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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

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DEC 20-JAN 21 Issue
Poetry

Brooklyn 2020

When the pandemic lockdown began, I had the idea to begin a plague chronicle, as a distraction from anxiety, and toward the mission I inherited from my poet mentors: write your own history. When CUNY used the pandemic as an excuse to lay off thousands of employees in spite of receiving over a hundred million dollars in federal funds to protect jobs, I suddenly had the time to write. No doubt there are many such accounts in process. Have you started your plague novel yet? What follows is Part 1 of an ongoing occupation.



Brooklyn 2020:
hic incipit pestis

Man’s Life so little worth
Do we fear to take or lose it?
No ill companion on a journey, Death
Lays his purse on the table and opens the wine.
(Basil Bunting, “The Spoils”)

The apartment is on the sixth floor, at the end of the block, with windows on three sides level with the treetops, among the busy commerce of birds. We overlook wooden houses in the Germanic style promoted by Fred Trump at the time of the “Anglo-Saxon” reaction to the Great Migration. He built our present address in 1960, when he was growing his fortune by seeding Brooklyn and Queens with apartment blocks and by profiteering, for which he was investigated by a US Senate committee in 1954 and by NY state in 1966.

This building made news in 1973 when the US Justice Department sued the Trumps for housing discrimination. The Urban League sent a biracial couple to apply for a lease. Mr. H went first. He was told there were no vacancies. Mrs. H went the next day and was offered an apartment. Documents related to the case note that the Trumps favored Jewish tenants because they don’t make trouble. Some of the ancients remember “Old Mr. Trump” fondly. Doorman lore has it that the day man used to get a hundred-dollar bill to watch Mr. T’s car while he visited his mistress.

On our front door, below the peep-hole in the old-fashioned doorbell apparatus, there is a plastic strip punched with the name of a tenant. Our plastic name tag whispers Bernstein, though the last few rounds of families have been African American. When we signed the lease, the agent said we were “pioneers.”

Off the living room there’s a balcony sufficient to a few potted plants, a café table, and three folding chairs. With the first rush of lockdown, outside became 50 square feet of concrete. Mornings a male cardinal appears at the top of a young oak, his astonishing iridescence fifteen feet from the balcony railing. He tolerates us if we are sitting still. At times a female appears in the same tree. They never appear together, but they call to one other. He was doggedly ardent for weeks and now he’s advertising at the south end of the block. She’s ready now, but she’s losing patience.

In March, an article in the news feed said the virus could vanish when the weather gets warm -- once average temps hit 64 degrees it might go away. Another said it’s not the increase in temperature that halts the spread, it’s the increase in humidity: it likes a dry environment. Five months along, in the swamp heat of July, there are 600-800 new cases a day citywide. They say it isn’t alive; that’s why antibiotics don’t work. This is disturbing news, because I know how to kill things.

*

A notice comes under the door. Ravana Properties is dedicated to the safety of tenants and staff. Please be aware that all members of staff are engaged in extra cleaning duties to keep tenants safe. Please do not linger in the lobby. Do not approach building staff or converse with the doormen.

They periodically complain about tenants conversing with the doormen. Over the dozen years that we’ve been here, several of the more friendly employees have been fired on various pretexts. The most helpful of those that remain are sometimes targeted for discipline. Most recently Hector the night man got two weeks’ suspension without pay for “mouthing off.”

The building takes up most of the block. There are 138 apartments distributed among seven floors. In back of the building there is a long courtyard with a swimming pool and a kiddie pool and various concrete plains separated by chain-link fencing. Across the yard is a mirror-image -- a duplicate building that faces the parallel street a block over. The whole enterprise has the shape of a ship with a pool in its tail. There are 276 apartments in all, and the 48 street-side corner units have balconies. It’s an orange brick ark run aground where the flood zone hits the slope.

*

Sirens go day and night. One learns to discern their voices: FDNY, Maimonides, Methodist, and the Jewish community services. Together they make a chorus, eine Todesfuge.

Maybe you got it
Maybe you don’t
Maybe it kill you
Maybe it won’t

There is the real possibility that one could be taken away in a white van tomorrow. It's minute-by-minute. Taking out the garbage becomes a kind of guerilla operation. You get in the van, you’re done. I want to tell everybody to forgive me for my sins.

*

My mother said that during the Blitz some families got tired of heading for the air raid shelters every night and decided to take their chances at home. Next day one or two were not in school, not at the factory. Fifteen years along, my friends and I played in the wreckage. When we arrived in America, a guy in dress whites got on the plane and looked at us intently. My mother said he was a medical officer checking for signs of illness. I thought he was the same guy who checked us out at the consulate in Liverpool, but probably not. Now we all look at each other like that.

*

Late March and the pad is cold. It’s the landlordian cycle of the seasons. The city says the heat must come on when it’s 55 outside, but it’s spring, and the tenants can put on a sweater, or run the oven at the risk of monoxide asphyxia. The EPA says indoor pollution can be 10 times worse than legal outdoor limits.

The roaches are taking it hard. Camus had his rats. No, really, this is remarkable. We have roaches because the city. We don’t want to be exposed to a lot of insecticides, so we do a dance between occasional appearances versus poisoning the crockery. All goes along quite merrily until the virus hits. Suddenly there are almost no roaches.

An article in the Times says closing the restaurants has eliminated the garbage that is a major source of food for rats, so they come out to look for food. It offers tips on what to do when rats invade your home.

*

This morning a fly appeared on the window that looks out over the rooftops from our shower. It seemed a hopeful sign. I wonder if flies carry it. As I’m gearing up to go out for provisions, Zora says it’s fly season again. She wonders if flies carry it. I wear my old armor from the hardcore tours of yore -- black Levi 501s, hoody, leather jacket, Docs, and sunglasses. Leather gloves because we’ve never had a use for rubber. No mask because there isn’t one.

On the street an old man approaches, ragged, gone in the teeth.


Can you help me? I need help please can you help me?
What do you need?
Bread and milk.

I take him to the Yemeni brothers’ bodega. He puts a loaf of bread on the high counter by the register and heads to the back of the store to avoid the cashier’s evil eye. As he disappears, he yells baby milk! I say baby milk. The teenager at the register reaches over his shoulder, looks at me like I’m a complete idiot and slams the can on the counter.


How much is that?
20 dollars.
That’s some expensive milk.
Baby milk is expensive.

I knew he was going to trade it for dope; it’s currency in that world because the dealers use it to cut heroin. But what if he really is taking care of a baby? I slap a 20 on the counter and split before he emerges from the aisles. A former student of mine is standing in line outside the health food store, cheerful as ever. It’s a virus, he shrugs. He means we understand how to behave around a virus. This briefly lifts one’s mood.

The two large men behind me in the checkout line are nervous; they banter loudly and laugh, filling the narrow space with aerosols. The young mothers and old ladies in the line are annoyed, so more banter, more loudness and laughter, more droplets. They flirt with the cashiers. How you doing? What time did you say you get off? The cashiers are all from Nepal. They have the faces of Buddhist deities. For the thangka painter, the goddess of mercy is a grocery girl in Brooklyn.

Now there are signs on the door. Masks are required for entry.

*

We go over our last dangerous moments. An hour in a packed wine bar eating tapas. Sitting at the bar at Lea with two other people. Meeting an office mate in the park to hand off a thumb drive like in a spy movie. Waiting in line at the admirably efficient small supermarket where people are mindful of distance but still too close. I go for cat food in the narrow Whitmanic storefront where the clerk coughs and says his partner is worse off. Now we do evening runs, mostly to the two bistros that have turned into provisioners. Ten bucks for a bag of noodles, but such noodles.

A western state official sent out a letter saying life-saving would depend on “viability”; “palliative care” comes up for the first time. Euthanasia (Greek: good death) has been our great unspoken institution of convenient disposition since the Victorians. I’ll take it. Just no tubes, please.

Nurse J is doing five shifts every three days. He lives near us so we put jars of homemade soup on his stoop. Off the wards, he can only sleep. The nurses are eating meals on toilet breaks in the johns. J makes the soup last two days. His partner sends daily bulletins. The nurses are short of protective equipment. They are threatened with firing if they talk to the press. They can’t risk getting fired because of student loan debt. After our second soup run, the bulletins stop. Then J’s partner shows up with flowers from their garden. He’s OK. Taking some time off.

Today in the Bronx, hospital staff found Yankees rain ponchos in their protective gear kits. Can I get euthanized by a Mets fan?

*

An email comes in from a nurse saying everybody who died on her watch had Advil in their system. This is all over the web, so I’m looking for Tylenol. All the mail order suppliers are out. Our two pharmacies are sold out. I suit up again, hit three bodegas and buy three boxes. As I’m walking homeward with the spoils, an ambulance pulls up across the street. The EMT guys are laughing and they aren’t wearing masks. Somebody’s passed out, jammed like a rolled-up rug into the seam where the brick facade of our dentist’s office meets the sidewalk. Looks like my man traded his baby milk for an OD.

*

A note comes under the door from “a concerned neighbor.” There are two cases in the building, one of them is a porter. We need to understand the situation of the doormen, receiving packages, dealing with all those people coming in from outside wanting to shake hands. The concerned neighbor is likely Hector the night man. Shaking hands is a major thing around here. There’s a dissertation to be had on greeting behaviors in Flatbush. Next day a notice is taped up in the elevator. There are no cases in the building. The porter went home with a cold. Ravana Properties is dedicated . . .

I suit up and go down for bread and wine and to take out the trash. Flashing lights color the lobby. An old woman is being lifted into an FDNY ambulance, strapped in the narrow metal chair that they use in apartment buildings. Oxygen. Silvio the day man and the super look grave. No eye contact, nobody says anything.

Two months ago we were taking regular walks. Now only I go out and only for supplies. Z hasn’t been out in weeks; she’s on conference calls all day. Domestic aesthetics take on heightened importance. Months in the pad and things get cluttered. When she comes off the conference calls, the dining table must be clear.

*

Every outing involves multiple risky contacts. You loosen up your game, you’re dead. I hold my breath in the elevator, which now seems tiny. People can’t stand six feet apart in this painfully slow plastic box, so we take turns. What if old Avi just sneezed in there? It’s been decades since holding one’s breath was a regular thing, but I make it most trips. Five seconds for the door to close, five seconds per floor, five seconds for the door to open. The ability to not breathe for a time becomes an index of distance from the Bardo.


The time has come. Your breathing is about to cease. You are about to experience the Bardo state, where all things are like the empty sky, and the naked intellect is like a vacuum without circumference or center. At this moment, recognize yourself.

*

There’s no doorman. The super is there wearing heavy rubber gloves. I ask him about cases in the building. He says people make up stories.

The weather is beautiful; there’s nothing like New York in the spring. Now there’s a killer floating around everywhere and nowhere. It’s like living with a 50/50 prognosis, but immediate, like a lottery scratch-off game. Two miles from here, they’re moving corpses around with forklifts. It’s the little slips that get you. He was so meticulous about his routine, and then one day he forgot his gloves and decided not to go back upstairs to get them.

On the corner a traffic cop is watching Joey dance with his demons. Most days he’s not so animated, pretends to talk on the phone, you could pass him by without a thought. Good looking boy, well dressed, and full-on crazy when he’s off his meds. My downstairs neighbor says Joey lives with his sister. She works days and locks him out of the apartment until she’s home. He’s safer dancing around in front of the firehouse all day than he would be alone in the apartment. It takes a village.

*

At the co-op the line stretches around the corner and up the block, maybe sixty people, six feet apart. It’s ten minutes before they open for senior hour. They will admit fifteen, and then a few at a time as others exit the market. It’s for elders and people with immune system problems. Everyone else has to wait until one o’clock; that’s a whole other line behind a nylon rope and stretching north toward the parade ground. Two young women are hanging around on the sidewalk opposite the front door, apart from the line. An employee in punk hazmat strolls the line holding out boxes of rubber gloves. Small, medium, or large? When the door guy waves for the first fifteen to enter, the two ladies who have been hanging around bolt in first. General uproar. Punk hazmat guy: People, people, is it worth the confrontation?

The market is well stocked. We decided that my run today should ensure that we don’t have to leave the apartment for two weeks. I phone Adam for a case of wine and he hands it out of a hatch in the shop window. Back inside the apartment, everything has to stay in the hallway. It's like an airlock on a submarine or spaceship. Take off your shoes. Drop everything you wore into a bin. Wipe the shopping cart down with disinfectant. Wipe the packages and bottles with disinfectant and put them on the small table at the end of the hall. Take a shower. Wait an hour, rinse the packages and bottles with water and put everything away. Wash your hands. An article in the news feed says that calls to the poison control center are up 20%. People are eating disinfectant; kids are slurping hand sanitizer.

For a couple of weeks I ran towels and street clothes down to the laundry every few days. Now that doesn’t look so good. We wash things in the bathtub and hang them on a rack on the balcony. Can the thing float up this high?

A donor to Zora’s organization writes that it’s great we have “an outdoor space.” Right. It would be difficult if we didn’t have it. My students live in small apartments with three generations of relatives in three rooms. They are drivers, grocery clerks, delivery people. They are going to die. Zora reckons federal policy on the pandemic amounts to genocide.

If you get it, you’re fucked. Either you will not be able to get medical care, or because you are old you will be a lesser priority for medical care, or because you are old medical care won’t make a difference.

*

On Friday March 13, I told my students that we might at some point have to start meeting online. Before our next scheduled meeting on Monday, it was a done deal. I lost maybe a third of the class. Some of them vanished into virus wards. Some emerged after a couple of weeks: can I make up the homework? Some lacked the basic skills to find and navigate the class website. Some didn’t have computers at home, or didn’t have wifi. Some shared a city-issued laptop with younger siblings, all doing homework and having to show up for zoom sessions. Press reports say people are going to the parking lots of closed stores to find wifi to do their work. One of my older students is an EMT instructor whose retirement is suddenly postponed. Another is a cop. She says she hates to make lame excuses, but they’ve got her on overtime and she’s falling behind. Any chance of extra credit to make up my absences? A memo comes from Academic Affairs. Professors have been scheduling zoom sessions at times convenient for themselves without regard to the fact that most students have multiple classes to virtually show up for. How did these people get hired as teachers?

*

Every couple of weeks I drive up to the Terrace to mail packages to our son Xeno in college and shop for supplies. At the post office I am fourth in line for an eternity. The lady ahead of me and I exchange observations about the brutal slowness of the procedure. Her accent says she’s lived here her whole life. Now she’s at the window with the clerk. They know each other.


So how’s the body count?
Two yesterday, thirty today. People should wear a mask. You’re going out alone you know.
Oh ya, I know, like my niece. Need any stamps?

*

Mid-April, thirty days on lock-down, venturing out once every few days, always to the same few vendors: the co-op, the health food store, and the corner restaurant for bread and wine to go. Most other businesses are shuttered. Sooner or later it will come down to the bodegas: bad coffee, canned goods, and sandwiches. That’s where you’ll get it, staring at the unspeakable cold cuts behind the glass while Sam the super spends all his money on lottery scratch games.

Joey is screaming in the street, yelling threats with tremendous profane eloquence. He is not well dressed today, so I didn’t recognize him at first. Later he’s pacing with his phone, talking to no one.

*

If I were to be taken beyond the ocean, and into paradise, and forbidden to write, I would refuse the ocean and paradise (Marina Tsvetayeva).

She was part of the avant literary scene in Russia until the Bolsheviks took over. Exiled for a time in Paris, she returned to the Soviet Union only to be internally exiled, with a pillowcase full of canned goods. When the last tin was gone, she hanged herself. I swear I read this somewhere, and now I can't find it. Most sources say she was in despair at being unable to find work to support her son.

The pandemic will become a defining event of our present generations, as was the War for my parents. Everything was before the War or after the War. What will the survivors of the present chaos call it? World Pandemic One?

There’s a scene in one of Simone de Beauvoir’s novels where she’s at home in occupied Paris with a couple of her friends, and one of the guys comes in with a rabbit. This is very exciting, because meat has been impossible to find. The guys are talking animatedly about how to cook the rabbit and she is nauseated because it stinks.

Will there be food riots?

*

When the thing hit, we bought a lot of oranges and lemons. Lemon boiled with fresh ginger is curative. Now the two-week-old citrus fruits are in various stages of decay. What will you do?, she says. Make compote. I squeeze what's salvageable and get new oranges and lemons and wash them in a pot of soapy water, rinse them, and put them to dry in a colander by the open window. There’s a breeze up from Coney Island. I write a song, Rockaway wind, why don’t you blow it away?

Think about people you might not see anymore. I’m cooking now, so I’m thinking about my nephew David. Between us we decided that we were nephew and uncle. One must have fictive kin because the anglo kinship system has no name for a child fathered by a man who once had a child with one’s wife’s sister. He’s a recent graduate of the other CIA, the Culinary Institute. It is pleasing to imagine him criticizing my knifing technique.

Not so many sirens tonight. Then a long, long one just now. Hear that lonesome whip-poor-will.

*

40 days in. Hector the doorman is dressed like a Turkish infantryman from WW1. It’s cobbled together from his cycling outfits, which are many and various like his bicycles. He mail-orders bicycles to this building because if another bike arrives at his place, his girlfriend will throw him out. We shared notes on that for a while on account of my guitar habit. I had to stop. Hector says I should hang my guitars from the ceiling, like bicycles.

*

Meeting online with friends, we talk around how the really bad stats are in the poor neighborhoods. There’s terrible suffering. A guy calls into the morning radio show. He’s angry, says they’re calling it a Black disease. The Bronx councilman guest says that’s not what I said. I said death rates in the Bronx are double the rates in Manhattan.

A month before it hit, a tall young man with a Bernie button strode toward me on the street. It was as if I wasn’t there. If I hadn’t stepped aside, he would have ploughed me over. An omen.

There’s a media fracas, evangelicals versus Catholics. Z is on the phone with her sister in Philly discussing the present administration’s religious entanglements.


We were in Catholic schools.
We studied this shit.
What are they talking about?
What the fuck are they talking about?

The death rate may be leveling off here, but in the hinterlands nobody is prepared for what this is. Months of warnings and they are still going to church. One megachurch is handing out holy water handkerchiefs. You can’t make this stuff up. They’ll get their rapture any day now: a fever, a Jesus Presley dream, and the rest of us left in hell.


You are angry about something and try to destroy it, but the process becomes self-destructive, it turns inward. You would like to run away from it, but you are the anger itself, so there is nowhere to run. You are haunting yourself, and that is the development of hell. Each torment is a psychological portrait of oneself.

*

The right-wing media say it’s a hoax, or the flu, or a left-wing plot to discredit the president; their narrative shifts like deadly undertow. The president parrots the blowhards. Outrage is the dominant tone. White outrage. The outrage of the entitled. A local TV reporter is covering a protest on Long Island. People want to go back to work, back to the hairdressers and bars. They don’t wear masks. They yell at the reporter, give him the finger. Fake news, fake news. You are the virus. You are the virus. He says he’s just trying to report on their issue.

Now everything's a little upside down; as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped. The Navy Seal who knife-murdered a teenaged POW and posted selfies with the body gets reinstated. The Navy captain who reported covid on his ship gets fired. I keep thinking of the loss there. That guy had a lot of knowledge. Then again, why would anybody want a boat that takes 5000 people to run it?

*

Days and nights run together. There is a lingering air of futility.

Z and I were behind the curve at every stage. She did an event with food. Lots of touching. A hundred hands in the hummus. The featured performer breathed into her cupped hands and passed it to someone in the audience, and we all did the same thing, passing our breath along. That will never happen again. We stopped eating out later than we should have, figured out gloves, got masks, and stopped shopping the big markets later than we should have. It’s a cascading calamity akin to not understanding the elder's decline until it’s too late. Dad ran a red light again and nearly killed somebody. Do you think it’s time to take away his car keys?

*

Every night at 7 there comes a whooping sound -- people applauding and yelling ovations from windows and fire escapes for the nurses and doctors and EMT. It happens every night for weeks and then suddenly stops.

*

After lunch, I piled the dirty dishes on the counter and went down to take the car for a brake job, in case we have to flee, or pick up X at his college. I’m hoping that Maxi the mechanic is at the BP, but the guy in the plexiglass booth says,


The mechanic is off.
Until when?
Until no more corona.

Back home, I leave my clothes in the hallway bin, hang up my mask and spray it with alcohol, take a shower, and go for the dirty dishes. In the upturned lid of the blender is a wet cockroach lying on its side, struggling to breathe. What is the karma of this situation? I flush the bug down the drain, a fighting chance perhaps, and wonder if my friend who died had the sense of drowning, or if the effort of breathing made his heart stop, or whether, given his age, a decision had been made for “palliative care.” How many are they sending off on the poppy?

Siren winds down to a low drone on the block. On the avenue two blocks over they continue howling in both directions.

*

The question is when to pick up one’s son. It takes five hours to get there over mountainous terrain. My brakes are shot, and Maxi isn’t in the garage. To rent a car for the job is to enter a biology experiment.

Radio show guest calls in from Paris, says it’s clear that the US federal government’s failure to respond is motivated by an impulse to genocide. Why are they withholding emergency supplies? He translates a French saying, “There are not 36 answers.” He says there is one answer: to kill black and brown people.

The feds cut the states loose to scavenge the global market for medical supplies and then confiscate the goods and dole them out to favored corporations who sell them to their existing clients. Hospital A needs ventilators, gowns, gloves, and masks. Hospital B has enough of these things at the moment, but the middleman ships the goods to hospital B on account of “existing client relations.”

*

Every day of my life I say my prayer, says the mayor of West Memphis Arkansas on the radio. Tennessee put a shutdown on gatherings but Arkansas did not, so when somebody in Memphis wanted to do a funeral with 250 guests, they hauled the departed over the bridge to West Memphis. That kicked it off for the Natural State. Say your prayer, Mr. Mayor.

*

EMT union boss reports multiple heart attacks per day. Some crews are getting seven deaths a shift. Horror and exhaustion. Covid death count does not include deaths at home or in the van. Then there are deaths from emergencies unrelated to the virus that don’t get treated on time on account of the virus. Don’t fall down. Don’t cut yourself while chopping onions. Don’t breathe too much. Breathe more. Take five deep breaths and hold the sixth one.

Doing my evening run I see Marlon parking his jeep. He lives four flights down with his mother and wife and baby. M’s mother is the classiest chick on the block; when she appears, the sun comes out. Z agrees with me. We have heard men on the street make stunningly frank declarations as she walks by. Marlon and I do the yes-yes, our families are ok, and he says Carl has been readmitted to the hospital. Carl is the building manager. He races a red GTO on the drag circuit. He’s forever tinkering with the car in the vast basement garage. Haven’t seen him for months. Nobody brings it up.

*

Went down to the coop to stand in line for groceries, second time in three weeks. Heard someone blowing a ram’s horn, the shofar drifting up from Midwood. It’s not the high holidays, so it must mean Joshua is going to war.

*

For a couple of weeks, we had no cash because the places we were accustomed to getting it were all shut down, and handling cash seems less sanitary than using plastic. A few times, when I have gone out for provisions, someone has asked me for money and I have to say I don’t have any. What are these people going to do?

An article in the Times by a writer of graphic novels accounts, in pictures and text-bubbles, her family’s flight from the city to her in-laws in Florida and then to her mother’s house in New Mexico. In one panel, they are stopping somewhere in Texas for supplies, and a young man derides her for wearing a mask. What are you, some kind of freak?

*

Xeno’s been self-quarantining in a house he was sharing with two boys and two girls. In March, just before the college shut down, he brought up limiting outside contacts. The housemates made jokes. Don’t worry, Andrea’s titty-milk has the antibodies. X, Daniel, and Andrea had the downstairs and Lisa and Joe had the upper floor. Daniel went home to Queens and within a week had the virus. Most nights, Lisa visited a party house across the street. Under pressure, she agreed to stop doing that, then she kept it up and lied about it. After that the boys and girls separated. Joe and X sheltered downstairs, while Andrea and Lisa shared the upstairs and continued to party. I asked X if the girls had boyfriends. He said Andrea does Tinder. She sees a lot of guys for one-night stands and never repeats. X and Joe asked her to pick one guy to limit the risk, but she refused. Joe split after that. We go back and forth about when is the best time for X to head home. Numbers of infections are going down in Brooklyn. There are fewer cases upstate, but numbers are increasing. We pick a date.

It’s raining. Everything is a calculation -- rain is good, right? At the car rental agency, elderly twin sisters are dropping off an Infiniti SUV. They look like beekeepers -- matching rain coats, wellies, heavy rubber gloves, elaborate face shields, topped with church lady hats. The cheerleader with the iPad tells me to wait till the crew sprays the seats and dashboard down. She says I got an upgrade. The church sisters’ radio pick is playing my old man’s favorite hymns and I weep with strange joy all the way to the Battery Tunnel. Through Jersey and PA and up into western New York I go ninety miles an hour. There are almost no cops. They don’t want to be leaning in car windows getting breathed on. I make it in record time.

We pack the car with X’s stuff and head for home. As I’m pumping gas into the rental, an old woman asks me for a dollar thirty-five. I had a wallet full of twenties for the trip, and thought to give her one, but my hands were gloved and I was in the middle of pumping gas and anxious to get out of that town and I said, sorry I don’t have any cash. She walked away.

Sixty days on lock-down today. X has a fever and sore throat. I think it’s strep. Doc sends in a script for amoxi.

*

Z calls the state to get a test appointment for us. They have a program to survey minority communities and we happen to live in one. Do you have any underlying conditions? There’s an old Sears store a few blocks from here. It’s a time machine. Chicago concrete moderne. Washers, dryers, bad wigs, cheap threads, and every kind of plastic. Now they have a drive-through testing center in the vast parking lot. Show up at 10:30 for the nose swab.

There is screaming outside. Z goes out to the balcony to see a guy from the building opposite yelling at Joey. He gets beat up once in a while because he doesn't signify right. What’s the matter with you? Can’t you see the boy is sick?

We drive to the Sears lot. I’m dreading queuing in the car for hours, but there are no other cars because we have an appointment, and because so few people in this neighborhood have cars, and you need to be in a car to get the test. Can we reflect on that for a minute? The state wants to assess infection levels in underserved communities, so they set up a huge testing operation in an underserved neighborhood where most people do not own automobiles, and they make the automobile necessary for the test. I tell my friend Billy about getting the test, and he says maybe he’ll rent a car so he and his family can qualify.

Don’t open your window. Press your photo ID against the glass. Pull into lane 4. Roll the window down five inches. Lean your head back and don’t move. A beautiful boy in National Guard drag slips a long, q-tip up your nose, all the way to his elbow, as the old man would say. It feels like you’ve got a huge clog in there, and you suddenly get it sucked out. It’s alarming and vaguely pleasant. They say results may take five days, but they come back by morning. Virus undetected. 48 hours on the amoxi and X’s fever and sore throat subside. Breathe.

*

Outside of the city, people are dangerously behind the curve. I took a picture of myself in punk armor and mask and posted it to Instagram. A friend who lives upstate commented overkill, perhaps? I replied, 15,000 deaths and climbing, a guy I regularly ride the elevator with was taken away this week, and our local hospital is stacking corpses in trailers. So no, the gear is not overkill. I posted the reply and then regretted it, because I love him, and so took it down. I don’t know if he saw it.

We think, we hope, that virus load is the key. Maybe we build immunity by being exposed to small amounts. Every time I do an errand, I get a few more flecks, then fight them off until the next run. Or maybe the little signs that appear--the passing sniffles, the maybe sore throat--indicate that in a week we will not be able to breathe. Or maybe we have it for half a day, and then suppress it. I order a blood oxygen meter.

*

Been writing on and off since we shut down 130 days ago. Time goes slippery when you’re off the clock. Felt bad all day yesterday. Sore throat. It has come and gone for weeks. Gargle with warm salt water, it eases. Maybe it’s the allergies, the pollen, the dust. Blood oxygen meter arrived in the mail. 11:30 am rising. Very late for me. Vivid dreams in rapid succession. O2 level 98% pulse 70. Slight cough. This is not unusual.

There’s a line in an Elton John song that goes, “But I might die tonight.” It always seemed to me as a kind of Buddhist motto akin to “This form of life is impermanent; the end will come without warning.” When I first moved to the city, late 70s, I had a downstairs neighbor, one of the poets on the scene. I liked him and thought of him as a kind of model for how to be on the Lower East Side. One day the news came that he had brought a plant to his mother for her birthday. She went into another room while he stood in the parlor, and she heard a thud. Some years later, while I was doing graduate school, my girlfriend and I used to go to dinner occasionally at the home of a friend of hers. That family was a joy. One day as she was taking a shower her husband heard a thud. She left him with young twin daughters. As they were lowering her into the ground, he knelt and wept inconsolably.

*

Under prolonged duress, you scale back goals and expectations to the week, the day, or the hour, depending on the relative precariousness of the present. We’re OK now; that’s all that matters.

The expression nouveaux-pauvres traditionally means wealthy people who become impoverished. Now there is a new, new poor: the ostensibly middle-class. An article in the Guardian today made the argument. It doesn’t take much arguing. The author is an adjunct professor in an “Ivy League” school, probably Columbia, and she writes for various publications. Her husband is similarly employed. She says they have no health insurance and struggle to make the rent. She says that the current pandemic elicited conversations within her group of friends where they all confessed they had been struggling for years. The flimsy facade of middle-class America is melting, and the plague has illuminated this. If the collapse of the middle class has turned on a light, the conditions of the minority communities under policing and the pandemic have set off a supernova. I hope. One can hope.

We will have socialism. Charlie said revolution doesn't happen because somebody thinks it’s a good idea or because some faction takes up arms. It happens because the system stops working. In England, feudalism began to sputter in the 13c with the rise of the market economy and the shift to wage labor. Then, starting in 1348, so many people died of the Black Death that there weren’t enough workers to serve the nobility. Wages rose. The nobility shrank. As the commercial classes took control of towns, feudalism jammed. Capitalism is going to seize up like a ‘54 DeSoto with a cracked oil pan fifty clicks short of Reno.

*

Everyone we know who could leave town did so. Now, all the people who ran away from the city months ago will come back, because the places that they ran to have had months to prepare and have done nothing and numbers are growing wildly. Now that NYC is leveling off, the petit privileged will flee the boondocks and bring it here again. Radio says that Germany thought they had it under control so they opened up. Cases are now doubling every day. Nurse J reports that when he left to take a break, there were no cases at the hospital. Now there is a resurgence.

*

For long moments all one can hear outside the apartment is the wind. There have been sirens for weeks and now just the breeze up from Jamaica Bay.

Early in the lockdown, the governor said crime was down because people are not going out. But what happens when the government fails to provide people with a means of subsistence and the canned goods run out? Now things are shifting. There were 63 shootings in the city last weekend.

*

There was always a prelude to the Fourth of July in the city, a few weeks of sporadic fireworks leading up to the big display over the river, but this year is different. They start every day at about 5 and go until the wee hours. Police say complaint calls are up 40,000 percent from last year. It’s been weeks on end.

Marisol on the corner says it’s these boys around here with money. She means all the small time weed dealers. They have a steady business and cash in hand so they’re buying fireworks.


They don’t have nothing to do so they sleep all day and blow things up all night. They are entertaining themselves.
Where do they get the fireworks?
Chinatown. You can get everything over there.

Some writers suggest the police are supplying the Black kids so they have an excuse to crack down on the community. The Times says at the factories in PA, the parking lots are full of cars with out-of-state plates. The big moneymaker for the fireworks manufacturers has long been the heavy stuff used in municipal celebrations and such. The smaller merchandise was never a huge profit maker. But now with the virus, the big shows are off and they are dropping prices by half on the small stuff. Double your money out of the trunk of your car on Flatbush Avenue. Cops drive by like it isn’t happening.

I always liked the packaging, because it promises so much delight while the product delivers only brief alarm. It’s a microcosmic instance of trying to guess the moment of death.

Marisol is from the DR. She tells me she still has a house there, in the neighborhood of the home of Christopher Columbus. This address is a point of pride. She apparently owns the building on our corner. She made some money running a chain of shops and retired to this place. On her ground floor front there is a Mexican restaurant and on our street side is an old storefront. She sets up on the shop stoop every day year round. A hand-painted plank sign says Trift Shop [sic] in blue script. A smashed electric guitar is mounted on the plank by way of decoration. The shop window is covered with a steel honeycomb grate interlaced with various merchandise -- old R&B 45s, scarves, cheap purses, framed certificates, the possessions of the dead. There are folding tables along the building wall where she curates her daily selections of books, paintings, lamps, dishes, etc. One day she had a framed gold record out there – 500,000 sold. Each morning she selects display items from the cellar and from the shop, which she can barely enter because it is piled to the door jambs with chandeliers, mirrors, old coats, every kind of book and magazine, musical instruments, old typewriters, clocks, shoes, and so on. She is friendly and kind.

*

I’m taking out the trash. The elevator door opens and old Avi is in there. He startles. He’s naked and covered in sweat. What’s up Avi? You alright? Want to go home? He looks so scared that I let him go. I wait and call the elevator again. He’s still there. Go back inside the flat and buzz the doorman. Ya we know, they’re on their way. In the lobby there are two EMT guys with the steel chair. Two cop cars and an ambulance outside. Cop brass shows up, probably the precinct community relations officer. The super says, he’s got to go.

*


When parted from beloved friends, wandering alone, my own projections’ empty forms appear; may the Buddhas send out the power of their compassion so that the Bardo’s terrors do not come.

The angel of death could be that drunk on the corner down by the subway station. I was maneuvering to let an old lady pass and inadvertently startled a slender bedraggled man. Can of beer in his hand, wobbling along the sidewalk. White motherfucker!, he said, and spit in my face. Social distancing! Social distancing! It’s the law! The drug store right there was closed so I headed a few doors down to the Tibetan grocery. The usual five guys are out front. They watch me approach. One of them follows me inside and hands me a bunch of paper napkins.


You see that?
Yes.
Spit in my face.
Yes. But your mask.
It went in my eye.

At the start, we counted days past our last risky activity. Mark the calendar: fourteen days and you should be OK. We stopped doing the calendar so much, though we mentally track the days since a seemingly risky event.

Left eye stings a little. Maybe because of the alcohol in his sputum. Maybe that’s good. Maybe the guy is so fucked up that he’s not transmitting. In The Andromeda Strain (Michael Crichton, 1969), a virus arrives in small-town New Mexico. Two people survive: an infant whose constant crying makes his metabolism too alkaline, and an old drunk, whose metabolism is too acidic.

We put this one on the calendar. Today is day 15.

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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

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