My dad calls me and says, “two weeks.” He’s a respiratory therapist, and that’s how long until his hospital system expects to be overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases. He’s worried about me, in New York City, and calls most days to check in. I turn down his plan to rent me a room in mill-town-turned-hip-locale Millvale, just outside Pittsburgh, insisting that fleeing New York is anti-social behavior (“But you’re a Pittsburgher!” he responds incredulously). He insists on mailing me some gloves to wear when I go to the grocery store; they’ll arrive tomorrow morning.
He tells me about a gunshot-wound victim he has in his hospital unit today—”not a coronavirus case!” he jokes in the typically dark fashion of someone who has worked in the ER for years. I ask him if he’s heard that John Prine has coronavirus. He has—he was never much of a Prine fan, he says, but he once read a Rolling Stone story about Prine in the ‘70s that mentioned the songwriter’s days as a mailman, and that he’d occasionally squeeze into a mailbox along his route to practice songs, a tale that delighted my working-class artist dad.
Being in New York during the coronavirus crisis is getting a bit concerning. They’re building field hospitals in Central Park and in a stadium in Queens; they’ve turned the Empire State Building into a flashing red siren. People are dying trying to get into hospitals, dying in hospitals, dying at home because they were turned away from the hospital. If you get sick, the hospital no longer seems to be an option. The state’s governor holds press conferences where he says he won’t entertain a bill proposed by the state senate to suspend rent—tomorrow is the first of the month and even the New York Times estimates that 40 percent of New Yorkers may be unable to pay rent. Yesterday morning, as I was sitting on my stoop, a little girl walked up to me, an umbrella shielding her from the early-morning drizzle. “Do you have any money for sandwiches?” she asked. “My mom is out of work and me and my sisters are going hungry.” I handed her the money I had on me and weakly wished her good health.
Doctors say hundreds of the city’s inmates have coronavirus now. The jails are completely unprepared, and the authorities are taking their time releasing people. Construction workers text me several times a day about how filthy their job sites are—the governor finally shut down “nonessential” construction sites this week but, would you believe it, there are loopholes to the executive order. A reporter I follow online tweets that while 332 people died of coronavirus today in New York, the rate of increase has been steady, rather than rising, for the past couple days (I try to feel relieved?).
I walk to CVS to pick up Prozac. There’s a line of six or seven people, mostly older, all with masks, waiting to enter the store. Social distancing means a store can only let in a handful of people at a time. I walk to the back of the line and cover my face with a keffiyeh—I have no idea where people are getting masks.
We hold a staff meeting, via Zoom, a video-conferencing app. Coworkers call in from Istanbul, London, Dublin, Berlin, Toronto, and across the United States. Several of us live in buildings that are going on rent strike tomorrow. Most people don’t have the savings to cover a month of New York rent, so regardless of what the governor or anyone else says, people simply are not going to pay. I think about my laid-off roommate, a bartender. I take notes for a coworker who is quarantining in Australia and thus asleep at the meeting’s scheduled time. As my coworkers discuss the financial state of our publication and Tiger King, I stare at a photobooth set I’d picked up on the floor of a Manhattan karaoke bar last year which has now freed itself from a nearby pile of papers stacked in a milk crate. Two strangers look back at me, making silly faces, cocktails in hand.
Lately, books turn to ash in my hands. I inspect my bookshelves in hopes something will attract my attention. A biography of Paul Robeson that I didn’t know I owned? Dead Souls? The books crookedly pile up beside my bed in the room that I rarely leave. I take a break from work to force myself to read an essay I’ve had open on my computer for a while. In it, the author reflects on his failed efforts to evade commodification as a young writer. He writes: “I realize now that I was trying to undo by writing what could only be undone by action, not alone but with others—and through connections that incantation alone would not conjure.” I’ve been wondering why writing feels so meaningless during this pandemic, even emptier than usual. It isn’t totally useless, of course; the future is open, now more than ever, even if the forces of Left and Right that seek to shape it are on nowhere close to a level playing field. But action, right now, is hard to come by—I haven’t left my neighborhood in weeks. The emergent wave of walkouts and sickouts by essential workers—at Amazon, General Electric, Whole Foods, and so on—and the tenant organizing are actions needed to force the hands of the rich and powerful, who are very busy attending to their own our problems. When the system is so hostile to reform, much less radical changes, no amount of correct phrasing or clever proposals can really shape history.
In an essay on “not going home,” critic James Woods writes of a sort of secular homelessness—or “homelooseness,” as he grotesquely phrases it—the type of leaving home that is voluntarily chosen but nonetheless inflected with an “afterwardness,” a term he borrows from Freud. As he writes,
To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done.
Afterwardness saturates the present. We never knew we were entering a new era until it arrived. What was once unthinkable—30 percent unemployment—is now fact. Much of what came before feels irrevocably distant, or distorted; hazy. The past had a fog and we didn’t even know it. Only now, in the midst of the pandemic, is the fragility of our way of living clear. We face the facts, and in doing so, transform what came before. We can never go back.
My dad calls again. He’s decided to rent the room in Millvale himself, in case he needs to isolate away from my mom. He spent one night in a hotel last week after a coworker suspected they’d been exposed to the virus (it turned out to be an unnecessary precaution: the coworker tested negative for COVID-19), and he doesn’t want to rely on the hospital for housing next time. I tell him I wish he could stay home, and to have a safe rest of his shift.