A little more than one month ago, we visited New York City by train. We went to the Downtown Eataly to get the focaccia Barese that is just about my favorite thing in the world to eat: checkerboard-sized squares of bread with oil, olives, and cherry tomatoes. I can’t remember what else we bought. We entertained leaving the Oculus for a walk on the river. But it was cold, and the mood in the station was frantic. Everybody felt the storm coming. We returned to New Jersey and resolved to return to Manhattan when we could, even if it was just to get a sense of the scope of the tragedy.
We have not been back. On the recommendation of the hospital, our April appointments at Sloan-Kettering were pushed back to June. Museums and theaters are closed; even churches are closed. There’s been no good reason to cross the Hudson, and plenty of good ones not to. I can’t remember the last time I went a month without stepping foot in Manhattan — even when I was away at college in New England, there was always a reason to take a day or overnight trip to New York City. There’d be a show to play or to see, a friend to visit, a bridge to bicycle over, a section of an outer borough to explore. During Hilary’s treatment, we took long walks from the hospital district to the train stations that are Hudson County’s primary interfaces with Manhattan: Harlem to Christopher Street, Yorkville to the World Trade Center. We’d stop somewhere for lunch, or we’d stop to sit in a park, or we’d appreciate the architecture on a random block in the east Thirties, or we’d just let the rhythms of the city wash over us, lift us up, and carry us toward shore. We are Jersey people. But the hardest distancing we’ve had to endure is the one that has taken us away from New York.
Our understanding of what’s happening there is frightfully incomplete. Most of our closest friends live in New York City, but they’ve been shut in; they hear the sirens, and they get the same news reports and anecdotal accounts of horrors at the hospitals as the rest of us do. The numbers are staggering, hard to believe: more than a hundred thousand cases, tens of thousands hospitalized, more than ten thousand dead. That’s just what’s been reported. We recognize that the real counts are higher. Roughly three thousand people were killed on September 11, 2001. We’ve already tripled that number, and we’re still climbing blind. We don’t know how far we have to go. The top of the hill is impossible to see.
I remember the days, the months, and the years in the wake of 9/11: those shuddering mid-tunnel stops on subway trains, the screeching of brakes, the closed businesses and stations, the constant false alarms and overbearing police presence, the stop-searches and the patrol dogs, the rumors, the grayness that descended on a city that had spent the latter part of a decade swinging. But I also remember the upwelling of support from quarters of America where the residents profess to dislike metropolitan living, and, to be frank, metropolitans. Some of that was militarism, and excitement from the scent of blood on the wind and the thrill of reprisals to come. But much of it wasn’t. I reckon that many of those distant choruses of “New York, New York” were absolutely sincere. New York City represents the global aspirations of American society, and the promise of multicultural pluralism, more fully than any place in the nation. When it is in trouble, America is in trouble. Right now, New York asks people from other parts to the country to get serious and stay serious. Calls to reopen parts of society, prematurely and without a full understanding of the threat we’re facing, are affronts to people who’ve already suffered far too much.
I have never rooted for a business to fail. One of the last things I’d like to see is an economic collapse. But the very last things I want to see — pain and fear, sickness and death, and people separated by medical necessity from those they love — are all happening today. We can rebuild the economy; first, we need to survive. From the New York metropolitan area to the rest of the country: now more than ever, let’s get our priorities straight.