This certainly isn’t an entry I could have imagined writing as the third installment of my Subway Diary–an ode to my love of the New York City subways. But what a difference a few weeks can make— and not just for Joe Biden and Bernie. The heretofore “representative” photo that accompanied Diary #1 one long month ago would be unfathomable today–casting into sharp focus the seismic transformation that has occurred overnight to life in this city and throughout America and the world.
- Like so many others, before such decisions were taken out of my hands, I’d grappled over the past weeks with how to go about life in the city: whether to continue riding the subways and buses; whether to show up at ball games, theatres, restaurants, or business meetings. How to strike the balance between clinging to a more cautious semblance of my customary life in the city versus retreating into a cocoon to take refuge from the Coronavirus plague.
- Left to my own devices, and being a hopeless optimist, I was inclined to discount the anxieties and advice of others and just go on with my life, taking basic precautions and assuming–perhaps recklessly–that the virus wouldn’t find me. And that’s what I did.
- At first, my family members went along with me, although watchfully, seeking to protect me in ways that were invisible to me or that I chose to ignore. And even they were relatively relaxed. As recently as March 4, Melissa and I took my prized subways down to 42d street to see a play (Cambodian Rock Band) at the still well-populated Signature Theatre; and on March 5th, my son Tommy and I took the subway to Madison Square Garden where we saw Mika Zibanejad score 5 goals in a thrilling 6-5 win over the Capitals On March 7, I took 6 subways round trip to play tennis in Queens. Those were the last subways I took for fun (as opposed to medical appointments and work meetings, which were halted later.) Here’s what I saw underground:
- Saturday March 7: people continued to ride the subways. The cars were neither empty nor full—not as crowded as before but people sat side by side and stood together, ungloved, hanging on to the poles; social distancing was nowhere in sight. There were notably fewer foreign tourists with kids (undoubtedly not as many tourists in the city by then; and many of those here were probably avoiding the subway).
- Sadly, the picture underground looked much like other aspects of unequal life in America: even more so than usual, it was the less well-heeled riding the underground rails, many of whom undoubtedly lacked other options.
- Some people did take precautions. My favorite was a masked Hispanic couple–him pictured here on the guitar while his partner roamed the car taking collections as she sang through her mask.
- I did have a choice–and continued to ride. The good news is that I was able to get a seat — with my small bottle of Purell in hand, applied immediately after getting off the train. At that point, I was still planning to go on with ordinary life in the city–albeit much more carefully than before–at least for a while longer.
- Sunday March 8 One day later, Melissa and I spoke with my pulmonologist, ostensibly about whether I would need to cancel a fly fishing trip in Argentina for which I was scheduled to leave on March 28. (This was before Argentina barred U.S. residents from entering the country). I’ve known this doctor for a long time and he’s always been very wise and careful, but not overly protective. I hoped, and believed, he might say that I could reasonably decide to proceed with my trip so long as I was vigilant about washing my hands and so on. I also thought he might suggest that I wear a mask for the flight. Wrong. He read me the riot act: “You’re not a normal person–you’re not even a normal old person with an increased risk profile. Your immune system is compromised and you have a chronic lung condition.” I’d hit the trifecta. Melissa was sympathetic but unsurprised. She had suggested the call with the doctor in the first place, having concluded from my trip to Madison Square Garden days earlier that I was overdoing the “not over-reacting” thing.
- Wednesday March 11 Alarm bells sound and fear spreads as the virus strikes all across the country and projections are dire. Tom Hanks is infected; the NBA shuts down, followed by other sports leagues; Trump’s prime time attempt to lull the public into a false sense of security thanks to his brilliant moves is a debacle. The roof caves in–including on the markets. Life in America as we know it begins to shut down. Vanishing before our eyes.
- Thursday March 12 By now, I’m getting nervous and behaving more cautiously, but still take the subway to a medical appointment downtown. Good news: The car is virtually empty. There’s no one within 15 feet of me—and the few stragglers on board face in a different direction. How Ironic: in terms of social distancing, the empty subway seems like one of the safest ways to travel around the city.
- No such luck coming home. An uptown A train isn’t jammed, but is too populated for comfort; I let it pass and take the next, sparsely populated C train home.
- Saturday March 14–I surrender Despite Trump’s bluster and misinformation, the scientists have spoken loudly and clearly, and state and local governments here (and foreign governments around the world), take decisive action, driving home the seriousness of the Coronavirus tsunami. It finally seeps into my thick skull that, given my trifecta I can’t mess around: As a New York Times article put it bluntly: “Those with chronic health problems are more likely to develop severe illnesses and to die, research shows.” I morph from being cavalier to feeling more vulnerable than at any time since my bone marrow transplant seven years ago when I was quarantined for several months. We cancel everything–our family seder, dinners with close friends, business lunches and meetings. In short, I head for the bunker, with any notion of “striking a balance”–of preserving some semblance of life in the city–a figment of the past.
- And the bunker’s not so bad–I spend the days working from home, reading (The Fingersmith), practicing the piano, writing for this blog, and playing backgammon with Tommy. The only hard part is NOT HAVING ANY SPORTS TO WATCH!
- I leave home only to take walks in Central Park with Melissa or a friend, being careful to stick to less-travelled paths. With schools, sports leagues, gyms, restaurants, theatres and just about everything else now shut down, people are courteous–stepping aside as we walk in opposite directions so we can all maintain the “social distance” that’s become such a ubiquitous watchword.
- Sunday March 15 The weather today was spectacular: blue skies, sunny, and warm; a complete mismatch with the situation. In that respect–and with everyone anxiously in the same boat, not knowing what’s to come–it struck me that the picturesque but eerie scene in Central Park resembled the only other occasion since Pearl Harbor when life in American has been turned on its head so completely and unforeseeably: The beautiful fall day that became known as 9/11.
Richard, You captured the NYC experience perfectly. Stay safe!
Great blog! I am very glad that you are being cautious. Christine and I have hunkered down too. It is better to be safe than sorry, especially for you. Stay safe and healthy!
Great blog! Stay safe! Please!