A City of Bodies

The week we started hoarding beans.

New Yorkers on Tuesday, March 10. Photo: David Williams
New Yorkers on Tuesday, March 10. Photo: David Williams
New Yorkers on Tuesday, March 10. Photo: David Williams

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My private principle of subway etiquette has always gone something like this: Pretend you’re not a body, and help others do the same. I try not to touch; I try not to smell. I don’t eat. I don’t groom. I am eyes and ears only, compact and quiet, moving toward the center of the car as best I can.

It’s a pretense required to enjoy what I want to enjoy about living in New York: the simultaneous experience of proximity and privacy, watching and being watched without quite acknowledging either — the ability to indulge in solitude without isolation. It’s a pretense that, suddenly, has grown untenable. The truth, now unignorable: We were all bodies all along, no matter if we’d never clip our fingernails on the train. Whatever thin, invisible barriers I liked to imagine were not the kind to thwart a virus.

Navigating New York City in March of 2020 meant growing increasingly alert to gestures and sensations that once passed beneath notice. In the beginning, this all felt stagy, artificial. Your eye itches: Go to rub it, and pull your hand away. Your phone fidgets in your pocket: Do you pull it out? Someone coughs: Look up, wondering if they made it to their elbow. Quickly rearrange your face into the nonjudgmental expression of a person who’s definitely not a hygiene-vigilante panicmonger. Stand on the rush-hour subway, holding the pole, your bag brushing the passenger behind you as the train stops. Imagine an oily phantom print of subway pole on your left palm until you reach a sink. What started out as stagy soon became routine.

How worried to be, and about which possibilities, exactly? Like climate change, this was a catastrophe that casual observers could tell themselves was slow moving until it had just about arrived. For the young and healthy, calibrating worry required holding a few things in your head at once: that you were not in danger (probably), but that others would be (certainly, imminently), and that protecting other people meant doing things that seemed like protecting yourself, even though you didn’t need to worry about yourself (probably). This felt like being worried and not worried at the same time, with an overlaid awareness of excess worry’s perils: What if the run on toilet paper came when you were on your last roll? On the one hand, jokes about buying beans. On the other hand, actually buying beans.

Coronavirus was slow to saturate daily life. It started for me on Wednesday, March 4, which was after I started washing my hands for “Happy Birthday”-times-two but before I first heard the phrase “flattening the curve.” Wednesday was the day when the London Book Fair was canceled, when coronavirus cases in New York State entered double digits, and when the New York Times felt the need to assure readers that dogs were unlikely to contract coronavirus, news it illustrated with a photo of a poodle in a mask. Wednesday was when I bought beans.

This began with coffee. I’d gone down the street for a cup of coffee when it occurred to me: Couldn’t hurt to buy an extra bag of beans. Throw them in the freezer, forget about them. Just in case. Coffee in hand, spare beans in bag, another thought soon followed: Couldn’t hurt to go a couple blocks further, to Key Food, and get a few more things. Why not? I might as well buy some pasta, some onions, some canned tomatoes. A bag of Goya beans, or — two. (Why not?) I felt resourceful as I gathered these items, mentally narrating their irrefutable practicality, unsure whether my husband would view my behavior as alarmist. I picked up some not-yet-strictly-necessary toilet paper. Everywhere there were Clorox wipes. I picked up Clorox wipes. I brought my purchases home. Surfaces, I thought, swabbing doorknobs and light switches. I felt newly aware that my doorknobs and light switches existed in a default state of filth — cleaning them now felt like an inadequate response to all the filth that came before and would come after. But, still. Why not?

That Wednesday, alone at Key Food and at home, I was uncertain whether I was behaving appropriately. Perhaps I was alarmist? Wednesday night, I left my neighborhood and received an answer: Arriving at a reading on the Upper West Side, I went in for a handshake and was rebuffed instantly, with a laugh. A new and slightly altered reality had arrived.

Shared anxiety can feel festive in New York — not to say it’s taken lightly, just that there’s a flicker of camaraderie when people are thrown together with the same bad thing on their minds. Backstage at the reading, every greeting was an occasion to point out that you weren’t shaking hands, weren’t hugging, to say how much you normally loved to touch your face. Someone had seen two women get on the train and spray their seats with Lysol before sitting down. We compared the facts we had collected: that kids didn’t seem to be getting sick, at least, so that was good; that you could try tapping elbows instead of shaking hands. We experimented with tapping feet, which felt strangely intimate — like playing footsie while you both look down at your toes.

Thursday night, I watched Contagion, like everybody else. Friday night, on the way to dinner with friends, we talked about the movie, how it was both scary (lingering shots of all the surfaces that Gwyneth Paltrow touched before she died) and not. Everyone in charge was so competent — sure, Matt Damon turns slightly survivalist to save his teenage daughter, but the scientists and bureaucrats all work so hard! And they figure it out; they find a vaccine. The fact that things get so scary (sorry, Gwyneth) only made it perversely reassuring in the end. It made even a worst-case scenario feel somehow surmountable. We did not discuss the towns in Northern Italy that were already on lockdown; nor Trump’s insistence that anyone who wanted a test could have one, amid doctors’ protests that there were no tests to give.

We washed our hands upon arriving at the restaurant and proceeded to touch surfaces with wild abandon — bottles, glasses, doors, ATMs. Later, at karaoke, a canister of disinfectant wipes sat beside the microphone. But by the time we were at karaoke, we were already drunk, minds rinsed clean of our new habits, restored to the underlying selfish hubris of the young and healthy. We’d forgotten that before the competent scientists showed up, there was just Gwyneth, having dinner and a big night out. We mostly failed to disinfect the mic.

Saturday, hung-over, I bought a bagel and ate it in the park, reading Wang Xiuying’s “The Word From Wuhan” in the London Review of Books. “I have now been at home for a month,” Wang wrote. “I order food on my smartphone and a courier delivers it to the gate of the compound.” A couple in their 20s, a boy and a girl, sat down on the bench beside me. The boy picked up a call. “You’re sending a respirator?” he said. “I thought you said you were sending masks.” He listened for a little while. “Oh — when I hear ‘respirator,’ I think … a machine.” Plump birds hopped at our feet. Now we knew what N95 respirators were. After he got off the phone, the boy summarized the call for his companion, adopting a broad southern accent: “‘My opinion is this coronavirus is to thin out the population.’” He dropped the accent. “He has all these conspiracy theories.”

I felt bad for the man on the other end of the call, who seemed to be a grandfather. He could probably use a respirator more than his grandson. In the LRB, Wang described the deadly obfuscation and blame-shifting of authorities in China. On the bench, the couple talked about the Democratic primary. I harbored a vague fantasy of the coronavirus as a clarifying moral force in the election. Maybe voters would start seeing other people’s health care in newly urgent terms; maybe sick leave for service workers would become a matter of enlightened self-interest. Or maybe we’d just spend the months to come thinking about the health of men in their 70s shaking hands in crowds, while the current administration engaged in deadly obfuscation and blame-shifting.

I walked from the park to the bookstore my husband runs. He was on his break, and while I was there, his sister called. Their brother had been in Japan a couple weeks before, and now he had a fever. He wanted to be tested, and he kept getting turned away. He was fine — would be fine, was already starting to feel better — but what was he supposed to tell everyone around him? All he could do for now was stay home. “Social distancing”: another term that had lately entered the collective vocabulary. Working in retail, my husband spends his days in a large public space, interacting and handling nonporous objects with a steady stream of strangers. “When this hits,” he said, “I’m done.” But when could we really say that it had hit? It wouldn’t be all at once, like a storm, even if the canned goods were conjuring memories of hurricanes Sandy and Irene. For now, the bookstore was busy and my husband wasn’t sick. He’d seen a bump in sales for Ling Ma’s pandemic novel, Severance, and sold a couple copies of Albert Camus’s The Plague.

Sunday night was a birthday dinner. The small talk had advanced: Now the jokes weren’t about hugs; the jokes were about leaving town. Uptown, Columbia was suspending the next two days of classes. On my way home, the subway announcements on the C train included coronavirus warnings, reminders to wash hands and cover coughs.

Monday was the day my office got shut down. Someone elsewhere in the building has tested positive, and now the whole place was getting cleaned. The previous week, closings and canceled plans felt like an “abundance of caution”; this week, they felt inevitable. People now seemed surprised that public schools remained open. No one expected to find Purell stocked at Duane Reade. That same day, Governor Cuomo announced plans to address the latter situation: Corcraft brand hand sanitizer, manufactured using prison labor. “I detect lilac, hydrangea, tulips,” Cuomo said, smelling the sanitizer at a press conference.

The New York City public schools presented a more complicated challenge. Private schools Spence and Collegiate had shut down the week before for campus cleanings; now Horace Mann and Brearley announced closures. But hundreds of thousands of poor and homeless students depended on public schools for food: If school closed, how would they eat? The new crisis exposed an ongoing crisis. Abundance of caution was just like any other kind of abundance: something only the affluent could afford. Disease affected everyone, but the stakes were not the same. If things got very bad, we learned, disaster plans called for Rikers Island inmates to dig graves and bury bodies.

The weather in the city was beautiful that day: In any other year, a March 9 like this would be the first night to drink outdoors. Leaving my house, I passed a woman with a sleeveless floral dress. Leaving the pharmacy, I passed a woman with three bottles of rubbing alcohol.

Tuesday, I went down to the coffee shop, where a sign had appeared on the counter: In deference to New York’s state of emergency, they would use only disposable cups for now. Fewer shared surfaces to risk touching, maybe? The rationale was a little unclear to me, but I deferred to their authority. The place was packed. I asked the barista if more people than usual seemed to be working there — way more, she said. I suspected no one present would claim their choice was logical, that an office was a risk where a coffee shop was not. Instead, we seemed to be lingering in familiar habits, assuming that “working from home” was interchangeable with “working from a coffee shop,” the way it was when “working from home” meant avoiding other people’s distractions and not avoiding other people’s air. I asked about the cup thing, and the barista wasn’t sure. “I’m happy to be extra cautious,” she said. “Because I can’t do my job from home.”

Wednesday morning at 8:33, I got a call from my mom, a family-practice doctor in California. It was 5:33 her time, but she’d been up since three. “It’s making it hard to sleep at night,” she said. Work was crazy, there weren’t enough tests, and she’d been trying to talk my aunt in the Midwest into canceling her trip to New York. She was coming to see my cousin, who worked at a Broadway theater. Later that day, a spokesman announced that an usher at two Broadway theaters had tested positive. By Thursday, all Broadway would be closed.

The coffee shop was sparsely populated when I walked in on Wednesday afternoon. An inscrutable confrontation was under way. A woman seated at her laptop addressed a woman standing in a bike helmet, who had evidently tried to bring a reusable cup. A few other coffee buyers looked on. “Social distancing,” the seated woman said, animated. “All these things are based in science.” A barista hovered nearby, as if readying herself to intervene. “We understand that today you need to go somewhere else with your cup,” she told the woman in the helmet. “We’ll hope we’re overreacting.” A brief argument about the flu ensued. The seated woman declared that she worked in public health; the woman in the bicycle helmet took her cup and left. There was a brief round of applause, in which the seated woman participated.

I was glad to see a voice of science prevail. But I still wasn’t sure I understood the cup rule, or how — when it came to social distance — handing a barista your travel mug was worse than taking your laptop to a coffee shop. Authority was waiting around for anyone who claimed it. And in a context where Donald Trump kept saying to worry less, it hardly seemed unreasonable to think that we all should worry more.

Was going to an appointment in Manhattan foolish or practical? A week ago, I could have told you, but now I wasn’t sure. The woman at the salon said business had fallen off by half. I rode home on an L train that, at 7 p.m., still had standing room — more than usual, but it also wasn’t empty. No masks in the car. I tried to read the scene for signs, and it yielded nothing. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for anymore. Outbreak played on a TV at the sandwich place where I stopped to pick up dinner; and from a tweet thread on Italian doctors, I learned the phrase “catastrophe medicine.” By the time I arrived home, the tabs open on my phone included “Coronavirus Patients’ Long Ventilator Stays Put Strain on Hospitals,” “Superrich Jet Off to Disaster Bunkers Amid Coronavirus Outbreak,” and “Out of an Abundance of Caution, I Have No Clue What to Do.”

Alone in my apartment, I drifted out onto the seas of Twitter. Even Instagram served up corona jokes, corona advice, corona memes. Calls for a statewide eviction moratorium. Calls to visit Chinatown and tip. A West Village restaurant with hand sanitizer homemade with rosemary and Everclear. The news had rushed past my ability to form the right response. On Wednesday, my therapist said that people were mentioning 9/11 — the way the city had felt then. She said it like the comparison might be a bit unexpected. Hearing the same thing Friday, who could be surprised?

Friday, a friend’s father was having heart surgery. She saw him Thursday and realized they probably shouldn’t hug. My in-laws, several hours outside the city, invited family to come and stay — for the weekend, or whenever, if we wanted to get away. I wanted to get away. I was unsure about mass transit, though, and unsure whether anybody in their 70s really needed to be around me and my teeming urban germs.

The last time I remember thinking deliberately about being just a body was three years ago, after Trump’s inauguration — when, jammed together on the Mall or Brooklyn Bridge, moving and yelling with strangers offered a sense that you were doing something, allowing your physical presence to be usefully subsumed. In On Immunity, Eula Biss quotes her sister: “Our bodies aren’t independent,” she tells Biss. “The health of our bodies always depends on choices other people are making.” She’s talking about inoculation and herd immunity, the way disease brings out our fear of other people, but our reliance on them, too. “The point is there’s an illusion of independence,” the sister says. Letting go of that illusion now may mean precisely not showing up — protecting the city from itself by staying home, stepping back, waiting. Living in New York without going out into New York — retreating from the countless points of contact that drew us here in the first place. It will be harder than I would have thought.

*This article appears in the March 16, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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A City of Bodies