I ventured out in the morning on the last day of March 2020, into a neighborhood in America’s most infected city where I live. All over the place I’ve been seeing images of a depopulated Manhattan; I’m not sure how they do it because the whole island appears to be full of people outside trying to photograph the emptiness, there are so many shots of it around now. Here at the southernmost end of Brooklyn the sidewalks were crowded as usual.
This didn’t surprise me. Under shelter-in-place I study Brighton Beach Avenue’s foot traffic, as seen at the crosswalk visible through a gap beneath the elevated train station that dominates my window view. Invariably and mostly right away I spot people crossing, two-by-two in many cases. Those who work in the many essential-service food stores, pharmacies and banks down there, and those commuting from the B/Q stop upstairs, are joined on the white stripes by locals and home health aides out shopping, bike delivery guys using the sidewalk, and weaving messed-up figures from a sizable chronic street population.
It was a necessary trip outside to mail my rent check on the avenue. I also needed to buy cat litter, of course, at the true convenience store that’s less than half a block away. The previous Friday, the last time I’d been outside, I did my grocery shopping via the oceanfront Boardwalk without a mask; but I’d avoided the convenience store that day and for my next visit I planned to wear one. I had been saving—in fact it was a former cat toy pulled from floor sweepings—an extra-long rubber band to make the paper towel mask I’d seen demonstrated on Facebook. The idea worked like a charm only the rubber band broke immediately. I fixed it with one of those knots that make me pride myself on my New England upbringing even though they aren’t very good; but then the paper towel tore. So I got out my green heirloom handkerchief and put it on bandit-style.
The hallways were emptier than the day before, when on a fifty-foot walk to the recycling bin closet and back I met three people, all unexpectedly, a kind of rat-a-tat experience. This time of course I met the super in the lobby, Sasha from Turkmenistan in his signature carpentry mask, who stopped and admonished me with smiling eyes about—I wasn’t sure what and denied it, said, “That was someone else,” until I realized, wait, yes. The tattletale who’d complained to him was right, I did indeed put an olive oil bottle and cat food cans in the paper recycling, the sight of strangers had left me that shaken up. Now I admitted everything and promised Sasha perfect compliance again. The glass entrance doors showed people crisscrossing on the sidewalk, cars rolling past.
Immediately outside my building, where the owners finally installed an ashtray, the unemployed smoker who always stands in the same place was speaking Russian into his flip phone. His mask was down around his neck while he smoked. Talking together at the end of the front path, a few other tenants were properly masked; so was the couple unloading bags from an SUV.
The construction noise I’d thought was coming from the nearest subway entrance (a stairway replacement project actually abandoned in progress, it appears) turns out to have been jack-hammers at work on my street. Strange and under the circumstances alarmingly-proportioned rectilinear plots have been dug up from the outer half of the sidewalk and filled with dark fresh earth. Every ten feet or so, what look like fresh graves stretch in a line to the corner. Though momentarily unnerved, a true optimist will recognize in this scene a tree-planting public work-in-progress and be glad that the many trees the neighborhood lost seven years ago to Hurricane Sandy flooding will finally start to be replaced—now? The timing and shape alike are odd, aren’t they? I wondered as I passed.
Across the street, huddled in blankets on a lawn chair in front of the shuttered Georgian take-out place, big bags of clothes and stuff piled beside her, a woman sat bent, hiding her face in old hands. Had she worked the counter there? I couldn’t tell, I never went inside again after the second time a customer behind me started ordering over my shoulder; I just leave when that happens. I couldn’t ask, only speaking English as I do; older people here speak little English, commonly. On reflection, I was never in that place since it changed again from Uzbek take-out to Georgian. Had the woman camped there no place else to go? Her job is gone, she can’t pay rent and it’s the end of the month, rent is due. The conditions outdoors were unpleasant, a damp forty degrees Fahrenheit tops on the fourth consecutive day without sunshine. Later on my way home it was a relief to see a kind young woman stopped the proper six-foot distance from the lawn chair, listening.
My gaze in the first instance was drawn away. Approaching me along a sidewalk considerably narrowed by the new landscaping, getting close, came a lean man, poorly dressed, and another cigarette. With the universally sloppy and infantile male manner of clothing themselves in this era, the difficulty of telling man from shambling madman is no joke at the best of times; and now with none of them grooming, another marker is lost. This unshaven man’s eyes on me were hostile but it might have been my heirloom handkerchief mask he disliked—or coveted badly. He had no mask of his own. A former smoker, I held my breath as we passed. The strange thing was that he appeared to me to be entirely brown—though he was a white-skinned man in clothes of various colors—I saw brown when I looked at him, as if he were under aged varnish. I exhaled several steps later, safely past his cloud.
The corner of the avenue felt almost thronged, what with the reinforced fences around the lifeless MTA construction site squeezing everyone tighter against the aluminum barriers that hid the consecutive shopfronts. Right away the hostile man phenomenon recurred. Waiting at the bus stop, walking past, or simply loitering on the corner to be near the liquor store now that the station entrance steps outside aren’t there to sit on, the five or six men who weren’t wearing masks looked like living coffee stains to me among the rest; as if I were the pilot of a boat and they the brackish shallows.
Unsafe, potential source of infection: you, man without a mask, sitting on the empty plywood bouquet display at the shuttered florist’s, are you too drunk or too lazy or too weak with viral symptoms to stand? He glanced up at me, his eyes not dull but hopeless. He looked like a Peter Lorre character posing for a sepia print. It occurred to me that I might be witnessing how, for self-defense in times of epidemic, the human mind adapts and adds another gel sheet to the perceptions—one for uncleanliness. Sadly in my case this shows up as brown, which looked to be everywhere. My mouth beneath the handkerchief started to feel gigantic and as open as baleen to plankton and pollution.
Taped to the front door of the tiny post office that doubles as a jewelry sales and repair shop were two signs, in Russian and English, forbidding entry without masks and gloves, same as at the pharmacy nearby. The postal window was shut but the shop had a customer, male. The place was brown inside and humid as a sleeper next to you in bed. The moment I was back on the sidewalk I wished I’d thought to hold my breath for the few seconds I’d been in there. Cars idled at the light, the avenue was busy.
At my next stop, I finally had to push the Wow button. Excellently run by Yemenis, the convenience store I use is a cramped and narrow urban storefront space, very fully stocked, thank goodness; I was even able to buy a pack with six masks, for eight dollars, not bad for New York. At the front counter they’ve hung clear plastic sheeting to protect the cashiers; the counter itself is quite high. I was waiting there while all my cat food cans got rung up, when I became aware of being crowded. Someone too close to my right shoulder—maybe not normally, but at the end of March 2020 eighteen inches was too close. I moved left and turned to see a man, brown like the rest, fattish, reaching for the coffee pot, his mask pulled down below his mouth because he planned to sip. His little black moustache wasn’t much thicker than mine; but he couldn’t see that. We made eye contact.
At this moment, moments like this in public life, a large white disc appears and rises to the hand of the true optimist, who presses it: Wow, she says inside. Outwardly, she doesn’t make a sound, doesn’t move a muscle otherwise than to continue as if nothing untoward is happening. Not to react—above all, not to overreact—this is the point of possessing and using a Wow button. Pressed, it procures a momentary high on mood anesthetic, a little like a dose of laughing gas; fittingly, occasions of its use often pass right from memory. Wow says it all then and there.
When remembered, however, these are the scenes that gnaw at decent people’s thoughts. Let me begin.
What is with these men? Why is it so difficult to tell so many of them apart from psychiatric outpatients? The expression in the eyes, equally furtive and blank when not actively hostile; the horrible clothes and ruinous physiques; the unbelievable rudeness, above all: Yes, please, lower your mask in my vicinity, mister—for what good am I to you? Of course, the profound self-centeredness of the mentally ill is pitiable and I would be right there, first to sympathize, last to criticize; but if the guy is just somebody’s unemployed husband, then I should be able to raise my voice at him in words to that effect. Instead, as so often happens, I couldn’t place him well enough to react and had to push the Wow button.
As a rule, I stay aware in my neighborhood of the many various Soviet Republic pasts that surround me with terrible memories and historical traumas, Chernobyl among them, far worse than anything in my own experience as a New Englander or a New Yorker who only started to work by the World Trade Center in 2007. When I’m standing in line with them, I assume the presence of countless invisible wounds left unhealed and too often untreated, and don’t require the same kind of rational, polite demeanor from the men around here that I would, say, in a convenience store in Boston, where I might get snappish.
Is there really such a difference, though? In Brooklyn, in Manhattan, in Boston, in any store anywhere, a man like that could be standing with his mask pulled down—I expect they’ve got a global presence, the same maybe-insane sort of men browning out in the same way, from some terminal damage. The power supply to their better natures is too fitful for public life or public safety. Even if they’re not making midnights on the nearest avenue ring with their raving cries, they belong under care, somewhere they could be taught to do useful things with their hands. Instead, they’re outside watching the pandemic go by.
So are the streets to be men’s madhouse? Will we see the familiar and comfortable places we walked and rode through in carriages surrendered to a simmering bedlam scene? City streets do deteriorate, history is full of shocking low points in formerly nice neighborhoods. And what then? All the mental mildew to be combated again; everything to be drawn quite unwillingly towards clarity, justice, improvement, one painful inch at a time again; every balm to be offered the hurting, every form of repair to the damaged, for another two or three generations—and by whom? Who is there to work tirelessly in the cause of civilization this time, as American women did a century ago?
I’ve just read historian Karen J. Blair’s The Torchbearers: Women and Their Amateur Arts Associations in America, 1890-1930. This was the Progressive Era, and the thrust of the book’s message is that public life need not resemble a badly-run public asylum. Back then, when it did, women organized to effect progressive change in public life. Where it was ugly, dirty, brutish, depraved, unfit to be seen, their efforts placed Shakespeare gardens, settlement houses, libraries, playgrounds, fountains and murals, community theaters, regional art museums, protected wetlands, music in public schools, Martha Graham, the Hollywood Bowl—so many things we didn’t have before a hundred years ago.
We don’t have them right now either. An upsetting question: what was left of everything women once won from the chaos and set in the light, how much won’t bounce back? And in its place will be only shutters and strife and soiled track suit bottoms.