As has been pointed out to me by friend and foe alike, I’ve got a big nose. At this time of the year, it’s an itchy one. That makes the KN95 mask problematic for me. I find that no matter how I wiggle the little metal bar, it presses down hard on the bridge. I’ve got another mask I wear regularly — it’s blue, it’s got a flower pattern on it, and it looks very much like something stitched by a well-meaning girl on Etsy, which is exactly what it is. The fit is rather loose, if I’m being honest: it’s not quite a veil, but it’s nothing a surgeon would operate in.
I am glad I brought the tighter mask to the river. I expected there to be a crowd out under the sun, but I was unprepared for the overwhelming number of runners on the footpath. Liberty State Park was nothing compared to what I encountered on the East River: people getting their exercise quite aggressively, breathing heavily, some masked and some bare-faced, all absolutely determined to stay in rhythm, nervous pedestrians be damned. That seems to me to be a natural outcome of running, which does reward focus and insularity, but it’s a little disquieting to those of us who are moving slower and entertaining broader concerns. I’m convinced by those scientists who argue that it’s unlikely that I’ll catch the coronavirus from a passing jogger, but what about ten joggers? What about fifty? There’s only so much air the sun can blast and the wind can cleanse and disperse. Before the breeze took it out to the water to be refreshed, the air on the path had been cycled through the lungs of hundreds of runners.
An estimated twenty per cent of New York City has developed antibodies, which suggests that community spread is still happening at a terrifying pace. It’s not realistic to think that all of the runners on that path were negative for the pathogen. I am certain that I met some live virus by the river. My red zip-up jacket, my pants, the front of my mask, the lenses of my sunglasses: everything became a suspicious surface to me. When I got home, I rinsed myself as well as I could, but I can’t say I trust my decontamination techniques. Normally, I’m casual about what I touch, and what I don’t, where I tread, and who is exhaling in my vicinity; I don’t mind crowds, and I don’t tend to get annoyed by human activity. During chemotherapy, I had to cultivate some avoidance strategies. I’m going to have to figure out how to apply them to modern city living, because this shit is dangerous.
It was the first we’d seen of Manhattan since early March, so we might be forgiven a little euphoria. There was the city, just as we’d left it, only totally transformed. Many of the businesses downtown were closed, but lots weren’t; some restaurants, doing what they could do to stay afloat, kept their doors open and encouraged takeout. Most everybody we passed on the street had a mask on their person, but not every mouth was covered. We saw all sorts of medical fashions in action: the mask tucked under the nose for better respiration, the mask loosely slung around the neck for quick donning if the wearer had to enter a business, the mask that looked like it never came off, the full-face, Deadpool-style shroud, the re-purposed, this-is-a-stickup bandana, the gag masks meant to signify mild disapproval of the injunction toward caution. I never felt the genial, tacit denialism that I’ve encountered further away from Times Square: that sense I’ve gotten from some country folk that the cute city mice were making an adorably bigger deal out of the crisis than circumstances warranted. If you’re a New Yorker, you know.
Knowledge is not always prescriptive. It is in the nature of city people to gather, even when congregation is fraught. We saw many side streets on the Lower East Side that were essentially deserted, and where the viral load in the air couldn’t have been much to worry about. But it wouldn’t be New York if people didn’t go where the action was — in hazmat suits if they have to. And for the umpteenth time, it struck me that a society, and economy, organized around the fear of missing out is frightfully easy pickings for a fatal communicable disease. It’s a beautiful day; we all worry about skipping it. Others will get the Instagram likes, and the muscle mass, that should rightfully accrue to us. Staying indoors seems like a sin: wasteful, entitled, unproductive. Should we survive this, we have so, so much to unlearn.