Over the course of two weeks, Chinatown’s Eldridge Street empties out. One day a store is there – say, Family Laundromat or Ri Xin, a discount shop where backpacks dangle precariously from cheap metal hooks – the next it’s shuttered, unpeopled, a hasty apology posted on the door. Downtown Manhattan is an empty lot. Downtown Manhattan is a graveyard. Downtown Manhattan is walking along Disneyland’s Main Street at 4am, nothing but false frontages and piles of leftover trash.
A couple spots, like liquor joints and pharmacies, remain open – those considered essential businesses by New York State. Their employees are not mandated to work from home, and so stand behind counters, scared and outfitted as human condoms, mouths obscured and Lysol wipes at the ready. Inside a tiny, two-aisled Chinese-Hispanic Grocery, masked patrons browse with silent unease. When two or more gather in a single aisle, both parties about-turn abruptly, repelling one another like poles of a magnet.
The other night, I shimmied into an “outdoors coat” for the first time in days, and headed for that grocery. My roommate had just lost her job – over the phone, because that is how you fire a person in isolation – and with it, her health insurance. (In pandemic-stricken America, that means something: new analysis estimates the average cost of COVID-19 treatment, with no complications and with employer insurance, would average to $9,763.)
There were two options: you could wail in your apartment, aware of how our collective reality is melting into air, dissipating as fast as curls of cigarette smoke, or you could peel off your bra, and swing, unclothed, from your apartment’s water pipes, clutching a Modelo. (She did the latter.) When I left the bodega, a guy lingering at the entrance proffered a card for weed delivery (feat. Mario with bloodshot eyes), and a squirt of hand sanitizer. Who am I to reject a favour from a stranger?
Every day is the same or a mild variant of. Read, write, cry, eat, shit. Panic, or stave it off. It is springtime, finally, and in the mornings, you can hear birds outside my window, presumably unaware of the state the rest of us are in. I never knew birds made cameos on my polluted street until, by default, they comprised its sole soundtrack, interrupted only by sirens. For years, I’ve lazily blamed insomnia on neighbourhood noise – whooping, screaming, dramatically hocked loogies, drunken reconciliations after a fight at some bar – but without people, there’s no scapegoat. Just a permanent state of disorientation, which is its own kind of noise.
My family and friends worry about how I’ll fare alone. There’s no one else in my apartment now, and I’m a (desperately) social being. The man I’m seeing agrees to leave his place in Brooklyn, so we can isolate together. We watch TV until late to ensure I don’t panic, bodies curled into a single question mark. I go to the supermarket one day and feel strangely alive, lining up outside the entrance – six feet behind other patrons – only buying the fruit and vegetables my hands touch. I am scared to infect or be infected. I try to smile at the cashier, using only my eyes, like they do in old songs.
I watch 90 Day Fiance. I rewatch clips of 90 Day Fiance. I sit alone in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, listening to jazz via headphones, as though the usual ad hoc band is there. I go for my first run in four years, along the East River, and see two elderly Chinese women walking behind me. Their hands clutch either end of a taut, 6‑foot piece of string – they’re together but keeping government-mandated distance.
They are building a makeshift hospital in Central Park. They are reimagining hotels as white-cloth wards. They are asking Rikers’ prisoners to dig mass graves – ten in a row, head to foot – in exchange for $6 an hour. The other night, the spire of the Empire State Building was lit ambulance red, and seemed to flash, apparently in honour of emergency workers, but also in honour of screaming. I stand over my stovetop and make another shitty Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, because it seemed like the right place to buy an Armageddon blend. I realise that few of our household’s drinking vessels thrill me, and order a $14.99 mug online, moulded to mimic Ace Frehley from KISS’s head. I read and reread a verse from Rimbaud’s Song from the Highest Tower one night. (Of course, I have no idea which night, as they are all the same.)
“I’ve shown such great patience
That now I forget
All suffering and fear
Are lost in the air.”