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In Sydney the seven-year-old niece has cut her own hair. It looks pretty good. The kid has style.
Here on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I’m lying in bed at 6am, straining to hear the sounds of the city, but there’s no planes above, no helicopters, no horns honking, no sirens–despite all the reports that say sirens are constant–no cars rolling by with canciones played ear-bleedingly loud, no yelling or laughter floating up from the street below.
No one I know has died of the virus or been hospitalised. Yet. But plenty of my friends have had it. Close friends. All their cases, but one, confirmed by their GP in a video call. There’s no where near enough testing here.
Their cases have ranged from losing taste and smell for a few days, to three weeks of fever, exhaustion, and a crushing vise on their lungs and knife in their heart. Both ends of that spectrum are officially described as mild.
If you don’t wind up in hospital on a ventilator, it’s mild.
I’m in full flare, unable to get out of bed. It’s my usual chronic illness, not the dreaded virus. It feels ridiculous to be lying in bed weeping over an illness that won’t kill me and isn’t contagious. Yet here I am.
Friends of mine have lost relatives–an uncle and a grandfather, so far. I know that list will grow. I pray the beloved elders and ill and immunocompromised in my life, of which there are many, will not join it.
I am, of course, one of them.
This flare has terrified me. Not because of the pain–I’m used to that–but because it’s reminding me forcefully of how vulnerable I am. How vulnerable so many of us are.
I’ve been going out for long walks early every morning: across the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges into Brooklyn and back, along the East River Parkway and the mostly empty streets of the Lower East Side, Chinatown, the Financial District, Soho, the East Village.
Sometimes I walk for hours, masked and gloved, making sure that I’m home by eight am. If I walk any later than that there are too many people jogging the bridges and the Parkway, six feet of distance becomes impossible. Joggers run past almost touching me. I recoil.
I avoid the west side of the island altogether. Too crowded.
I’m not sure if I’ll be brave enough to go outside again. I don’t think my body can cope with even a mild iteration of the virus on top of the illness currently ravaging me.
The last time I hung out with a friend in real life was back in early March. I visited Julia at her hat shop on Seventh Street in the East Village, sitting on a stool more than six feet away from her. We disinfected our hands and anything we touched.
We hadn’t seen each other in months, I’d been in Sydney, where I retreat each year for three months to see family and friends and avoid NYC’s winter. I hate the cold and lack of sunlight.
I told her about living through the bushfires, she caught me up on her life here in the city.
Showing far more foresight than is usual for me, I bought a turban. As my hair gets longer and more unruly without its once-every-four-weeks maintenance from Chereen in NYC and Julianne in Sydney, I’m wearing that turban more and more. As my hair turns into a mullet–*shudder*–I’m contemplating copying the niece and hacking at it myself.
I was with Julia in her gorgeous shop for more than four hours. Two people came in. One was getting the final touches on her hat for a formal occasion in May. (So not going to happen.)
She was annoyed by all the fuss about the virus and everything being closed. “Everyone’s over reacting. It’s just like the flu. It will only affect old people and sick people.”
As one of those sick people, I bristled.
Also? She was at least in her sixties. How did she not see that she’s in the endangered demographic?
The second person to come in was a delightful vintage hat collector, who was bringing some recent finds for Julia to repair. I collect vintage clothes. He was my kind of people.
He kept almost touching his face and stopping, muttering, Don’t touch your face. Don’t touch your face.
The same admonition echoes through my head all day long.
I admired the gorgeous vintage brown wool Borsalino porkpie from the sixties he was wearing, flecked with gold and orange, and asked him hat questions, while he danced on the spot, not meeting my eyes, replying succinctly.
He kept his distance, touching nothing. He doused his hands in sanitizer twice in the short time he was in the shop.
The woman meanwhile did not keep her distance and touched everything with the surgeon’s gloves she’d clearly been wearing for hours. She did not once use hand sanitizer.
After she left we disinfected everything.
It seems a long time ago. I bet her attitude has changed. She lives in the city. She’ll know people who’ve had the virus, who’ve died. She may have had it herself.
At first it was hard for any of us to believe this was real.
Now everyone wears masks and keeps their distance. We give each other thumbs up and say, Stay safe. We all know someone who’s had it.
Increasingly many of us New Yorkers have had it ourselves and are wondering if that makes us immune. No one knows for sure.
No one knows much of anything about the virus. How many people are asymptomatic? Do masks help or give a false sense of security? I know I feel safer with a mask on. Should I?
We do know this will go on longer than any of us hoped. There will be no formal events in May. No WNBA season. No Olympics in July. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll get to do my annual sojourn in the city of my birth come December. Will the airline industry recover? Should it?
When do we get our lives back? Do we get our lives back? Money earning opportunities disintegrate, we lose jobs and insurance and shelter and hope. Friends and family are remote and the internet only partially bridges that gap.
NYC is the epicentre of this plague in the USA, of the world.1 Yet here in my part of the city I can’t see the makeshift hospitals in Javits or Central Park, the hospital ship in the harbour, or the refrigerated death trucks.
If anything there are fewer homeless people on the streets.2 Only a handful of people have begged me for money since I got home. I don’t carry cash anymore. It’s too dangerous. All I can do is say sorry and donate to the organisations helping them.
I take the stairs to reduce my viral load. I’ve not seen anyone else in the stairwell. I rarely see my neighbours, or hear them cough, and when I do we nod to each other from different ends of the corridor. This catastrophe is happening behind closed doors.
We don’t ask how we’re doing. We don’t chat. We’re scared of each other now. We’re scared of everyone.
They could be dying in their apartments and I wouldn’t know.
It’s a lonely apocalypse. The only people I’ve talked to are my building’s lovely super and the masked and gloved clerks at Essex market during the early morning times reserved for the old and the sick.
I disinfect everything I buy. I keep running out of bleach. My hands have developed eczema. It seems a small price to pay.
I thought the bushfires were terrible and they were: the choking smoke blanketing my beloved Sydney, filling the hospitals with people who can’t breathe. Those fires are also part of a global crisis, of climate change, but one that hasn’t yet affected everyone.
But this silent, invisible COVID-19 disaster, has completely transformed all our lives. It’s isolating us, sickening us, and killing us.
And bringing us together. People I haven’t heard from in years have been reaching out, checking up on me. I’ve been bonding with strangers online about vintage, sustainable, and circular-economy clothing.
This really is the worst of times, all over the world, and I know that no amount of dressing up in beautiful clothes changes that. But at the same time many of us privileged enough to shelter at home are being sustained by beauty, by laughter, and joy.
We’re finding new rituals to sustain us as we cope with isolation and disease. We make music and art and reconnect.
There are new sounds in NYC: bird song, louder and more frequent than I’ve ever heard it here, and the new ritual of the 7pm whistles and cheers and banging of pots for the health workers’ shift change. I well up every time I hear it but I smile too.
Suddenly I’m connected to my neighbours: seeing them on their roof tops, balconies, at their windows, down on the street, all of us full of gratitude for the ones working so hard to save this city, to allow it to be crowded and noisy and overwhelming once more.
The way it’s meant to be.