Only Connect - Part 3: A Pandemic Ghost Town

Baby boomers in COVID Collage: Conflict run, danger hide

Conflict run, danger hide. Collage by Robin Epstein

Begin with Part 1: Finding Ariel

Part 3: A Pandemic Ghost Town

       And so things stood when the pandemic made New York City a ground zero again. When the crisis began, I was working out of my small apartment across Prospect Park. No rural cottage shaded by beech or silver maple, the space nevertheless offered a large desk and comfortable chair, easy access to my books and papers, and freedom from interruption. As a New Yorker, I’d learned to forgo suburban comforts: the sumptuous leather chair and the backyard gazebo, fragrant with honeysuckle vines. I wouldn’t have known a mud room if I’d been sinking in its quicksand.

       Playground Zero would be coming out in June. Yet even in my austere surroundings, I was struggling to keep my head above the surging onslaught of news, as the ongoing scandals and impeachment efforts focused on Donald Trump engulfed America’s political landscape. Calls for impeachment had begun early, even before Trump’s inauguration; proceedings were finally in full swing. Although everyone assumed that the Republican-dominated Senate would vote to acquit, there were many people who’d waited years for the running of the bull, Trump. Now they pressed close, faces shining in the glow of screens, gawking in eager horror at the spectacle. Meanwhile, alarming reports were emerging from China. A novel flu—or maybe worse—was raging through Wuhan, and the Chinese government had placed fifty million people under house arrest to stamp out the spread. In some cases the government had sealed the doors of homes, eliminating any chance of escape. I struggled to imagine the months-long imprisonment of whole populations.

       Because the mind-boggling developments in Wuhan offered no simple moral hook or clear connection to the Trump saga, reporters and the public found them easy to ignore. We were following the big news—the hoopla; the impeachment hearings.

       By early February, impeachment was an undone deal, and the army of germs was already marching through Italy and Iran, overwhelming populations far from Wuhan.

       My city, a densely populated port of entry whose neighborhoods were connected by subways, would be very vulnerable to a fast-spreading virus. At home in Brooklyn, however, I had other concerns, including my soon-to-be-published novel. Who wanted to think about a surging pandemic, or government-enforced imprisonment in a small city apartment? In any case, American leaders would never respond with such controls. Americans were unruly, zealous of our rights—who would comply with the tyrannical and the surreal?

       By early March, a few people had begun wearing masks in public, and fear was everywhere.

       Then on March 5, just as the pandemic was surfacing in New York, I went bat-crazy. I took advantage of a very reasonable email offer and bought a last-minute ticket to a Beethoven program at Carnegie Hall. The concert was that evening, and my seat was in the second row orchestra. I’d been extremely busy for weeks and was rewarding myself. Yet as the day wore on, I began to worry.

       After some wavering, I resolved to go to the concert. My risk-taking alter ego hustled me onto the subway and through the doors of the concert hall. As I made my way to the second row, only feet from the enormous stage, my only consolation was that the virus-carrying fumes from the surrounding seats would rise on warm gusts to the upper level—the vertiginous balcony where I usually sat, when paying full price.

       We heard Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, which begins as an improvisatory piano solo that modulates through several keys, then moves to the cellos and basses, gradually adds other instruments, and ends in a rousing finale for piano, orchestra, solo singers, and chorus. Strange shifts were coming. The concert, it seemed, was preparing us for them.

       During the intermission, while I was stretching my legs, a scruffy man claimed the empty seat next to mine and was soon disgorging a backpack. Thoroughly at home before the vast stage, he commenced a beggar’s feast, chewing his way through candy bars and glugging from a battered thermos. Imagining a riot of germs, I approached the gentleman and remarked, more sharply than I’d intended, “That’s my seat.” I gestured toward the pile of candy bars and old wrappers. “Your seat?” he demanded. As I stared in fear and outrage, he scooped up his belongings and moved to an empty spot at front row center. His hunger for Beethoven appeared undiminished as the composer’s Mass in C Major began.

       By the time I left the concert hall, the outing already seemed foolishly reckless. Then on the crowded subway home, two young men leaned over me, talking—breathing on me. An announcer kept warning us to wash our hands. The guys looked healthy, but even so, I cursed my folly.

       The following day, I began snuffling. It’s just a cold, I reassured myself. Allergies. Seasonal flu. Anything but the pandemic. By evening, fear gripped me: Why had I gone to Carnegie Hall? How stupid was I?

       I began to compromise with the surreal. On Robin’s urging, I bought some masks and rubber gloves and planned to tough it out. She was doing her usual things: singing in the church choir, going to the gym—she’d even seen the mayor there, unwinding from the pressures of governing. But my alarm was rising: I feared the subways, the supermarket, the lobby of my building.

Pandemic mask collection

I began to compromise with the surreal. Photo by Robin Epstein

       Then everything changed. Governor Cuomo’s stay-at-home order threatened to cut me off from everything but my carefully controlled sanctuary—in what had suddenly become a germ-infested apartment building. And not for a few focused days, but for weeks or months of bleak confinement.

       Suddenly my phone was ringing. “Call a cab. You’re coming over here,” Robin demanded. I thought about the work I had to do; about our old conflicts and our decades-long connection. I thought about Robin’s crowded Park Slope apartment, my former home, and her sometimes-exaggerated fears—her awareness of problems and dangers that I preferred to ignore. I wondered if the pandemic was another example of this dynamic. I thought about the cat we’d rescued, Ariel.

       Looking around, I saw my cozy but lonely sanctuary. There are moments when heaven and hell become indistinguishable.

       I hurriedly packed my computer, some books and papers, and a few changes of clothing. Robin was holed up in the apartment in ultra-gentrified Park Slope, and we’d agreed to help each other through the pandemic. We’d had our problems, but who else could I rely on? Masked and wearing rubber gloves for the escape, I climbed into a germy cab just before the car service closed down for the quarantine. If I couldn’t flee to the Hamptons, at least there was Park Slope.

       And there I was, with a messy partner and an animal climbing on my pillow at night. Uncomfortable furniture. Mold. Cat fluff. A troubling cough. It’s pollen season, we kept reassuring each other. And the apartment was very dusty.

       My cough lingered for weeks.

       The changes came as a shock—a loss of autonomy that left me feeling sluggish and angry. We’d never had so much togetherness. The pandemic news was overwhelming; so were Robin and her rooms crammed with stuff. There was no sense in unpacking my bag of books and papers, because there was no space for them. So the bag sat on the floor.

       During the early weeks of the pandemic, I felt caught in a sea of dread and lethargy and just wanted to sleep. Even the cat seemed demanding. As I poured over the day’s wildfire count of cases and deaths, ambulances howled through the streets. Meanwhile, in the soundless gloom of the apartment, Ariel was brooding on the meaning of our new arrangement. My coat and bag showed no signs of leaving. Days passed, then weeks. When I came home from a walk, she no longer clawed the rug for a greeting. Why should she bother, when I was no longer a gentleman caller, coming and going at whim? Along with Robin, I had nowhere to go. We were stranded in a dying city, keeping the cat company—all day, every day. She’d flop her small tiger body on the rug by my feet and flaunt it, baby! No longer shy and demure, she was basking in the pandemic horrors by communing with me. Unaware of contagion, and purring as I spoke her name, she sensed only togetherness.

       If only humans were so easy.

       Robin and I were learning to be together again. In the beginning it was as though we’d come to a poorly run immersion camp—housed deep in the Maine woods; compelled to speak in a foreign language. How long would we be living this way? I had a job to report to—already online before the pandemic. And what about my writing?

       Weeks passed in an atmosphere of apathy and emergency, as spring bloomed in the neighborhood’s germ-laden streets. From March through May, Robin and I crammed our heads with thoughts of death, contagion, furloughs, unemployment, and incompetent government response. Jobs, schools, and houses of worship; bars, gyms, and playgrounds—all gone. Shops and restaurants closed as though for the off-season, turning city neighborhoods into ghost towns. Summer was coming—no swimming pools, no summer camps, no sports. Closed—and for how long? No one could say, as the pandemic raged through the country and the world.

       While I was working, Robin made pandemic collages. We read the papers every evening; we shared our fears and collaborated on our strategy for the lockdown. And as the immersion camp atmosphere faded, we found ourselves talking more than we had in years. One day I opened a window and dared to let the breeze come in. My coughing eased. Ariel jumped up on the windowsill, drawn by the babel of birdsong; the city birds had never been so numerous, so robust. The window seemed comforting and transitional—connecting the world and me.

Ariel listens to the birds

Ariel listens to the birds

       One creates a workspace by writing in it. I’d written the early drafts of Playground Zero in the Park Slope apartment, while Robin was at her job. Yet the apartment had changed; I had changed, and so had Robin. She was drawing her pension and no longer working; she was in the room doing zoom yoga. Writing is internal, I thought to myself. I’d written about California while living in Brooklyn. There was method in that, because the real writing space is a space of the mind. The physical space merely grounds the writer—so I told myself, as another yoga class commenced and my blood pressure rose.

       Sometimes I joined the zoom yoga. Soon enough the cat was joining me on the mat. She loved yoga.

       If only I’d had an old farmhouse overlooking the fields. There I could weave ideas, unbothered by my surroundings. But sometimes we must make do with cramped quarters, other people’s stuff, and ambulance sirens screaming in the distance.

       Through the gorgeous spring months, my window opened on a world in collapse. The neighborhood was no longer the place I’d known—the gold rush had come and gone, leaving a ghost town. Dare I go out and smell the lilacs—is it worth the danger? Normal urban sounds had been replaced by the wailing of ambulances as they converged on a nearby emergency room. As I heard them passing blocks away, I imagined their human cargo. I adjusted to an uncomfortable chair and wondered what would be left when the ambulances stopped wailing, when we were free to emerge. Free to stop imagining and be city kids again.

*     *     *

       Playground Zero would be coming out, as planned, on June 9, 2020, though the circumstances were unforeseen—even unimaginable. The pandemic was refusing to fade: bookstores and neighborhood gathering places were closed, book clubs were no longer meeting, and the launch party sponsored by a local gallery would be happening online. Then on Memorial Day weekend in Minneapolis, the death of George Floyd under a white policeman’s knee jolted the country from tragedy to tragedy. Awakening from the pandemic as though from a coma, Americans hurled angry condemnations of white supremacy. Outrage at the long nightmare of slavery and Jim Crow was suddenly the only thing left uncancelled, as we blamed the cops for our emergency—and the world’s.

       Throwing off the pandemic fears of contamination from a world beyond human control, protesters surged through long-abandoned streets and gathered shoulder-to-shoulder, shouting through flimsy masks. There was no one impeding or opposing—no cars or shopkeepers or shoppers, and very few commuters. In our neighborhood, righteously compliant passersby glared or loudly reprimanded us if our masks were not in place, fearful of contamination—fearful of our murderous breath. Yet only blocks away, by the Barclay Center, the streets belonged to rebellious crowds.

Baby Boomer Protest: You have to let go to move on.

Night fell, and another nightmare began. Collage by Robin Epstein

       Night fell, and another nightmare began. Around the country, antifa and boogaloo boys, gang members and teenage hangers-on emerged, like so many scourges. Our mayor responded by setting a nine o’clock curfew; even so, after-dark mobs poured through pandemic-soured neighborhoods, smashing and looting with the abandon of a marauding army. Throughout June, nightly explosions and helicopter patrols jarred the evening curfew, causing Robin to panic and driving Ariel under the bed—back to semi-feral habits. Though Ariel loved having both her humans together, we had to cajole her out of hiding, as in the early days. Speaking stoop-to-stoop with a neighbor, we wondered if we would be safe even in our homes.

       During the zoom launch for Playground Zero, a group of mostly white protesters marched down our block, shouting slogans as they passed our door: Free rent! Defund the police! They’d come for the mayor, who owned a small house across the street, though of course he’d been renting it out during his years in office. Laying claim to Jay Jay’s corner—the poor cat was dead, but we still imagined him there, delighting passersby—the marchers set up a dance party with loudspeakers and a bullhorn, as choppers droned overhead. It was a moment to cheer or weep, but I simply wanted to go on, to make it through the plague year.

Click here to read Part 4: Is There a Passport Back to Normal Life?

This is a story in 5 parts. Click here to see all 5 parts.

Click here to learn more about Playground Zero

Sarah Relyea

Sarah Relyea is the author of Playground Zero, a novel set in Berkeley in the 1960s. Playground Zero is published by She Writes Press.

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Charles Degelman
October 2, 2022 4:32 pm

I loved this chapter, Sarah! You are managing to capture the Covid fear in all its details, from innermost fears about contagion to the middle range of empty streets and the great, layered responses to fear of an unknowable plague to the panoply of people’s alignment along the spectrum of live “free” or die. You also described the claustrophobia of being trapped in a cramped and hoarded NYC apartment (nightmare!!!) with a former partner, the adjustments you were forced to make, and the sporadic comfort you began to find in each other. Through it all, Ariel provides the unconditional comfort… Read more »

Eiko Fukuda
Eiko Fukuda
October 3, 2022 4:38 pm

I loved the way you tell the Carnegie Hall concert episode – so funny!

Jeri Hilderley
October 6, 2022 11:43 am

By disclosing her struggles to “make it through the plague year” (2020) and pitting an uneasy acceptance of new harsh realities with the need to keep experiencing affirmations of life (a concert, an open window, a comforting cat, publishing her novel) Relyea foretells the same struggles we’re facing 3 years later: a country divided by bitter turmoil on how to handle Covid-19. Taxi cab drivers cussing and speeding away if you ask them to “please put on your mask;” a president claiming “the pandemic is over” when 400 people are still dying every day; “Americans… unruly and zealous of our… Read more »

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