These days, my oldest grandchild, age 11, often telephones me from her home in Westchester. We have not seen each other since mid-March, and we are not used to so extended a separation. We normally spend at least a weekend a month together. So, she calls to tell me about her day, to ask for advice choosing the right word to complete a verse of the song she’s writing. Then she asks me to tell her what my day has been like here in the valley of the shadow of COVID-19. Last week, she issued a challenge.
“You should record your observations, Lala. Write down what you see, what you hear.”
I wish I had more to share with her. It embarrasses me to admit that, in truth, I am observing little. My sequestered life leaves me out of the loop, experiencing this crisis vicariously. Watching through the veil of social distance puts me at odds with my natural inclination to engage with the world around me.
In fact, I hardly know myself. At 72, I have always taken pride in being somewhat intrepid. Growing up in a remote region of upstate New York, I spent many teenage nights listening to the Milkman’s Matinee on WNEW in New York City. I would lie in bed straining for reassurance that the vigilant denizens of my emerald city were monitoring the myriad dangers that lurked beyond the mountains. I nurtured the delusion that confronting the things that threatened me meant I could control what happened to my family and me. Then I grew up and migrated to the city, became an insider at last. I traded my childish notions in on a thick skin, an existential shell that enabled me to be nosey, be involved, observe from the inside of whatever’s going on, to calmly assert myself wherever I might be relevant.
These days I am never free of the unfamiliar knot of anxiety in my stomach. At night, I succumb to sleep only after setting the timer on the television. Its mindless banter drones out the perseverating voices in my head shouting, “Run. Run.”
When I wake, I walk.
Each morning, sunrise finds me on the far west side of Morningside Heights. I dodge the occasional runner, sidestep the meandering drunks, race the sparse but speeding traffic and hike toward Riverside Drive. It’s a great time to be out. The eerie city is more like it was in olden days — two months ago — no emptier than it is on any predawn weekend morning I would venture into. Pink wisps of clouds linger over the Hudson, and a floral profusion of varicolored petals dance contentedly in the springcold breeze. Finches, cardinals, robins sing without restraint. For them the absence of people means the absence of danger.
I notice that there is little garbage to mar the pristine landscape, and the lifeless blue gloves strewn insouciantly about remind me why the sudden clean is as disturbing as it is delightful.
Too soon light begins to blanket the streets. The absence of cars, the desolation of sidewalks, the darkened storefront windows revive the irksome panic, and I hasten back to my little apartment, to my illusion of safety.
My seventh floor windows overlook a dormant Catholic Church and its tenants: a vacant parochial and empty charter school. Cars park in front of the buildings all day, all night, unencumbered by the “NO PARKING ON SCHOOL DAYS” sign. No steady stream of worshippers, no laughter of children at recess, no chatter of activity outside the corner bodega clutter the air. Occasionally someone plugs in a boom box and blasts loud rap while he cleans his car. Several times a week, a zealot with a microphone stations herself on a nearby corner to scream end-of-the-world warnings to the deserted streets and open windows. Sometimes at night a drunken cluster of errant youngsters gathers to blast music and throw bottles and chicken bones at the church walls. Until the FDNY arrives and points a megaphone blaring, “Please disperse . . . COVID-19. . . . “
Because there is nothing I can hope to control, because I cannot dive into the fray, I deliberately limit how much I take in. From up here, it’s easy to look away from the harbingers of disaster. I avoid electronic babble and listen mostly to my I-Tunes library, When I do seek something to watch, I am more likely to choose Larry David reruns than Governor Cuomo’s Dire-side chats.
What I see from my precarious tower is mostly a world torn between fear and disbelief. It is fear that governs the new abnormal, a fear exacerbated by the counter-intuitive way we are forced to respond to the crisis. It is the wont of most humans to lean on one another when we are threatened. This virus forces us apart at a time when we most need to cling to one another.
All around me fear expresses itself as derision or anger. A neighbor blurts obscenities then laughs maniacally because I don’t join her unmasked self in the elevator. When I pass her from my 6-foot distance, she scowls. On Amsterdam Avenue, fights break out over small disagreements. In grocery stores, beleaguered cashiers yell at customers who ask too many questions.
Everyone feels powerless. A weak imposter president, who would gladly sacrifice every one of us to the gratification of his ego, endangers us all. This reckless narcissist defies science and encourages the covidiots, who worship him, to flaunt their disregard for herd immunity. He suborns sedition by promoting rebellion against state governments that insist on sheltering. Our citizenry is caught between logic and farce, between sanity and idiocy. Confusion augments the fear and compounds the anger.
Few among us are free from financial concerns. Many in this time of Covid-19 teeter on the edge of an ominous precipice. One of the lucky few with a job I can do remotely, I am obligated to keep working. I cannot afford to be ill. No net is in place to catch me. Should the scourge erase my limited salary or eliminate my miniscule annuity, I would be left without resources.
I am not unique. Widows and divorcees in NYC are typically under-equipped for disaster. We comprise a confederacy of older New York women, who have cast ourselves adrift on an ageist, sexist sea of limitations. When I pass my cohorts in the grocery store or on the street, I can see my strain mirrored in their eyes, etched in their faces.
Also reflected there is the lingering doubt that we will ever see our progeny again. We are repeatedly told that we are at great risk. Who among us will get out alive?
Many of our children, now in their thirties and forties, comprise the essential work force and are constantly in harm’s way. My son’s wife, a fearless physician, who specializes in the care of newborns, is back at work in her hospital, having wrestled with the disease and won. My daughter’s husband, too, a pilot for an international airline, has probably been through an unconfirmed case. These two and sare emblematic of their co-generationists. Even as they protect themselves with maximum caution, will they be safe enough?
I hate to disappoint my granddaughter. Her mother the doctor would be a much more reliable narrator, were she less engulfed in the maelstrom of responsibility with more freedom to record what she sees.
The only light I am able to shed is a lesson I learned in high school French class, where first I encountered La Peste, Albert Camus’ chronicle of a plague year in Oran, Algeria in the 1940s. Frequent references to this book have been cited since the pandemic began. And for good reason. Though Camus meant his pestilence to symbolize the Nazi occupation of France, it is a perfect mirror of our current morass.
The Oran plague is allegorical, Camus’ exploration of what happens when The Absurd engulfs reality and renders it incomprehensible. A cautionary tale. There will always be, Camus asserts, diseased rats of one kind or another that will rise up and roust the world from its complacency. There is no antidote that can change uncertainties to reassurances, threats to promises. No messiah is on the way. Our only hope of vanquishing our foes is to find the best that is within ourselves and live with grateful enthusiasm in our present, providing the most comfort we know how to give to those we care about.
We can’t know what’s coming, and there is only so far we can go to stave off disaster. The rest is submission. Submission to the belief that all things pass. That there will eventually be sunshine or a rainbow. . . .
Or at very least a nice big puddle to jump into at the end of the storm.
18 April 2020