The show that never ends

If we ever had to subsist on the money I’ve made as a musician, we wouldn’t be living in a pretty little jewel box of an apartment in Downtown Jersey City. We wouldn’t be in an apartment at all. We’d be dodging raindrops in an alley behind the Pathmark. This does not distinguish me. Musicians with a far higher profile than mine don’t manage to make money from it, either. Music is a delightful pursuit but a brutal business. Technically, I have been professional since the nineties: you’ve often had to pay some money if you want to see me play. But if you really want a song from me, all you have to do is tap me on the shoulder.

Not so long ago, we were planning to make my shoulders available for those taps. We had an album ready, and we were talking about all the topics and logistics that accompany the release of new music: tours, practices, videos, umbrella concepts that might make songs that aren’t, to be frank, earmarked for the Top of the Pops a little more accessible for listeners. Mostly, we imagined concerts. How we could make them a thrilling experience for those ensnared in my web of words and sound? Over the years, I’ve recorded quite a lot of songs. Some of them came out on my own albums, some of them are preserved on projects helmed by my friends, and some of them I thought twice about, and will never release. Every one of them was meant for the stage. No matter how silly a song of mine is, you can be certain that I fantasized about singing it to a crowded house. In the fantasy, that house was always Maxwell’s, and, sadly, and unimaginatively, that’s remained true, even as Maxwell’s is no longer around to rock.

Lately, I’ve begun to wonder if the long period of my life organized around applause is over, too. It’s hard to imagine standing on the floor of a packed club in the future; honestly, it’s hard to imagine returning to a club at all. I have no interest in performing on the Internet — to me, that’s as empty as being on TV. Social-media likes and digital hearts and virtual hugs leave me cold. Only a real connection with a real audience will do.

This summer, creative people are going to attempt solutions. They’ll launch drive-in festivals, and social-distanced concerts on rooftops, and Zoomapaloozas. Bless them: they’ll be doing what they can to keep a flame burning that has kept us warm for all the decades of our lives. I’ve written many times that I believe that music is what human beings do best, and I’ve always tried to make my small daily contribution to the ongoing story that justifies the existence of our species better than anything else does. I will always love music, and live music in particular. I just don’t see myself as a participant, or even an observer, any time in the foreseeable future.

This is hard for me to write. Many of the greatest thrills I’ve ever experienced have come from making music with my friends. Sometimes, that’s happened onstage in front of an appreciative audience, and sometimes, it’s happened in living rooms and stuffy rehearsal spaces and cramped Williamsburg basements. Playing music is an intimate act: you’re sharing waves, and ideas, and melodies and rhythms, and you’re most certainly sharing air. Models of coronavirus transmission weigh risks differently, but they’re unanimous in their condemnation of the sort of behavior that happens in the concert hall, or at band practice. Everybody heard the terrible story about the collective infection of the Mount Vernon church choir. Whatever they did, I’m sure it was nothing compared to the microbe-swapping stuff that we normally get up to at a pop concert.

Most of the people we know are, in one way or another, show people. Steven manages bands and runs festivals, and he’s been booking a new room on the Lower East Side. Early in 2020, that was all going nicely. Today it’s on ice. Brad was forced to scrap the summertime activities at the theater he runs in Upstate New York; he was pretty blue about that. With theaters closed in the city, neither he nor Megan have been performing or directing. I haven’t been able to sing, or slam a piano, or do goofy Cars covers with George, or Sarah, or Matt, in months. We could record at home, and post the mixes to a website, or make remixes, or scrap together a music video from old footage and share it with friends. But without the promise of a show, and the specific interaction with a live audience that music occasions, it’s tough to find the motivation.

It’s likely that this post is premature. We aren’t even through the worst of the crisis yet. I should be thinking about the welfare of my family, not the next time I’m going to express myself with my organ. Yet I know that show business in New York and New Jersey will be altered by the crisis, maybe irrevocably, and I can’t help but wonder if there’ll be a place for me, or any of the people whose projects are important to me, once the ground has stopped shaking. I know: get there first, and then worry about the specifics later. I could always turn on the electric piano and run some scales. That might even soothe my nerves, and ready me for re-entry, in whatever shape it takes.

Roll the bones

Yesterday the lockdown lifted. The state government helped. But even if they had chosen not to reopen the parks, that decision would’ve been overridden by the authority of the spring sun. If local greenspaces had been barricaded, people would have been out on sidewalks, in intersections, in vacant lots. Some traditions go too deep to be disrupted, even by a global crisis, and the first seventy degree day of the year is never ignored in New Jersey. Six days from now, the weather is supposed to be much worse. By then, the whole town may have developed a cough. We’ll know why: Liberty State Park was hopping.

We went by bicycle, which felt safer than walking. We could swerve away from clusters of people, we figured, and speed from crowded parts of the park to emptier ones. I’ve always felt bulletproof on a bicycle, which is probably why I write about bike rides as often as I do. All of the insecurity and vulnerability that I feel while doing every other activity?, it all falls away the moment I begin pedaling. There is no pathogen I cannot outpace, and no particle I can’t swerve around. On my bicycle I reach a clear and intoxicating strata of air, inaccessible to those with no wheels, or with (God help them) four. Usually these are productive illusions: they help me exercise, and they give me an artificial boost of physical confidence. During a pandemic, these beliefs are dangerous. I became scared of my own courage. I put on my mask, packed sanitizer, tied a string around my finger, told myself to stay vigilant. There’d be daylight, and people, and velocity; it’ll feel wonderful. Don’t get carried away.

Visitors to the park were encouraged, but not required, to mask themselves. Not everybody did. I was encouraged to see that most of the cyclists were masked. Many of the joggers weren’t. I’ve never been a runner, but I imagine that it makes very different respiratory demands of its practitioners than bicycling does. It may be difficult to run while masked. Joggers have taken a lot of abuse over the past few weeks: there’s a widespread belief that they’re generating and spewing the sort of large particles that could contain the virus. Pass a jogger who is breathing heavily, and you might just be courting infection. But there’s been no support yet for the theory that joggers are vectors for the coronavirus, and plenty of evidence that what the joggers are doing — exercising in the sun — is a public health good. My sense is that we’re throwing stones at an easy target, focusing our fears of asymptomatic spread on a class of people who the sedentary have always found suspicious.

We’ll know in a few days. We certainly shared the air with more than a few unmasked runners who, if infected, had to have been shedding virus. Everybody in the park did. But a particle-dispersing wind was blowing, and a UV-zapping sun was out, and, at least at 11 a.m., Jersey City people were doing their best to comply with social distancing suggestions. The park was busy, but people refrained from congregating in clusters. It’s scary to acknowledge that we’re the guinea pigs in our own experiments, but the awful truth is that the state of New Jersey has been a great petri dish for the better part of 2020. Without a definitive transmission model from scientists, we’ve had to draw our own conclusions, and we’ve decided that if we keep our distance, catching the virus outside is unlikely. That’s just a theory, but it’s one that’s backed up by eight weeks of lived experience at the epicenter of the global pandemic. The rat, if he could talk, may well have more to say about the maze than the observer does. It may well turn out that the reason that the virus hasn’t transferred all that successfully outdoors is because we’ve all been indoors. That’d be logical, and disappointing. But eventually, we’ve got to put our guesses to the test; otherwise, we’re never going to re-learn how to live.

Once off my bicycle and back at home, paranoia descended: did I touch anything?, were my airlock procedures before entering the basement sufficient?, was my little blue mask with the pink flowers saturated with viral particles from somebody’s slipstream? We left the masks on the fire escape to roast in the midday sun, and I retreated to the computer to catalog my regrets and brace myself for the coming symptoms. After awhile, I recognized that it was pointless. We need exercise. It isn’t healthy for either one of us to remain in the house for weeks. We court a risk by going out; we also court a risk by staying home. Either way, I’m going to be agitated. When we were out on our bikes on the verge of the park, Hilary asked me if I could stop looking back at her every second. Perhaps I could do it every five seconds instead. She was teasing me: she knows that years of worry have made me a head case. I tried; really I did. But I kept on looking back.

Gates of delirium

Modern life makes skeptics out of us all. No doubt you were skeptical about a hundred things before breakfast, and a hundred more since; if you put on the news, you can double that count. So many official stories feel inadequate, or messily manipulated for popular consumption, or just downright implausible. When you hear them, you cross your arms, angle your head, and give a suspicious look. This is the stance you’ve been forced to adopt as you’re saturated with sales messages of different sorts. If we all followed along everywhere we were pushed, we’d all be victims of overconsumption. Incredulity is the only way to make it through the day.

Yet this crisis is different. It has demanded compliance with strict recommendations passed down by medical experts who we don’t know, and who, on a sunnier day, we’d probably tune out. Given the way that infectious diseases spread, general adherence to these rules is mandatory: if fifty per cent of the country opts out of what the other fifty per cent is doing, it doesn’t matter how well the cooperative half sticks to the rules. The whole thing will fall apart — and people will die — unless we all listen.

This is exactly the sort of thing that we’ve gotten very bad at. Before we follow the suggestion of an expert, we want to know who he worked for, and voted for, and which side he’s on in the great game that has absorbed our national attention since the turn of the millennium. Should that expert be aligned, in any way, with a political figure we distrust, we simply tune him out. This has made it virtually impossible for our society to take action against a common inhuman adversary, and it goes a long way toward explaining why America leads the world in cases, and hospitalizations, and fatalities. The coronavirus found us fighting, quite desperately, with each other, and it’s exploited that division.

In order to stop the global pandemic, humanity must achieve herd immunity. There’s an ugly means to this end: everybody on the planet can get infected. Our best, and likely only, means of avoiding this awful outcome is a vaccine. Yet a substantial percentage of Americans — way bigger than you think — will not touch the vaccine if Bill Gates’s name is on it, or anywhere near it. They’ve convinced themselves that Gates is engaged in a global depopulation effort, or he’s angling to inject microchips into our bloodstreams, or he’s teamed up with China, and the W.H.O., and the 5G industry to weaken and sicken Americans, or he’s cruelly hoarding patents and wants to soak us all. Should we be lucky enough to develop a vaccine, these people are absolutely going to refuse to get the shot. Since the success of an inoculation program is dependent upon widespread compliance, this presents an enormous problem, and it’s one that we’re not taking seriously enough. We’re underestimating the ferocity of the resistance that’s bound to come if the state mandates vaccination. This is going to undermine our containment efforts. It might undo them altogether.

The theories about Bill Gates are negative ones, and therefore impossible to dispel. Just as there’s no way for us to disprove the belief that Hillary Clinton is sacrificing babies to feed her adrenochrome addiction, we’ll never be able to say for sure that Gates’s intentions aren’t diabolical. He might be concerned about the welfare of the planet, or he might be an evil orchestrator bent on population control; we’re not inside Bill Gates’s psyche, so his motivations will always be opaque to us. It is natural to harbor suspicions about rich and powerful people, and wonder about how they accumulated that power, and whether it’s wise for humanity to devise systems that allow so much influence to come into the hands of so few.

But rather than dismiss the medicine because we don’t like the messenger, it’s worth remembering a few things about Bill Gates. Gates is not an immunologist, or a virologist, or a physician. It’s arguable whether he’s even a scientist. He’s associated with vaccination because of his foundation, which has been supplying shots to poor people all over the world for many years. Those shots did not come directly from Bill Gates. They came from the laboratories of infectious disease experts whose work Gates has facilitated. The coronavirus vaccine, if and when it arrives, won’t have been whipped up by Gates in a Wuhan clinic; he won’t be wringing his hands, cackling over the brew, and salt-and-peppering it with silicon tracking devices. He’d have no idea how to do that even if he wanted to. In order for him to accomplish the heinous things that he’s been accused of desiring, he’d have to corrupt the entire medical system, and turn doctors who’ve devoted their lives to stopping the spread of disease into idiotic stooges. Out of necessity, I’ve become acquainted with some of these doctors, and I feel their bewilderment at widespread American recalcitrance, and our inaction in the face of a lethal threat. They’re not dupes. They know what they’re up against. We ought to listen to them.

That’s not always easy. One of the major drawbacks of capitalism is that it wrests the podium from scientists and hands it to their financiers. I’m not particularly interested in what Bill Gates, or Elon Musk, or Mark Cuban, or any other wealthy figurehead has to say about the coronavirus. Yet we’ve built a communications system that amplifies rich people and other celebrities, rewards them for adopting dramatic language, and drowns out more rational and measured actors. This has placed us at a terrible disadvantage, and it has also distorted our perception of medicine and how it works. That millions of Americans see vaccines as an expression of Bill Gates’s desires — whether altruistic or pernicious — demonstrates how far gone we are, and how detached from reality we’ve become. Gates isn’t going to pipe down, because billionaires never do. It’s up to the rest of us to listen carefully, apply some common sense, and understand that our collective problem can only be solved through collective action. A skeptical nation must develop a little faith in science. Our survival depends upon it.

The fog and the sunshine

Yesterday began our seventh week of isolation. This I know because we’ve been keeping a record of the days on the back of the door, and for no other reason. March moved deliberately, with each moment loaded with significance, and slow-burning questions: how am I feeling?, where am I standing?, am I a transmitter or a receiver, a fighter or a bystander? April was a smear. Bad news was constant and signposts were few. Eventually we will come out of this, we kept telling ourselves. But no one knew when.

Some scientists suggest that the virus will linger until July. Others, more cautious, remind us that the virus won’t go anywhere — it may be suppressed for awhile, but it’s likely to return in the autumn, hand in hand with the flu and therefore deadlier than ever. No one seriously thinks it’ll be gone by the end of this month. Nevertheless, the restlessness is widespread and palpable. We all want a summer, or, at the very least, a summer break. We’re ready for the sun to chase the pathogens away.

Maybe it will. I find it encouraging that there haven’t been many reports of outdoor transmission. If the coronavirus turns out to be a homebody, that wouldn’t be unprecedented, or even unusual: tuberculosis, for instance, is another disease that passes readily in enclosed spaces, but doesn’t often survive direct contact with the elements. It would be a tremendous relief to stop worrying about the air. A late spring and early summer of open windows would be healthy for everybody. Then again, it strikes me as possible that the reason that the virus doesn’t seem to be claiming victims on the street is because we’ve all been stuck inside. We don’t have any idea about what’s going to happen when restrictions lift.

This weekend ought to be a dry run for the summer to come. After days of rain and fog, it’s supposed to reach seventy degrees. The re-emergence of the sun will coincide with an easement of restrictions on state parks — here in Jersey City, that means LSP will finally be open. Will it be mobbed? Will everybody in town descend on the waterfront in a collective expression of our pent-up hedonism? Or have we learned new habits? Once we’re there (if we’re there), will we be able to maintain social distance, or were those who insisted on barricading the parks correct in their assumption that we couldn’t temper our enthusiasm for each other?

We’re not prepared to join the lines at Great Adventure. We’d be very reluctant to sit on a beach. But we’re eager to get on our bicycles and push the pedals with some vigor. In my dreams, I’m heading up a high hill; maybe it’s San Francisco, and maybe it’s the far side of the Golden Gate. I can feel that familiar tension in my legs, the resistance of the road, a little breeze in my face, some fog in the distance, and a thrill of acceleration as I lean forward over the handlebars and push harder. Tomorrow, I intend to make a local version of those dreams come true. We’ll see how many of my neighbors have the same idea.

Staggering to the wire

Like you, I have made it to the last day of a difficult month. Seven hundred and fifty eight of my Hudson County neighbors did not. Unlike more than a hundred thousand fellow Jerseyans, I am not an active case. I may be infected, or I may be virus-free; I may have developed antibodies, I may be defenseless against the next pathogen I encounter. Regardless, I haven’t developed any symptoms. My temperature and respiration are normal. I ought to be grateful.

On the other hand, I’m a nervous wreck reduced to brushing my teeth with a cup of boiled water. I look like I’ve been run over by two trucks and a hay wagon. Six weeks in the epicenter have made me jumpy and anti-social. Even if I wanted to go out tonight, there’s nowhere in town to go. The city is operational, in a way; in another, it’s been put into suspension on the assumption that we’ll be able to revive it later on. When we do, it’s unclear what it’ll be like, or where any of us will fit in.

The liquid coming from our taps remains a marvelous shade of beige. We’re the lucky ones: last night, elsewhere in Jersey City, people had no water at all and couldn’t even wash their hands. Communications from the municipal government were neither clear nor comprehensive. Chances are, they were every bit as blindsided by the main break as we were.

As citizens, we’re asked to evaluate our state and municipal governments on the basis of their foresight and their risk management skills. This morning, proof of their lousy job pours out of our faucets. During a pandemic, there is simply no way that construction should have been allowed to happen in proximity to a water main. Nothing that jeopardizes a vital utility should ever have been okayed. This seems elementary to me. Nevertheless, the state proceeded with this project, and the city didn’t stand in the way. I call this inexcusable carelessness — carelessness that should make us all wonder what other foolish things they’ve gotten up to while the rest of us are staying inside.

Here in New Jersey, we shake our heads at Southern states that refuse to shut down in the face of a public health crisis that requires radical action and brakes on transmission. We won’t admit that we’ve done a similar thing. Our version of negligence looks different from theirs. We’ll encourage the churches to close, which we’re right to do, but we keep on practicing our own state religion: runaway construction. We keep building, and overbuilding, on every available lot, and no matter what we imperil, we can’t stop ourselves. Our state government tells us that the projects that continue are the essential ones, which is just about the slipperiest slope imaginable, since construction has been essential to the tax base and economic life in New Jersey for decades. Elected officials have lacked the political courage to put a halt to this activity, and now, we’re literally bathing in the consequences.

I come out of April with renewed respect for my neighbors and a dimmer view of our local and state authorities. I didn’t think that people would take the pandemic seriously; I thought they’d be partying in spite of the warnings, angling to reopen bars and restaurants, and congregating wherever they could. I was wrong. And in spite of the occasional Confederate flag-waving rally, people all over the country have used their heads, made sacrifices, and treated the crisis with gravity that the moment demands. It’s mainly our elected officials who’ve been behaving irresponsibly — pushing cities and states to return to business prematurely, selectively enforcing shutdowns, compounding messes with more messes, and looking out for themselves. Once this is over, we need to examine the system we’ve put in place to select leaders, and ask ourselves why it reliably returns people to office who are only up to the job when the sun is shining. What we’re working with is no longer worthy of America.

Mixed messages

As it was.

Yesterday we walked to Berry Lane Park. I’d been looking forward to a little time on the grass, or just a seat on a park bench. But familiar comforts were tough to find at Berry Lane. We took a tour of the perimeter and, without stopping, walked home.

Berry Lane is a park with a visual signature. Its most famous feature is the line of yellow-gray silos in the midst of a wide lawn — a tip of the cap to the neighborhood’s industrial past, and an acknowledgement that this used to be a brownfield property. Those silos are still standing, but visitors can’t get to them anymore. Most of the lawn, too, is off-limits, ringed by a cyclone fence. Yesterday, only the hill in front of the silos was open for visitors. Hoops have been taken away from the basketball courts. The gates to the kids’ playgrounds were closed, and the baseball field was locked. The most vigorous activity in the park, and the loudest, too, came from the construction workers who’ve turned the green square at the foot of Bramhall Avenue into a building site.

I later learned that they were putting in a skatepark. That strikes me as a bizarre thing to do in the middle of a pandemic. The state government ordered a halt on all inessential construction projects on April 8. Some residential projects have paused, but the frantic building and overbuilding that has been the most reliable characteristic of life in Jersey City for two decades hasn’t exactly tapered off. As we in Hudson County are now painfully aware, construction continues on Duffield Avenue at the eastern edge of the Hackensack River. There, a crew drove a sheet piling into a thirty-six inch main, causing a massive spill that has denied clean water to Hoboken and Jersey City for the last eighteen hours. As I type, people in Journal Square and Marion are still reporting outages. It is hard to keep hands and surfaces clean during an outbreak when there’s no running water. It’s worth asking whether the state and the city have their priorities straight; it’s also worth asking whether they’re backing up their stated priorities with consequential action.

On our way back from Berry Lane, we passed Ercel Webb Park, set like a little emerald in the bezel of the neighborhood. Barricades were still up, but at least a few people ignored them; they’d either moved them aside or hopped the fence. It was easy to see why people in the neighborhood were so tempted. Webb Park was as inviting as Berry Lane, just two blocks to the south, was off-putting. Why had the city chosen to open a park under construction instead of the one that’s ready to receive visitors? It made no sense to us. Like so many of the decisions, large and small, that have been made by authorities over the past months, it seemed arbitrary, ill-considered, and destined to be sporadically enforced.

Elsewhere, people were out, and masked, and gathering supplies. The line at our local butcher’s shop stretched from the middle of the block to the corner. It is always nice to see an independent local business doing well during a crisis, and the people who run that butcher’s shop are good neighbors in every sense of the word. That said, the frantic collection of meat continues to be a deep-psychological response to the virus that I neither understand nor condone. Stories of threats to the national meat supply are reported daily: outbreaks in packing plants, words of despair from heads of the chicken industry, runs on the meat counters of area groceries. Two days ago, we learned that millions of pigs in Iowa would soon be euthanized. I doubt it matters all that much to the pigs, who were going to be slaughtered anyway, but it’s still gruesome to contemplate. Always attuned to symbolism, if little else, the White House announced an executive order designed to keep the meat industry operating. Here, in an echo of Herbert Hoover’s reputed promise of a chicken in every pot, was the chief figuratively throwing red meat to the tribe. How the federal government intends to keep sick people, and sick businesses, on their feet and on the job wasn’t explained.

Meat is not a necessity. Water is. Long after the break, a boiling order is still in effect for Jersey City, and we haven’t been told when it’s going to be lifted. For a city already suffering, the threat of a contaminated water supply is almost too much to bear. Suez, the company in charge of the utility has dispatched tankers to the hospitals, and I pray that these are sufficient. We’ve got another mess on our hands, and it’s probably not going to be an easy fix.

If I sound a little more irritated this morning than I have in recent days, I want to make it clear that it’s not Suez I’m mad at, or even the clumsy contractors who ruptured one of the city’s vital arteries. I’m annoyed at a state government that makes a great noise about tough construction restrictions, but allows construction projects to continue that further jeopardize the health of a sick city. I’m annoyed with a municipal government that should have put an end to this project, or at least forced a postponement until the worst of the pandemic had passed. I’m annoyed with City Hall for making a self-congratulatory park reopening announcement before the park was ready to be visited. I’m annoyed with the White House for prying an industry open, from afar, and without a real plan to safeguard the people working in that industry, and I’m annoyed at state houses who are forcing people back to business on the basis of nothing more scientific than their desire to avoid cutting unemployment checks. I’m mad at leaders more concerned about the optics of an economic downturn than they are with the public health that any economic progress depends on. I’m annoyed with the system we’ve created — one that makes leaders out of camera-friendly public-relations people, loud-talking executives who never seem to think about what they can do without worrying first about how they’re going to look.

We ought to be well beyond this now. Hard reality should have splashed the cold water on our faces. But I sense that this terrible April hasn’t taught the authorities any lessons that will help us cope with what will be an equally difficult May. Next month, we’re assured, America plans to reopen after a long and restless sleep, and yesterday was my indication of what that’s going to look like: a lot of crashing into pipes, and clashing objectives, and public-services inefficiently distributed, partial access, underwhelming returns, mandated labor, unsafe conditions, no big relief, no tickertape. We’ll cross our fingers, and hold our breaths, and wait for the word from the authorities that we can drink from the taps again. When you get it, will you trust it?

The arrow and the three bars

In March 2019, we were at Sloan-Kettering every day. I never got used to it. Every time I entered the building, I had the same stomach-ache. Every time I left, I felt the same relief. This wasn’t a reflection on the facilities, which, as doctors’ offices go, are very comfortable: no blaring televisions, no pharmaceutical advertisements, no crowded conditions, well-selected art on the walls presented MoMA style, consideration from the staff and schedulers. Waits were often long. They’d come in terrible threes: first, we’d wait in the reception area to be called into an examination room, then, we’d wait for a nurse to come in and take vitals, and then we’d have the hardest wait of all for the doctor. The surgeon was always tremendously sweet to us. Her name still makes my heart jump any time I hear it.

It’s not just anxious old me. My uncle, a celebrated doctor who has lived in the hospital district of New York for more than fifty years, admitted to me that he’s always been scared of Sloan-Kettering. Years before we ever stepped foot in the hospital, I’d get a private shiver whenever I’d seen the arrow and the three crossbars. Sometimes, during reflections, I’ve wondered whether I didn’t have a premonition that our paths would take us to Sloan. Then I realize how silly that is. Cancer is epidemic, especially in urban New Jersey. We were always running the risk of long waits in those examination rooms. They just came sooner than I’d have bet.

The doctor who first diagnosed Hilary wasn’t at Sloan-Kettering, but he’d logged time there during a long career. He didn’t exactly warn us off — he assured us we’d get the best care possible if we chose to receive treatment there — but he did describe the operation as a massive one, and hinted that the experience at the hospital could be overwhelming. Our cousin, who’d also worked there before choosing a more emotionally survivable medical specialty, echoed these sentiments. He called it a factory. Nevertheless, he, and my uncle, and everybody else in our families said the same thing: Hilary needs to go to Sloan.

We did. I worried, privately, that we’d made the wrong decision. The doctor in New Jersey had been very kind; better than that, he’d been responsive to all of Hilary’s questions. He’d called her several times to see how she was doing, and personally intervened in an insurance issue on her behalf. It seemed to me that we were trading a fruitful personal connection, one with a highly respected doctor, for a reputation. Once there, it took me months to warm up to the place, and the people, and even the aesthetic, which felt cold and aggressively Manhattanite. Eventually my misgivings were worn down by the friendliness of the support staff and the attentiveness of the doctors. Complete comfort still eludes me, and it probably always will.

The staff at the hospital would never put anything medically vital in a generic e-mail message. Nevertheless, e-mail correspondence from Sloan-Kettering sets off alarm bells, even when it’s just a confirmation of an appointment, or a health bulletin they’re surely sending to hundreds of thousands of people. Yesterday, a rare feeling of midday serenity was shattered by a message from Sloan-Kettering. It contained a link to a forty-minute phone seminar, held by doctors and nurses, about the effects of the pandemic on treatment and recovery. I didn’t want to click on it. But I’ve been worried, daily, about the status of Hilary’s immune system. Here were some answers — maybe not the ones I wanted to hear, but the ones I needed to hear in order to get through the crisis of the moment. In that way, it was not unlike a visit to the hospital’s main campus, and the doctor’s exam room.

The tone of the seminar, which you can hear right here if you’re curious, was broadly and blandly positive in the specific manner that I’ve come to expect from the hospital. The chief of their infectious-diseases unit reassured listeners that many Sloan-Kettering patients, even seriously ill ones with compromised immune systems, had recovered from the effects of coronavirus without needing hospitalization or intensive care. Another doctor talked about a test for the virus that the staff had developed, on their own, and before testing had been implemented in any widespread fashion in America. Any patient showing symptoms would be tested on the spot, and results would come back in twenty-four hours; in the meantime, they’d likely be sent home with a pulse oximeter. They made it plain, indirectly but unmistakably, that they’ve got personal protective gear, and they’re cleaning the facilities constantly. And they reaffirmed a policy change that, frankly, breaks my heart — until the hospital sounds the all-clear, visitors won’t be allowed to accompany patients to their treatments or appointments. The next time Hilary has to go to Sloan-Kettering, she’ll be on her own, in a mask, and I’ll be quaking on a park bench somewhere.

But that is a worry for another day, especially since there’s more than enough to worry about today. The message from the hospital simultaneously shook me up and settled me. I don’t want to have to think about Sloan-Kettering during a pandemic, even though I constantly do, and I’m grateful that they got in touch, even if it was via blast e-mail, even if I never want to hear their names, even if I owe them too much to quantify. I’m relieved that they’re making it through this societal crisis, and they remain focused on the thousands upon thousands of individual crises that circumstances compel them to contend with. I trust they’ll be there for us — however dispassionately, however diagnostically.

Openings and closings

Today, the Jersey City municipal government is reopening local parks. Not all of them, but enough of them to put a small smile of relief on my face. Berry Lane Park on Garfield Avenue is the size of several city blocks. It shouldn’t be too difficult for us to practice social distancing there. The sun is supposed to come out tomorrow. Should we feel up to it, we’ll take our bicycles to Lafayette, sit on a bench, or even sprawl out in the grass.

I’ve felt for a long time that the closure of parks — Liberty State Park in particular — was ill-considered. With gyms shuttered and parks off limits, joggers and cyclists were forced to crowd on to residential streets. Others gave up on exercise, which can’t be a good thing for their immune systems. We’re fighting this virus collectively, which means we need as many of our neighbors to be healthy as they can be. Then again, I don’t have any science to back up any of my suspicions, and in the middle of a pandemic, I’m reluctant to get loud in support of any risky activity. State and municipal governments chose to shutter the parks for health reasons. They must have had models that suggested that keeping them open would cause more people to get sick. Didn’t they?

Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they’re just chucking darts at a board, blindfolded by circumstances, and hoping to get as close to the target as they can. Honestly, I’d understand that approach. Months since the breakout, we still don’t know exactly what we’re up against. We’re going to try things, and some of the things we try are going to turn out to have been bad ideas. What I wish, though, is that governments would provide rationales they’re using for the prohibitions they’re putting in place, tell us what’s working and what isn’t, and admit it when initial steps turn out to have been taken in unproductive directions.

For instance, we never learned exactly why Jersey City closed municipal parks in the first place. We were told that this was done to make it harder for people to congregate, and pass around the virus, but nothing was ever done about the spike in pedestrians and runners (and sometimes cyclists, too) on sidewalks. A similar thing happened on the waterfront. The closure of Owen Grundy Pier squeezed people on to nearby boardwalks. It shouldn’t have taken weeks for the municipal government to recognize the foot-traffic dynamic their restrictions created. I have to believe that they were aware of the consequences of a park shutdown, but chose to keep it in place anyway.

Today, some of those restrictions have been loosened. Something has changed, but the city hasn’t been forthcoming about what that might be. Perhaps we’ve refined our transmission model, and we’re less concerned about catching the coronavirus in parks than we once were. Maybe our municipal leaders believe — as some officials in other parts of the country seem to — that we’re past the peak of the first wave of the pandemic, and it’s mathematically acceptable to allow people to come into passing contact with each others’ respiration. Parks may be safer for reasons that have nothing directly to do with pathogens: thirty per cent of the Jersey City police force, we’ve learned from the mayor, were down with coronavirus-related sickness in mid-April.

Or maybe it’s arbitrary. Maybe they simply feel it’s time to get back to business, and they’re beginning with the parks, because that’s the easiest step to take. Elsewhere in the country, governors are setting re-opening dates, behaving as if the virus has a sense of time and will stand down, cooperatively, the moment the calendar turns to May. Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt, it’s still incumbent upon them to explain the science behind the decisions they’re making. Right now, they’re still speaking in generalities — and that’s not going to restore public trust in institutions that are wobbling.

Going north

Hilary’s car was not made for highway driving. It’s about the size of a teacup, and it gets tossed about the street in a light breeze. Nevertheless, when the weather is right, we’re compelled by the prospect of the open road. Since the beginning of the lockdown, we hadn’t done much more than move the car around the block. We’ve been reluctant to push it any more than that: what if we couldn’t get gas, or what if we broke down in the hills, or what if it was just psychologically untenable to be far from home? But Saturday was so nice that we set our reservations aside. We put on our masks, packed hand sanitizer in our bags, and headed out to 1-9 and the Turnpike.

Our destination was an organic farm on the far side of the New York border — a main supplier of vegetables to many of our favorite restaurants on both sides of the Hudson. Those restaurants have been closed for more than a month. As many farms have, this one has adjusted by selling boxes of produce. We’d shopped at their farmstand a few times in the summer of 2019, and always had a delightful time when we did. It occurred to me that a visit during a pandemic might be tempting fate: not only would we be exposing ourselves to the outdoors, and to people we didn’t know in a place many miles away, but the actual experience of being on the farm might be uncomfortable. They might frown on city visitors.

We expected quiet roads. Instead, Tonnelle Avenue was busy as usual: people heading to work or heading home, getting groceries, hauling lumber for reconstruction projects. Many drivers wore masks. Initially I wondered why they were bothering, but at the very first traffic light, I understood. With windows down on a warm day, I was, on the passenger’s seat, much closer to the car and driver next to me than the recommended six feet. I reasoned that I had a few things working in my favor. The virus dies fast in direct sunlight, and the sun was certainly out. Air currents disperse small respiratory droplets fast, and a spring wind was certainly picking up. Cars in motion create their own currents. Nobody was talking or even looking my way. I decided to feel safe. It beat the alternative.

Electric signs suspended over Route 17 told us to stay at home and flatten the curve. Hilary asked if we were doing the right thing by traveling. We passed the white tents of the drive-through testing center on the side of the highway, and noted, to our relief, that it wasn’t busy. We knew that when they’d opened, roughly a month ago, there’d been hours of waiting for desperate people looking for a diagnosis. Many of the billboards acknowledged the crisis, either thanking doctors or advertising hospitals or assuring motorists that first responders were still on the job. Someone had painted a great thank you to essential workers on a bedsheet, and they’d hung it on a fence. The lots of the big-box shops on the retail strip were either overstuffed or completely empty: no activity by the Crate and Barrel and the Barnes & Noble and the Garden State Plaza, but cars parked on the concrete dividers of the BJ’s Wholesale and the Home Depot as people jammed into the stores. Lines of shoppers, virtually all masked, waited, six feet apart, to be allowed to enter; others pushed teetering carts back to their SUVs. A Smashburger hung a hopeful sign in the window: Yes!, we’re open. I felt great love for Jersey, for the diners and drag-racers blasting Latin music, the blind suburban sprawl and the roadside plazas, the musical instrument stores, big as airplane hangars, the banks and busted-out businesses and the rough imprint of the pharmaceutical industry, the gas stations and cloverleaf intersections and jug-handles, everything that had shaped my consciousness and made me the thorny character I am. Time after time, we’ve taken terrible hits. We’re taking another, but we’re not going anywhere.

We’d arranged a noon pickup at the farm, but the traffic in Jersey City made us late. When we pulled into the driveway, we were surprised to see it busier than we ever had before. People carried great boxes of lettuce up the hill and back to their cars; others were lined up to get pizza from the farm store. I’d expected an alleviation of the feeling that the virus was hovering above us and waiting to pounce, but the frenetic activity at the farm merely made me think I’d swapped one treacherous place for another. As I steadied myself, I heard my name called, and that seemed so improbable that at first, I thought I’d just imagined it. But no, it was our cousins, a married couple with a house on a Rockland County lake. They’d also taken the nice weather as a prompt to visit a farm. They were the first family members we’d seen in more than two months.

Not that they were easy to see: they wore masks, and sunglasses, and hats, and hugged each other to signify that they wanted to hug us but knew they couldn’t. He briefly took off his mask to let an impressively salt-and-peppered quarantine beard fly. Hilary told him he looked like a country farmer. Even underneath the protective gear, they both seemed healthy, happy to be out in the sun. This came as a great relief to me, because she’d been diagnosed with cancer in late 2019. Her case wasn’t as serious as Hilary’s, and she’d never had a terrifying prognosis, but I knew enough about the unpredictability of outcomes to worry about her daily. She’d finished her chemotherapy on March 13, right as the keys to the lockdown were beginning to turn. Radiation begins in a few weeks. Like Hilary, she chose Sloan-Kettering for her treatments, and, so far, the crisis hasn’t forced her to reschedule or delay any of the medicine she needs. I’ll take that as a positive sign — confirmation that the hospital is ready for whatever we might need from it.

The farm’s system turned out to be a manageable one: report to a makeshift desk by the barn, give a name, and wait while an assistant in a mask and gloves fetched the box. We never had to go inside the store. The whole transaction was blessedly conducted under a blue sky and the disinfectant effects of the sun. Once we’d secured our vegetables, we were in very good moods, and we were reluctant to make an immediate return to Jersey City. The day was there to be enjoyed, and the hills were Upstate green. A few months ago, there wouldn’t have been any question about it — we would have spent the afternoon exploring. We resolved to find a place to take a walk.

On the far side of the highway we’d taken to get to the farm, we found a lake, and a footpath. Masks on, we headed north. Before long, we were joined by many others: kids on scooters, bicyclists, families out for the day, and joggers, who I’d resolved to try to avoid. There was none of the furtive quality that I’ve noticed among pedestrians in Jersey City; these people were acting as they would have even if there’d been no crisis. This struck me as odd. Their county is sparser than ours is, but it has almost as many cases as we do. The virus, it occurred to me, was most certainly here: on the farm, on the footpath, in the air around us. I tried not to see the joggers as cloud-generators. That’s a terribly dehumanizing (not to mention un-Christian) way to see our fellows — as hosts, particle factories, reservoirs of lethal pathogens. Nevertheless, we’ve all watched the digital models of respiration as it happens, and the near-unavoidability of sharing air with the people around us, especially those who are breathing heavily. We, as city mice on a stroll in a part of the country where we didn’t belong, were likely occasioning the same suspicion. I want more from the farm counties than their vegetables. I want to know and love the people, too, and I want them to know and love me back. In 2019, trust was already in short supply. Where under the sun are we going to find it now?

Yesterday it rained

With full awareness of the emptiness of the metaphor, I was determined to turn a corner. I was going to set aside my worries and rededicate myself to writing and music, and maybe discover a little optimism hidden in somewhere in my outlook. After examining the subject from every angle I could, I’d decided for myself that it was safe for me to get back on my bicycle; if I was going to catch the coronavirus, it wouldn’t be by taking a ride in a quiet part of town. I would arm myself and get outdoors.

But yesterday it rained, and it was Hilary’s turn to feel blue. It came on her all at once: one moment, she was struggling with the camera on her laptop, planning to make a video for her classes, and the next, she was overwhelmed. None of her worries were unreasonable. What if she needed cancer treatment and the hospital was unable to provide it?  What if our friends lost their money and had nowhere to go?  What about all of the small businesses and little enterprises that had be come so integral to our daily experience — would they get the capital to reopen, or would we never see them again?  What if institutions crumbled away, and we were faced with an economic collapse that would deny her the medications she needed? Even after the immediate threat passes (when?), how hard will survival be?  

I tried my best to be reassuring. Sloan-Kettering, I said, had made it through the first wave of the crisis; they were sufficiently well-endowed to make it through the next. Her doctors were dedicated, and they wouldn’t give up. Even if there were supply shortages, they’d find a way. New York and New Jersey had always rebuilt — we knew how to take a hit, and we’d put the pieces back together again. No matter what, we’d stay tight. I read her a chapter of Silver On The Tree aloud. I reminded her of her bravery, and told her again that she was my hero. Eventually the fears subsided. We got up, steadied ourselves, watched a bit of a Harry Potter movie. Then we both returned to work.  

Earlier in the day, with the rain rattling the windows, she’d proposed a radical plan: instead of talking about the coronavirus straight through the day, we’d wait until four o’ clock in the afternoon, limit ourselves to an hour of discussion, and then, immediately thereafter, read a book together to change our mood. We’ve spent so long coping with the immediacy of the crisis, and that couldn’t be good for us. We needed a strategy for stepping back. Other people we know who don’t live in New Jersey have disengaged from the news, or they’ve chosen to radically alter their media consumption habits; they’ve erased applications from their phones, lost themselves in video games, or conspiracy theories, held their breaths and clenched their fists, tucked themselves away in corners to ride the storm out. Could we do something — anything — like that?

It wouldn’t be easy for us. Even with the television off and our phones tucked under pillows at a safe distance away, the whistling of the virus on the wind is still audible. Yesterday I learned that my cousin, who’d been one of the first in the state to get sick, had to return to the doctor. She was told that the tightness in her chest was anxiety, which was a relief, because so many of the people who’ve fallen ill have had difficulty kicking their symptoms. After a false dawn, the health of Hilary’s friend and colleague at the University has once again deteriorated, and she’s been forced get herself an oxygen tank for home use. The trajectory of coronavirus illness is a cruelly jagged line. People believe they’re getting better, and suddenly they’ll wake up worse. We don’t yet know the long-term effects of falling ill, or whether antibodies are sufficient to rid peoples’ systems of the virus altogether. All of that makes the future difficult to model, and hard not to obsess over.

Expectations for work have changed, too. A second spike in cases may drive the fall semester online. Hilary has adapted to virtual classes, but they’re an inefficient application of her talents. Her peculiar magic requires in-person contact to work. The semester she spent sidelined because of daily radiation treatments was hard for her to endure. Straight through chemotherapy, she taught — I’d bicycle to school to pick her up, arrive early, and watch her through the window of her classroom door, scarf over her shaved head and weaker from the chemicals than she wanted to be, but always in firm command of the lesson. And this, I realized, was the only therapy for her: she’d come out of the class energized, with observations about the text, or a story about an engagement she’d had with a student, looking forward to the next day, and never backward at what she’d endured. Me, I have peeked at the weather report, and I know that it’s going to rain again tomorrow. But today, the sun is shining. We’re going to turn that corner together.