Walking into walls

The sun shone, the temperature was mild, and Hilary wanted to go for a walk. We hadn’t been outdoors for days. We discussed a few other options: opening all the windows, a bicycle ride (but where?), a drive to South Mountain Reservation. But South Mountain Reservation is closed. We put on our coats and our makeshift masks and hit the street.

First we pulled the car around to a place where we could see it from the house. Then we set off south by foot. Our immediate destination: the garden center between Jersey City and Hoboken. We’d heard that nurseries had been deemed essential businesses. We had no plans to go inside; we just wanted to see how it was faring. We’ve had many lovely times at that garden center. It’s where we’ve picked out our Christmas trees, and gotten our decorations for the front of our building. In a normal year, Hilary would have already been to the garden center several times, and she’d have brought home new shoots and herbs to plant on the terrace. But we haven’t had a normal year in a while.

Streets were crowded with pedestrians. Closures of gyms, tracks, and parks have pushed our athletic neighbors right out into the middle of the road. Half of the people we encountered on Monmouth and Newark were jogging, and the other half were doing their best to avoid the joggers’ contrails. Jersey City has perfected the social distancing dance: wide turns on sidewalk corners, waits in driveways as pedestrians pass, crossing the street when all else fails. Nobody wants to agitate anybody further. Yet every odd non-interaction at every nervous intersection is a reminder of the difficulties we’re facing and a powerful reinforcement of our anxieties.

They’d shuttered the garden center. Box shrubs and starter hedges were visible in the outdoor area, but metal gates had been dragged down over the entrance. I wondered if anybody was watering the plants — and then assured myself that somebody must be. Caretakers were bound to come by. No? A sign on the door announced the store’s compliance with restrictions meant to fight the spread of the virus. We walked on. Ten years prior, the neighborhood that contained the garden center was mostly disused factories and rubble; now, a crop of fresh condominiums has bloomed in the vacant lots. A large orange-brown marmot used to live in one of those lots. He’d surface, look around bewildered (but never annoyed), and dive back into his hole. I searched for him on every bicycle ride into Hoboken, and often found him. I suspect he’s decamped to someplace quieter. I hope so, anyway.

Many of the streets in the neighborhood lead to the foot of the great stone Palisade, and gravelly, leafy, overgrown dead ends. Only one road winds up the hill to the southern verge of Jersey City Heights. In the cul-de-sacs, people played catch, throwing the ball from twenty feet away. Others greeted the sun in workout gear and did exercises along the curbs. A woman laced her fingers through a chain link fence and stretched. Daylight is a disinfectant, we’ve been told, and we’ve all wondered what the month spent indoors has done to our health. We considered taking the new stairway up, but decided it was best not to touch railings that hundreds of others must have already touched. Instead, we walked to the end of the road, made the turn, and began the slow climb to the top of the Palisade.

We’re both out of walking shape, and before long, we felt it. I watched Hilary for any sign that she was flagging. Out of habit, I checked her color to see if she was growing pale. After her chemotherapy treatments, I drove her crazy by hovering about her as we traveled home, spotting her on the steps down to the subway station, ready to catch her if she stumbled or felt faint. Yesterday I caught the echoes of those fears, bouncing off the brick towers of Christ Hospital at the top of the Palisade. At the same time, I became aware of a sense of liberation. We hadn’t yet found a Downtown block that wasn’t filled with other people. But nobody wanted to walk on this street. We had it to ourselves. I realized in a rush that I hadn’t been breathing properly; unconsciously, under the mask, I’d been keeping my lips tight and my respiration shallow as a safeguard against passersby. I brought down my mask — a muffler that had been given to Hilary during her treatments — and inhaled, as deeply as I could. It was good, wasn’t it?, to be out in the sun after too many days stuck under a roof, it was good to get commentary straight from the sparrows, it was good, even, to see the junk-food wrappers and crushed cans that have always collected in the weeds at the foot of the Palisade. I told myself it was good, because it had to be.

At the top of the hill, the crowds returned. Palisade Avenue was busy: with runners, with grocery shoppers laden with bags, with patients hurrying to the hospital, with people who’d parked their cars and were hurrying back to the housing projects on the other side of Route 139. We chose our direction by a means that has now become distressingly familiar to us, and not just us — if the sidewalks to the right are filled with people, we go left. I felt a bit like a clump of seaweed on the surf, bobbing here and there, swirled around by chance and currents we couldn’t control, changing directions, getting in the way.

The south end of Palisade intersects with Newark Avenue, the wide diagonal road that leads past the Harsimus Cemetery and connects Journal Square to the Downtown. Even on a gloomy day, there’s always foot traffic on Newark. Yesterday, its wide sidewalks were an open-air training facility: people jogging and cycling up the incline, others stopping to snap photographs from the top to the hill, everybody careful to maintain distance, nobody talking, but all dead set on completing whatever activity had brought them outside. It occurred to us that we could bypass the crowd by cutting through the parking lot at Dickinson High School. The City opened the school lots during their half-hearted attempt to clean the streets, and hasn’t yet closed them. Dickinson is a landmark that everyone in Hudson County recognizes: a great yellow beast, big as an airport terminal, right at the lip of the Palisade. We’d gone past the building thousands of times, but we’d never been on its grounds.

We found ourselves alone. If this was a shortcut, it was one that didn’t interest our neighbors. The Dickinson grounds was a more varied place than I thought it would be: I saw statues, and picnic tables, and a big red gazebo in the valley between the main campus and the athletic building, and at least one gravestone, right by the main entrance. A beloved teacher, maybe? It felt rude to inspect — this wasn’t my school. From the top of the hill, the view was impressive — I could see down Newark Avenue to the Brennan Courthouse, and, in the other direction, the Harsimus Cemetery and the far Western edge of the Downtown. The sun was as high in the sky as it was going to get; everything felt illuminated, the city wide open, unscrolled and laid flat on the table like a navigator’s map. My shoulders relaxed. For the first time in days, I felt some limited dominion over my own life. We walked over to the big steps that led to the Downtown entrance, only to realize that they were locked.

Well, of course they were; the City didn’t want people using the Dickinson campus as a thoroughfare. Only the parking lot gate would be open. We checked the other exits just to be sure. They were locked, too. Then, right near the top of the steps, Hilary discovered a narrow footpath. It curved away from the school, in the direction of the Downtown, on a narrow terrace atop the slope that fell away, dramatically, toward the street. It pointed toward a stand of trees; both sides were shadowed and aggressively overgrown. We have never missed an opportunity to take a footpath into the woods. Hilary turned to investigate.

I did not immediately follow. The footpath gave me a fantastic view of Waldo Street, a sharp incline flanked on both sides by handsome townhouses. From the top of the hill, I could apprehend the whole thing: a brief and dramatic topographical uptick, an interruption in the grid, the end of the Downtown and the beginning of the rest of New Jersey. The trees in the copse that marked the perimeter of the Cemetery were beginning to bloom. I was just about to take a picture when I heard Hilary cry out.

She’d gotten tangled in a fallen branch. Part of the branch lay at her feet like a tripwire. The other part jutted upward and worried at her legs. I hurried down the path to help her. The branch was covered in thorns. One of them hooked on to her pants; another caught her coat. Disengagement was no simple matter. There were so many thorns on the branch that it was difficult to know where, or how, to grab the wood and detach it from her clothing. I knew she’d been pricked, and I didn’t want to hurt her further. After a struggle, she twisted free, grabbed the branch, and flung it, with some energy, down the slope.

Her thumb bled. She’d been jabbed. I looked ahead, and realized to my horror that thorn bushes crowded the path on both sides. I felt, at once, that whoever had been drafting the day was laying the symbolic imagery on thick, and should probably rewrite with an eye toward probabilism. After that, I just felt dizzy. I remembered all of the times I hadn’t been able to save Hilary from pain: the long drive to the suburban clinic where she was diagnosed, the crushing symptoms brought on by months of treatment, the fears I’d had for her when I felt that those around her weren’t taking care of her, the long fall into misfortune. Wasn’t there more I could have done? In a crisis, is it ever justifiable to stop and look at the scenery?

I steadied myself; not completely, but enough to lead us home. My inadequacy to the moment, which I’d concealed from myself on my way up the hill, was now plainly visible to me. We were out and about in a town where thousands have gotten sick. We wanted to forget that for a few hours, but we couldn’t. When we arrived at home, the first thing that Hilary learned was that the mother of one of her students had died. A week ago, she’d taken a turn for the better and been discharged from the hospital. Then, like so many others, she’d been struck by a bigger wave. Nothing feels healthy, Hilary told me, overwhelmed. Not a walk, not a drive, not the sunlight, not the passage of time. Then she revived. She had a day to finish. I quickened my own pace, and tried to keep up.