Getting away

By text, Steven tells us that he braved the crowded aisles at Whole Foods because he missed New York City. This becomes especially poignant when you realize that Steven lives in New York City. Not in an outerborough, either: his little flat is on Delancey Street, right in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. For a week and a half, he’d chosen to confine himself there. Finally, he’d had enough. When he got back home, he was exhausted. Was the trip outdoors worth the worry? Who’ll be the last to die for a zucchini?

Realtors sell prospective New Yorkers on their tiny pads by reminding them that they pay for membership in a club as big as the biggest apple imaginable. No, you won’t have storage spaces or walk-in closets or eat in kitchens, but look!, there’s a cafe on the corner and a thrift shop the street, and who knows what chance encounters you might have while you’re watching your sudsy garments swirl around at the laundromat. That seems like sales hooey, but it really isn’t: life in a place like Manhattan means participation in a shared social experience, and that is, for millions, the nice part of the compromise. Those amenities have been stripped away by the coronavirus. Life has become a timid suburbanite’s worst caricature of the urban experience: cramped, dark, isolated, dangerous, trouble always lurking on the far side of the locked door.

George, who lives near the Gowanus, tells a similar story. He screws up his courage, puts on his makeshift hazmat suit, and readies himself to go out. Then he hears the sirens. After that, he contents himself with another frozen meal.

Much as I admire (and perhaps resemble?) a potted plant, I know I am not one. On April days when I’d otherwise have been on my bicycle, I’ve instead done nothing but work in front of this screen. We’re on the third floor of a Downtown building, and my little writing nook is next to a big bay window with southern exposure. I get plenty of sunlight. Hilary sees to it that ventilation is good: the moment weather permits, she opens the door to the back terrace. Our place is really just one long room, and we’re always welcoming in a disinfectant crossbreeze. Perhaps it’ll disperse any virus particles enterprising enough to make their way up here.

Yet for the last ninety-six hours, I’ve felt poorly: queasy, a little dizzy, not quite right. When I was prone to panic feelings, I always found bicycling to be the best remedy — if cobwebs had formed on my consciousness, a brisk charge up a hill was usually sufficient to clear them away. Push-ups on the hardwood floor do not seem to have the same effect. Hilary has taken to pacing the length of the apartment, from back-alley window to my little alcove on the street-side, in order to get her ten thousand steps. She worries that she’s annoying me. If she knew how happy I was to see her face at sixty-second intervals, she wouldn’t fret. Even as a child, I was always fond of a good game of peek-a-boo.

We’re pretty well provisioned. Eventually, though, we’re going to have to get some groceries. Landing an online delivery window has become impossible. Last night, I suggested a trip out to a Somerset County farmstand. Even if the state parks are all closed, we might find a stretch of road to walk down, or a deserted hill that seemed virus-free. We could grab whatever vegetables they’ve got on hand, return to Jersey City, and re-stock our larder. Along the way, we’d get our share of air and sunshine. Then my plans grew more ambitious: I imagined us on a trip to the Shore, stopping at the markets south of Ocean Grove, finding a stretch of deserted beach, listening to the ocean waves.

Is this practical? Probably not. The beaches are closed. The enclosed farmer’s markets are likely no safer than an ordinary grocery store would be. Any drive that takes us far away from home courts the risk of breakdown and one hell of an improvised trip back to Hudson County. But the bigger problem is that I’m working with outdated fantasies. I’m chasing a picture from 2012. And this is the dangerous flip side, I suppose, of having had magical times: they’re always so close to me that it can often obscure the cold reality of the present.

Just like you, I see the posted messages from health care workers. They’re asking me for a simple thing: stay home, stay out of the way, do whatever I can do to avoid getting infected. Don’t pile any more burden on a hospital system that is already stretched past capacity. Whatever small sacrifices I am making feel puny in comparison to those of doctors and nurses who are putting it all on the line, every day. Without hesitation, I call these people heroes. Why is it so hard for me to honor their request?