On a frigid night last winter, I had dinner with a friend in the East Village. The Thai restaurant was utterly deserted, of course, save for us two. For the privilege of choking on an array of soul-searing hot curries, we had our temperatures recorded, our contact information taken down, our table blocked off by thick plexiglass; not one additional patron showed up the whole time we sat down. The neighborhood around the joint, bustling in the Before Times, was likewise mostly empty, with perhaps one couple or single diner, if that, eating alfresco at any given restaurant that was open; many more places were shuttered, some likely for good.
Afterward, I decided to walk up Second Avenue to my place in Midtown East—and what struck me above all was how darkened the whole urban vista appeared. My memory recalled these spaces generally swirling with light and humming with activity: energy, vitality, a “city of ass-kickers,” as one of my old bosses once described the Big Apple. Now: desolation. The lights were off; the activity had ground to a halt.
The few souls I spotted looked menacing, suspicious—an effect created by the medical hijabs Gothamites wear with a zeal matched in few other places on earth. The only unmasked faces belonged to the homeless and the crazy, who now seem to dominate the city. Perhaps they were there in similar numbers before the lockdowns, and their presence has only been artificially magnified by the general emptiness. In the event, the bag ladies and panhandlers and Tourette’s-mumblers and madly laughing winebibbers have exempted themselves from the mask hyper-obedience that grips what remains of the Manhattan bourgeoisie.
The soundscape had changed, too, something that took me a while to notice. Streets are much quieter overall, but they aren’t any more peaceful or relaxing for that—for this is an unnatural, disquieting quiet. Gone are the melodies and off-tune singing voices of the buskers. Gone, too, is the ambient chatter of New Yorkers talking animatedly down the street. All I heard that night on Second Avenue were the coruscating wails of ambulances and NYPD SUVs, racing to God-knows-what tragedies. Add all the public signage warning about masks and social distancing, and it felt as if I had accidentally walked onto the set of some dark sci-fi flick, a movie set spanning a whole megalopolis.
By the end of my walk, I was tempted to scream, Charlton-Heston-in-Planet-of-the-Apes-style: “We finally did it! You maniacs . . . God damn you!” They—we—turned the greatest city in the world into Podgorica at nighttime, except weird and dystopian to boot.
When I got home, I told my wife that I wished to launch a civil-disobedience movement against the lockdowns. She blessedly talked me down, and I slept off the strong drink and inspired resolution. Still, I’m angry, as an American and a New Yorker, and have been angry since this all began. I can’t avoid holding in contempt the virtue-signaling double-masking types on the Upper East Side (“I’m one of the good ones, Dr. Fauci!”); the moms at my son’s Catholic school who pull Junior away from touching a metal railing (“Watch out! The virus!”); the young professionals who seem to take a perverse pleasure in the possibility that we are unlikely to socialize in person ever again and must learn to love the Clubhouse voice app.
The pandemic and the lockdowns are highly complex events and, as the social theorists might say, overdetermined. But one clear factor is the behavior of a laptop class that lives in fear of risk, with no transcendent horizon and “the consolations neither of Christ nor of Seneca,” as my friend Rusty Reno likes to say. That class seems prepared to desolate a place like New York City in service of safety-ism, to reorganize our way of life around its own neo-gnostic preferences, its horror of embodied relationships and inherited obligations—including obligations to place.
“Our lives will never be the same. New York will never be the same. We should socially distance even after the novel coronavirus is under control.” These are the watchwords of technocratic hubris and sociopathy. They contain less wisdom than the crazed laughter of the city’s high and drunken homeless.
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