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During the coronavirus pandemic, the everyday becomes the absurd.
I was born and raised in Southern California, and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2008. Last year—after a tough breakup—I moved to New York City (a long-held dream) in late March, 2019. A writer (stories, novels) from a writing family—my mom is an author, and my uncle a novelist—I came like so many relatively “young” writers from the West (I’m thirty-seven) to The Holy Land, the universe of major publishing, literary agents, and connections.
Once here I stayed in two different Air BnBs for about five months before snagging a small two-bedroom apartment in a third-floor walkup in Harlem. The price was right. I use one bedroom for my writing/editing office—I make a living as a book editor—and the other for my bed. I moved into the apartment in early August.
I have conflicted feelings about Harlem, and about New York City as a whole. It seems common to feel this way about The Big Apple. On one hand there are so many things to do: Opera; theatre; film; literary readings; museums; art galleries; etc. You can walk around Central Park or any of the other parks all over the city. If you get bored of Manhattan—hard to do—you can just swing over to Brooklyn or Queens on the subway. There is always something.
On the flipside, and this is something I noticed immediately: People here rarely smile. I quickly learned—especially in Harlem—to lower my gaze when I walked past. Most seem to be constantly irritated and in a rush to get from A to B. There appears to be severe Tunnel Vision. I understand it to be a logical survival mechanism living in a frenzied, anarchic city.
Fast-forward to late March, 2020. I have now lived in Manhattan for over a year. I like it. I detest it. I have grown to respect it. I plan to be here at least a few more years. I joined a writing group. I have pumped out an incredible amount of prose in the past year. I understand the zombie-like gazes of people on the subway. I can even read on the subway, with all its rocking and metallic screeching.
The virus has hit us all globally, of course. But New York City has become the national epicenter. Cuomo has been telling us for weeks that we don’t have enough hospitals, enough healthcare workers, enough supplies. He’s been telling us to self-quarantine, to stay inside as much as possible, even if you are young and healthy.
In Harlem, many seem to be ignoring this. I live on West 130th Street, at the corner of 5th Avenue. Until about two weeks ago there were still teen and early-twenties people gathered together playing basketball. Each time they did I squirmed, sitting at my desk writing, watching them out my window. I thought about that orange ball, all the potential for contracting the virus. Finally, the city sent people to take down the hoops and lock the black iron gate putting up red COVID-19 WARNING signs.
One night when I was in bed—reading the 700-page behemoth, East of Eden, by John Steinbeck—I heard young voices in big groups, and loud noises; shouts, screams, laughs. I ignored it for a while and then gazed out my window: Groups of teens walked around in gaggles of 8-12, talking, laughing, not social-distancing, arms round each other’s shoulders, no masks, no gloves, as if it were just another Wednesday. Different groups shouted at each other. They carried bottles. It seemed like a Harlem-version’s scene from Westside Story, only this wasn’t a performance; this was, most certainly, real life. I thought of how Cuomo was being cautious with his choices and his language; he wasn’t going to force New Yorkers to stay inside. Clearly he was worried about social unrest. All those kids out of school. All those young people unemployed. The dissipating economy. It’s a bad mix.
The next morning I walked down 5th Avenue in the late March sunlight. It was a seemingly perfect spring day, ironic given the global pandemic ravaging our nation, killing people in the tens of thousands. I’d been avoiding the news but it didn’t matter: Everyone I knew told me all about it. And I saw my New Yorker news headings which were emailed each day.
My routine was becoming regular during the pandemic: Wake up, drink Irish Breakfast tea (with milk), read whatever book I happened to be plowing through, text a few close friends, avoid the news and social media, write—I’d started writing Book 2 in my autobiographical literary trilogy—and then go for a mid-afternoon walk. I’d go down 5th Ave to 125th Street, and then cross over to Marcus Garvey Park. I’d then walk either around the park to the west and trudge down Mount Morris Park Ave, to 120th, or else I’d zigzag through the park. Often as I walked down 5th I’d hear sirens going off; but I’d noticed, recently, that the sirens were becoming more and more frequent. The sirens also varied; there were different speeds and beats to the sirens, and they were significantly louder.
That morning at Marcus Garvey Park I saw a massive circle of maybe forty kids—pre-teens and teens—surrounding two kids engaged in a wild, rugged fist fight. I stopped, and, from across the street, I watched. No masks. No gloves. And besides…they were all standing side by side, touching each other…and two kids were fighting physically. An African American man next to me filmed it on his iPhone. He glanced at me and we shook our heads. It made me realize that, no matter what might be happening in the world, when you’re that age, and you’re male, it doesn’t really matter…because it’s not directly happening to you.
I thought back to my own youth. I am now sober from alcoholism almost a decade. My drinking years were 17-27. I got into all kinds of reckless situations back then. I was an irresponsible, immature, angry rebel who didn’t give a damn about anything or anyone except himself. I was lost, scared, and confused, and I wore a mask to conceal the wealth I came from, the intelligence and sensitivity I possessed, and the fear I carried. If it’d been the year 2000 when coronavirus hit, when I was 17, would I have acted differently than these kids? Probably not. I might have acted worse.
And yet, having some distance between then and now, I felt shocked and angry, seeing them casually battle each other like the apes that all boys at one time are.
Another day—in early April—I walked down to the northernmost part of Central Park, at 110th Street. Often I’d walk the Harlem Meer, a small man-made lake. For a moment I’d feel sane and normal, like we weren’t under attack by a virus. In the hot, gorgeous spring weather—blue skies, sunshine, 70 degrees—there were joggers and walkers, people circling the Meer, sitting on rocks near the water, dancing solo on the grass with headphones, sitting on green benches, chatting on cell phones, hula-hooping. I’d call a friend and circle the Meer. Or put my headphones in and listen to Johnny Cash sing his elegiac version of the song Hurt.
One day, after walking the Meer, and passing dozens of others on their own journeys, I tromped back towards my apartment at a little before 7pm, on Lenox Ave. After passing a grocery store—people standing six feet apart with masks on waiting in line outside—around 113th, I suddenly heard the hundreds of clanging pots and pans and yells, signaling the national routine now of making noise each night in support of the healthcare and essential workers, all the people who are making our country run as smoothly as possible given what we’re going through. I smiled, hands in pockets, hearing it.
At 123rd Street I passed the Atlah World Ministries church, which has been classified as a “hate group” and routinely posts signs bashing gay people, LGBTQ, non-believers, and many others. This time the sign said that the “enemies of Harlem would die of the coronavirus.” It added, “Repent now.” I was, again, shocked.
I walked east, back into Marcus Garvey Park. Wandering a ways through the park, I arrived at the entrance/exit close to Madison Ave. I saw a group of seven little white girls standing in a circle and throwing a Frisbee; they wore no masks, no gloves. Their parents stood nearby, talking to each other, smiling and laughing. Across the park on the green grass was a crew of four white college kids; they hurled a volleyball around to each other, also smiling and laughing. When people ignore mortality, when they display a blatant disregard for others’ safety: What can you do but accept it?
When I walked out of the exit of the park onto 124th, I started moving towards 5th Ave, to head home. Just before I reached 5th, I saw a woman, red shirt tugged up exposing her belly, her pants down, defecating on the sidewalk. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this in New York City. (You see everything here: It is very common to see grown men peeing in the street at all hours of the day and night.) But the act struck me in that moment as a metaphor of our nation and of the virus.
I think the metaphor works on two levels. On one level, this woman is probably a victim of poverty; of, to some extent, a racist-capitalist system wherein the people at the top—rich white men—run the nation. She is a symbol, then, of oppression. On the other hand, I felt like she—or her act of shitting on the street—represented all of us right now: Here we are—America—caught with our pants down, crouched embarrassingly, unprepared, doing what we should have been doing in private. What I mean by that is: We weren’t prepared for this virus and the implications of it. How could we be when we have a president who has cut the CDC in half, who has not even fully recognized that this is real? But, deeper than Trump, I think there is a distinctly American phenomenon happening wherein we didn’t believe, on some delusional level, that it could “happen to us.” We’re the United States. We stay safe. It always happens to “them,” to those “over there.”
When you hear about college kids being unwilling to part with their Spring Break partying—perhaps at the lethal cost of their own more-vulnerable parents—you know we’ve reached an all-time cultural low. Social Media, the internet, Fake News, Trump, divisive politics on both sides; the gargantuan chasm between the wealthy and political establishment and ordinary people: all these and more play a role. Donald Trump is our president. “We” elected him. He won. That in itself should be metaphor enough for where we’re at. He is all of us; he is a perfect mirror for our current cultural values. Don’t pretend that you’re exempt just because you didn’t vote for him. You aren’t. Trump represents much more than politics. In fact, he might not represent politics at all. (Rather, a cultural rage, narcissism, nihilism.)
Each day I talk to friends back in California who are worried about me. “New York is the epicenter,” my mom said several times, sounding concerned. All I can say is, I know. I read books. I write. I finished a whole novel draft of Book 2 of my trilogy in—believe it or not—just under a month. (It’ll take me a year to revise.) That’s the joy of having a calling, a passion, during Covid-19: It gives you soul-fire to be warmed by. I get to write fulltime (book editing work is stalled right now), which is my dream. I get to read as much as possible. I get to observe the fanaticism and lethargy and nonverbal rage that has infected a whole city.
A few evenings ago I took a late-night walk. Several blocks east and south of my apartment, I approached a hospital. No one was out; the streets were deserted. It was extra bizarre because it was around 10:30 at night on a Saturday. Usually these streets would be exploding with activity. I was deep in my head, thinking about my developing trilogy, about my writing career, and about a woman I had—pre-virus—been trying to date. As I was about to pass the entrance to the hospital, four hospital employees wearing bulging white uniforms and serious face masks—they looked like NASA astronauts—shoved the black double-doors open and walked out holding a zipped-up body bag with a body inside of it.
I stopped, watching them. My heart pounded. One of the men in white looked up and saw me; he didn’t speak, but he nodded very briefly up and down. I understood the signal: Yes, this is a Covid-death.
I waited until they passed and loaded the body into the back of a van.
Once I arrived at my street, I strolled slowly in the dark night and tree-shadows towards 5th, way at the other end from Lenox. I was the only one around. I passed dozens of brownstones, the stairs rising up to black doors. I thought of the clusters of loud teens that night. The fist fight, the kids circled. The little girls playing Frisbee, and the college kids throwing the volleyball. I thought of the woman shitting in the street. The dead body.
Who are we? I asked myself. Or, perhaps more importantly: What have we become?
I came to New York City to learn, to chase my writing dreams. And I have certainly learned a lot, and made important connections. But, during Covid, I am seeing the fraying thread of humanity, of society, of civilization. We seem to have lost the ability to love one another, to care. We have lost sight of empathy. We don’t view each other anymore as fellow humans, but as dots being erased on a piece of global white paper.
Still in Manhattan few smile. You learn to thicken your skin here, to become hardened. It’s not all bad. There is beauty in this city; there is forgiveness. The clanging pots and pans rising out of solidarity. The essential workers, doing their tough duty. The delis and liquor stores and markets remaining open. The parks. Online Broadway and opera productions. The Zoom gatherings to support one another. The constant phone calls. Family and close friends. In an ironic twist we’ve all been cleaved apart like never before…and simultaneously brought together in new ways. Bizarre how things happen.
Sometimes it’s a struggle to find the good, but if you look long enough, and carefully, you will find it. I have found it only in small spits and spurts. But it’s there.
Michael Mohr is a published, Pushcart Prize-nominated writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in: Concho River Review; Adelaide Literary Magazine; Bethlehem Writers’ Roundtable; Fiction Magazines; Tincture; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest, Writer Unboxed, Creative Penn and MASH. Michael edited White American Youth, a memoir by Christian Picciolini, a former neo Nazi who changed his life and is now an anti-hate activist (Hachette, Dec 26, 2017) as well as Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism. Christian’s MSNBC TV docu-series is airing now (Breaking Hate). Michael was recently on the cover of Books & Buzz Magazine. His writing/editing website is www.michaelmohrwriter.com.