The pandemically correct line out of Trader Joe’s—everyone in the masked queue standing six feet apart—stretches down Spring Street from the food-market entrance and turns the corner on Sixth Avenue. I brake to a stop and tell Diane that the store is too crowded. We should just go home.
“We need a few things,” she says, and gets out.
I take my pick of a dozen parking spaces. The weather’s nice, but I do not put the window down, distancing myself from the air of my own hometown. Judging by that line, Diane will need at least an hour to buy essentials, and here I am sheltering in place in the Honda. I glance at my reflection in the rearview mirror. Have I turned into the legendary mafia guy, who, fearful of his friends, sends his wife out to start his car?
This is my first time outside in four days, and I’m surprised to find myself struggling against a crushing sense of bereavement that somehow alternates between anxiety and rage. Nearby, a woman sits on a bench, her mask lowered, her face raised to the antiseptic sun. A well-dressed but unmasked young man walks by and speaks to her, pointing toward the strange spectacle of a traffic-free avenue. Apparently, he’s standing too close, because the woman raises her mask and walks away. The young man wanders back and forth aimlessly, either stoned or in shock, or both. I recognize the look. I just saw it in the mirror.
Deep breaths. Coronavirus is not the Black Death. It’s not the epidemic that took down Marcus Aurelius or the cruel plague that devastated seventeenth-century London. It may turn out to be less dangerous than the Asian flu pandemic of 1957, which killed 116,000 Americans. That remains to be seen. The disease’s core public symptom is panic.
I look toward the food market. The line is beginning to move. I share something with those carefully spaced shoppers, a fantasy from Poe’s classic story “The Masque of the Red Death”—the delusion that, with proper distancing, we can evade the pestilence. Today, however, health-care experts talk only about “slowing” the virus, not about stopping it. If we read between the lines of the televised expertise, we will hear a hard truth: all our piety, wit, N95 masks, Purell, and toilet-paper stockpiles will not necessarily keep us from being exposed to Covid-19.
The well-dressed young man is still wandering around. It’s unsettling to see veteran New Yorkers burdened with fear, but a newfound civility on city streets leaves no doubt that people are scared. During the short drive to the market, several of the world’s most aggressive pedestrians waited politely in mid-crosswalk for me to make a left turn. And, at the next corner, one of Manhattan’s mad bikers waited patiently at an empty intersection for the light to change. It reminds me of the old saying that “there are no atheists in foxholes.”
The car door opens, and Diane gets in with a bag of groceries.
“That took only 25 minutes!”
“The store wasn’t crowded,” she says. “They’re letting only a few customers in at a time, to keep us distanced.”
“But that line—”
“Some guy told me the ‘elderly’ can go directly into the store. He took me by the elbow and walked me to the door. Then he convinced the guard to let me in.”
“What a nice thing to do.”
“Yes,” Diane replies. “Isn’t it strange?”
I start the car. With no traffic to worry about, I go back to brooding. At the risk of breaking the rules for membership in Manhattan, I finally admit to myself how much I love New York. It’s terrible to see this great city knuckling under to a microbe. Soho is a ghost town. The windows of fashionable stores are papered over or boarded up. Even construction sites stand empty, not “essential” enough to win reprieve from the politicians who now command our economy and our lives.
The world of Covid-19 is a dream for authoritarian minds. Words of scripture, the prophet Amos, come to mind: “It will be like a man who flees from a lion, only to meet a bear.”
I turn onto empty Houston Street. Diane says that panic is a mask that covers the eyes. Only when the Covid pandemic subsides will we begin to tally the enormity of the cost to our culture and society.
Meantime, we’re meeting the bear.
Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images