April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain. – T.S. Eliot
It would have been just another quiet early spring night in the neighborhood if it weren’t for the surgical gloves on my hands.
I was walking to my mother’s apartment to scavenge in the early age of coronavirus. A snowbird in retreat, my mother is holed up in her Florida home and doing the math as to when she can possibly come back to Rockaway Beach in Queens this summer. But in the meantime, it’s open season for our family on things in her apartment like paper towels, which can cost you more than $10 a roll on the internet if you’re lucky.
Skulking around your neighborhood with an imaginary six-foot force field and looking for paper towels is now the new normal in New York City. And less than 20 years after 9/11, some Americans are ready to blame New York for a virus that’s rapidly spreading everywhere, hoping to build a very breachable wall via quarantine. Good luck at winning that whack-a-mole game.
Fighting through a weird and deadly crisis is becoming second nature to many New Yorkers, but it’s especially true in Rockaway, which is home to a large number of emergency workers, including police and firefighters. Less than two months after 9/11, a jumbo jet crashed into the middle of Belle Harbor in Rockaway, nearly blowing up the entire neighborhood. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy ripped through the peninsula, permanently rewriting the map. And now there’s a virus with a death toll that’s just an estimate in the near future, as if someone is warning us about a devastating terrorist strike that’s coming in about two weeks.
I’ve been trying not to take out my virtual calculator to figure out the potential body count, but it’s staggering. Shortly after 9/11, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani was asked about the death toll, and he was amazingly frank, saying the number “will be more than any of us can bear ultimately.”
Giuliani was right – and yet, the 9/11 death toll could be a small fraction of what coronavirus could be delivering to New York in slower motion. Hearing the “did you know he tested positive?” news is like a hyperdrive version from the era of AIDS, when yet another New Yorker was taken down almost every day by a plague that had no answer.
And yet, we do have responses – and some of them are just helpfully goofy. Some of my family members last night took to the Internet and tried to have a cocktail party en masse. It was a mess, but a glorious one. Outside of the government trying to save us, stupid human tricks might keep us laughing through some tears. There must be time to clean up later.