Afternoon in the Pandemic

Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn

It was unseasonably warm and bright in Brooklyn at the end of the workday yesterday, so I took myself for a walk around the neighborhood. Like a lot of people I’ve been working from home for the past week and a half, spending most of each day on video conferences with colleagues from all over the country. And like a lot of people, I’ve been reading far too much about COVID-19, habitually refreshing the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post and dozens of other news sources too, clicking through to any article that promised to shed some additional light on the nature of this novel coronavirus, any expert opinions on how the near future might play out.

By five o’clock I felt cooped up and in need of fresh air. When I got outside, the sun was casting a gentle warmth onto the brownstones and parked cars and trees still naked from the winter. And onto the people, too! There were people out and about, some solo, some walking their dogs, some strolling in pairs, some even hanging out in small groups. They were shooting the breeze, checking their phones, carrying groceries home, laughing and joking. I walked past a hair salon where three stylists were tending to two women, a takeout joint with a line of hungry workers that spilled out to the sidewalk, a dollar store where someone was rummaging through a bin of bootleg DVDs, and a bar with outdoor seating, fully occupied.

It was so quotidian, so remarkably unremarkable. In fact, it was about ten minutes into my walk before I realized that I found it kind of shocking. It was all so…normal.

By contrast, life hasn’t felt normal to me for days and days. I’ve been thinking and overthinking all things COVID-19 more or less constantly, to the point where every surface outside our home now looks fraught with danger. There are bottles of hand sanitizer and packages of disinfecting wipes stashed all over the house. Earlier in the day I’d canceled movie tickets for that evening and made plans to drive our babysitter all the way home to Queens rather than let her risk the subway. The subway! I’ve always loved the subway and would rather take it just about anywhere than drive, but I’d come to think of it as off limits, as having effectively become a circulatory system for the virus. To me, living felt already transformed, utterly upended and vastly different from even a month ago, and so did the city. Images from Wuhan, China that I saw in February have stayed with me, especially drone video footage of the eerie, post-humanity calm and emptiness of a city under lockdown. In my mind, that was what New York would become before too long.

But not all of my fellow New Yorkers see it that way, apparently. Judging from appearances, there was almost a nonchalance in the air as I walked around Crown Heights, where I live. People just did not seem to care, or at least it was hard to decipher any bit of care on their faces. I began to think: maybe living hadn’t changed after all, and maybe the city hadn’t either. The buildings, the cars, the pedestrians, the pets, everything looked untouched by this massive anxiety rattling across the media and echoing inside my head.

At one point I felt a bit peckish so I turned into a bodega for a snack, passing through the front doors just behind a young dude dressed in normcore regalia and reciting hip-hop lyrics out loud. Inside there was a short line of customers waiting to pay for yogurt, potato chips, a bottle of laundry detergent and more of the stuff you buy when you’re just going about your life. I picked up a bag of salt-and-pepper flavored potato chips (best chips ever) and got in line.

Then I watched as the cashier rang up the customers in front of me, and I saw how he would take cash from each of them, put it into his register, then pull out change, all with his bare hands, over and over. And I saw how the other customers were biting their fingernails or stroking their hair, scratching their jaws or blithely picking up and putting down products on the shelves. It was like suddenly seeing the code layer of the Matrix except with germs, and I looked down at the bag of chips I was holding and thought about who and how many might have handled it before me.

When I got to the counter I pulled out three dollar bills from my wallet and told the cashier to keep the change, and I walked out into the beautiful open air again. But I felt different now, less impressed by the neighborhood’s operational normalcy. I was thinking now of the germs on the bag, and the germs on my jacket where I’d held it under my arm, and also how I’d handled my wallet with the hand that I’d used to pick up the bag. I was also thinking about getting home and how I might be able to get in the door while touching as few surfaces as possible, and how I’d have to wipe down the door handle and wash my hands and maybe even use sanitizer on the bag of chips.

I’ve never been much of a germaphobe, but I was thinking of my kids now and my wife too, and feeling vulnerable for our family in a way I’d never felt before. There are so many avenues for the coronavirus to take into any of our homes; letting down your guard on even one of them on a careless afternoon, regardless of how vigilant you might have been for days and days, seems like an invitation to catastrophe. As I walked home, I held the bag at a distance from me, by one corner, with just two fingers, feeling slightly foolish and half hoping no one would notice my anxiety. But I was also thinking to myself that the chips hardly seemed worth it anymore.