It was the wail of the ambulance sirens in the night that you’d remember the next day. It woke you up sometimes. Or maybe you were already awake. Wail and yelp. Quiet. And then a sustained scream when all else was silent. No cars, no buses, no trucks. Then there were the nights when you didn’t hear them so much. And you would go downstairs in the morning and say to your wife, “I think it’s getting better. I only heard a couple last night.” It has been much better for three months now.
Then there were the birds. They’d start a little before 5 a.m. I’ve never been a bird guy, not my thing. But sick and quarantined in my lonely room, I took an interest in them. Our Brooklyn apartment looks out on a courtyard that’s ringed by pear trees—fewer than there used to be because most died and were cut down, but still there are trees. And birds. There’s a screeching blue jay, robins whose rhythmic calls rise and fall, chattering starlings, a cooing dove, and maybe a grackle. There are mockingbirds, or so I’ve been told, imitating the calls of others. Sometimes they sounded a little like the sirens.
One early morning in late March, at a low point for me, I was thrashing around in bed in my feverish condition, trying unsuccessfully to find a halfway comfortable position, when the birds started up in earnest. It sounded like a jungle. One of the birds seemed to me to be channeling Dustin Hoffman playing Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy in that scene where he and Jon Voight are crossing a New York City street and a cab nearly hits them. Hoffman screeches his famous line, “I’m walking here, I’m walking here!” as he bangs angry blows on the taxi hood. The Hoffman-like avian declaration coming from the courtyard that morning sounded uncanny to me, and the bird kept chirping his Ratso Rizzo imitation for the next 20 minutes. It’s strange what can help get you through the early morning hours when you have the coronavirus. On that day it was a bird.
I’m all better now, if you were wondering, but like everyone in New York right now, I’m worrying about friends and family and my city. There has been something comforting through all the sickness and death about the concern we have for each other. I’ve been reminded that the desire to help others is embedded in us. Of course, we are not all good Samaritans, and many have no choice but to get on the train and go to work every day. Still, these last four months have been a reminder that most people are decent and brave.
I have a friend T. He is a New York City train operator, an older guy, over 60. It is a second career for him, so he still doesn’t have much seniority. Often he drives the subway on the night shift. One day he’s on the G, the next the R, and a third the D. He goes all over the city. The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority was slow to give the train operators and bus drivers gloves or masks. For weeks, T brought his own hand sanitizer to work. The most dangerous part of the work, he told me back in May, is the time spent in overcrowded crew rooms at the end of the line. There can be a dozen workers crammed into a space not much larger than a closet. I read back in June that 127 transportation workers had already died from the coronavirus, and that 83 of them worked on the subways. T says the Transit Authority, and even the union, TWU Local 100, did too little and did it far too late to protect workers. The number of dead will be higher by now.
When he gets home from work, T puts his uniform in a plastic bag, and his partner later takes it and empties it into the washing machine. The train operators have five uniforms, so he can manage a couple of days without a clean load of laundry. T has old—really old—relatives who need to be cared for. I am sure he could get a temporary dispensation from work. But he wouldn’t think of taking a day off.
One evening, a few days ago, he headed out of his home in Brooklyn in his uniform on his way to work. It happened that the hour turned to 7 p.m. as he headed to his car. People on the street started clapping their hands. Others opened their windows and began whooping and hollering and banging on pots and pans. It was the daily thank you by New Yorkers to everyone risking their health—a loud celebration for grocery store employees, health workers, cops, Verizon and Con Edison employees, delivery people, train and bus operators, and all the others who are keeping the city alive. Most of the people applauding didn’t know T, but those clapping hands and cheers gave him a lift that evening. He remembered it later. “They should do that for us every hour!“ he said later with a smile.
A group of my friends and I Zoomed for a book club discussion on The Drunkard’s Walk. It’s about the way randomness controls our lives, and it provides some mathematical lessons to illustrate how our understanding of probability and patterns is usually incorrect. Although we’d decided to read the book in November, it seemed right that we only gotten around to discussing it in May. What could be more random than who you end up sitting next to on a crowded subway train sometime in March on your daily commute? Or whether one taxi driver pulls over before another to pick you up? Such were the arbitrary decisions that meant life or death for thousands of New Yorkers in the spring of 2020.
One of the Zoomsters on this recent night was my friend D. He works as a physician assistant at a clinic in the South Bronx. Many of his patients are older and on methadone. Of course, he doesn’t talk about his patients, but I can’t imagine they are doing too well. It was clear to me that D’s life had changed, more than that of many people, in the last few weeks. For one thing, in order to keep a safe distance from his wife whom he worried about infecting, he’d moved out of his west side apartment and into the empty east side apartment of an old friend who had left town. While D looked more tired and harried than ordinary, he was happy to discuss our book while making himself a sandwich and confirming the author’s contention that other than Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941, nothing had ever happened in baseball that couldn’t be explained by the probability theory of coin-tossing models.
Later that night, I asked D how the bachelor life was treating him, and he told me that he was taking a daily walk after work with his spouse in Central Park. “We observe the social distancing rules. Six feet apart. We are like a courting Hasidic couple,” he said. Husbands and wives and love and intimacy in New York in the spring of 2020. Come to think of it, D does have a rabbinical beard.
My mom is 86. She gets confused, and her memory is not so good. Until early March, which was the last time I was able to safely visit her until recently, I’d seen her every week since my father died a little over three years ago. The last few months haven’t been easy for her. We are fortunate to have a woman, Rory, who takes care of my mother and is determined to do everything she can to keep her safe. The next-door neighbors who often visited have left town, so it has just been Rory and my mother, isolated for over three months now. For the month of March and into April, my mother just couldn’t understand that there was a pandemic that required social distancing. She would read about it and see it on television, and it would make sense, and then she’d forget about it 20 minutes later. I’d call and explain that she shouldn’t be shopping in a crowded supermarket, or even leaving the apartment at all, but later I’d hear my mother was insisting on going outside and not understanding why people needed to wear masks.
On April 5 I got a message from Rory saying my mother was “throwing a tantrum and covering her ears” when she tried to warn her of the dangers of being infected by the virus. Rory asked me if I could again talk to my mother about the dangers of not taking precautions. I did, but it didn’t seem like my warning was getting through. I couldn’t really blame my mother for her frustration and lack of comprehension. I’d been slow to understand myself. Later that day, the 93-year-old Queen of England spoke to her subjects of the need to be vigilant about the coronavirus: “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return.” The Queen talked about how the “painful sense of separation from loved ones” that social distancing was causing for people reminded her of the experience child evacuees had during the Second World War. My mother is English. She immigrated to America in the 1950 and as a schoolgirl, during the war, she was sent away to school to a part of the country that was thought to be safer from German bombs than the town where she lived.
Some hours after the Queen’s address, Rory played it back for my mother on her cell phone. While all of our admonitions and pleadings to my mother hadn’t penetrated her consciousness, the speech somehow convinced her of the seriousness of the situation. More remarkably the Queen’s message has remained lodged in my mother’s memory. When I called her the other day, it was almost as if I was listening to a different person talking. “It’s quite serious this virus, you know. I am looking out the window and the streets are empty. I’ve never seen Avenue A like this in the middle of the day. It’s deserted. Oh! I see someone. He’s on a skateboard! Do you have a mask? I have a mask.”
Yours from New York,
Jacob Margolies reports on America for The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. He’s also the managing editor of Mr. Beller’s Neighbohood, a website of nonfiction stories about New York. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Joanne.
Header photo by Amy Johansson, courtesy Shutterstock.