatten the curve, but isn’t some of the gratitude we feel that it’s someone else and not us? And isn’t the shame that we dare not admit the darker side of why we’re so damned grateful?
A Zabar’s employee died of COVID at the beginning of April – a man who worked there for 32 years, upstairs in the stocking rooms. The story came out a few days ago in the West Side Rag. The store “refuses to comment,” says the article, and why would they comment? It would only draw more attention to the matter – the matter that the store might be unsafe. As unsafe as everyplace else.
New York’s numbers are going down. I can see the sloping trend on the COVID data website. On April 15, there were 11,755 new cases, and April 28: 3285. This is the third day in a row I’ve consulted the website – a good sign: my Fear-Paralysis Index has plummeted. I can watch the news and read the Times without cowering.
In all this exposure to the media, to the world outside my tunnel of terror, I learn that it’s Mother’s Day on May 10, and an idea takes hold of me.
Live from New York, it’s Friday night, and I’ve assembled a group of five women writers for a Zoom reading and discussion. Seven years ago, the writers were among the 30 contributors to an anthology I edited, all of us writing about a favorite gift from our mothers, a gift that revealed and explored these relationships. The essays were anything but sentimental; the depth of complex feelings provoked many public and private conversations about the ways of mothers and daughters. It never crossed my mind to bring together the writers after the initial publicity, but tonight, two months into this unimaginable nightmare, this gathering feels like a way of invoking the spirit of mothers, the persons whose elemental job is to take care of us. It surprises me that I am thinking these thoughts as I spent a lifetime trying to separate from my mother, but the feeling of helplessness, of being abandoned by the government is so profound, I might be a squalling infant in a crib. Among these women of a certain age, Margo Jefferson, Mary Morris, Cecilia Muñoz, Katha Pollitt, and Roxana Robinson, all of our mothers are gone, and if we have daughters, we won’t see them on Mother’s Day. But we’re here tonight, being reminded and reminding others of what “care” and “caring” feel like.
When Nancy’s medical clinic in the Catskills opens for the first time in two months, she insists they get her full PPE – masks, face shields, gloves, and disposable gowns that she changes between patients – and they do.
As I make coffee in the morning, I feel kind of normal. Lighter and happier than I’ve felt in months. It’s late spring, the shops that haven’t gone out of business are open, some restaurants have moved their food onto sidewalks. And the number of the state’s new COVID cases on May 23 was 1754. My New York pride is off the charts.
Ed and I were wondering if you and James would like to use our house in the Hudson Valley for a long weekend or a week. We are in Vermont now for the summer. Just pick a time and we can arrange things. Love to you both, Maria and Ed
Canadian passports, our first face masks, and now another gift that is completely of the moment.
Hertz filed for bankruptcy, but they are still renting cars. They swear they scrub every vehicle between customers, but I bring Lysol wipes and sanitize every surface with the windows wide open. Out, you stupid virus, out!
We’ll never learn to stop worrying and love the pandemic, but today we’re leaving our troubles behind. We’re going sixty miles an hour to another dwelling, tall trees, big skies, farm stands, a place that is not our living room. And at a house in the country, we won’t have to suit up and brace ourselves every time we step outside the door.
Even Designated New Yorkers need a few days off.