We spent a lovely couple of days in Maryland with my family, celebrating my mom’s birthday on March 16th. It was a “milestone birthday” for her - marking an age which traditionally signals retirement and eligibility for government subsidies; but during these unsettling times, a distinguished milestone has become a marker for the most vulnerable among our beloved families and friends.
Nevertheless, family traits that I am proud we all possess in my household include: stubborn optimism, unconditional love for each other and humanity, and resilience in the face of challenges and adversity. We celebrated with the usual joie de vie, perhaps in defiance of the daily warnings and catastrophe that the world was hurtling towards us. That same day, Trump advised American citizens to avoid gatherings of more than ten people. With seven people celebrating in our little woodland alcove, it was a packed party.
On March 15th, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City’s public school system (the nation’s largest with 1.1 million students) would remain shuttered until at least April 20th. Teachers and parents everywhere began to consider the ramifications of indefinite “remote learning”, with students attempting to complete their school year online despite major disruptions to every aspect of life as we know it.
After festivities concluded on my mom’s birthday, my girlfriend and I decided that we needed to make an emergency trip back to NYC as soon as possible before things really got shut down. Our sense of urgency was far from clairvoyant… It was more based on a grim but reasonable expectation that things would get a lot worse before they got better. Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica closed their borders that day, and on March 17th the European Union adopted a 30-day ban to at least 26 European countries from the rest of the world.
Back in Maryland, we realized that the plan for my girlfriend, Awesta, to return to New York after only a week was not going to work out. It was important (and frankly, a financial and emotional relief) for us to be close to my family now. And the way things were going with school closures, it looked as if our two-week “Spring Break” was going to be indefinitely extended. We feared that stay-at-home orders would soon be mandated by local governments, and inter-state travel banned.
During these uncertain times, when togetherness and the illusion of comfort and control become primordial, our family was still woefully incomplete. My girlfriend and I were still receiving daily updates and petting-pics from our generous neighbor looking after our cats. We were still several state lines south of our beloved feline children, Mowgli and Lola.
Mowgli (on top) and Lola (underneath), originally rescued from the streets of Shanghai
And so on the eve of March 16th, on my mother’s birthday, we borrowed her car to make the 4+ hour drive back to rescue our cats from a city that was rapidly mobilizing and bracing for disaster: an 8 o'clock curfew on businesses was mandated by Governor Cuomo to help contain the virus. New York State had 950 confirmed cases, with 463 in the Big Apple. The state’s death toll hit nine that day.
The highways northward were strangely empty. Even after departing at 5 PM (usually a peak rush hour time), we cruised past unremitting I-95 signage and checkpoints. About halfway there, after nightfall, we stopped at an abandoned gas station somewhere in Delaware. I felt manic in my movements: snapping on gloves and pocketing a few disinfectant wipes before exiting the vehicle; wiping down the handle of the pump before gripping it; using my body to wedge open the gas station door rather than grab the handle; wiping down the bag of M&Ms and water bottles before reentering the car to profusely apply Purell.
Less than an hour later, just after entering the New Jersey Turnpike, we stopped at a red light. A homeless man stood on the median next to us, with a bag at his feet and a cardboard sign in his hands. He seemed relatively young… not too much older than me, maybe in his mid-to-late thirties. He wore a beanie and a kind but anxious expression. The man sheepishly waved, trying to make eye contact with me in the driver’s seat. I was immediately ripped away from my bubble of comfort, of road trip radio waves, of selfish preoccupations. How was the outbreak of corona affecting this man living on the street? How would it affect the half a million homeless people living across the country - without easy access to sterile shelters, cleaning products, and emergency funds - that were arguably the most at risk for viral infection?
I dug into my wallet for a few dollars as I brought down my window. His relief and anxiety were palpable as he approached our car.
“Hey, what the hell is going on tonight man?” he exclaimed with genuine worry, “Where is everybody?”
Within a split second I realized that this section of the Turnpike was usually jam-packed, and that this man’s nightly take was brutally nullified within days. I also made the unbelievable realization that he had no idea about what was happening; he didn’t know that the world was on the brink of total pandemonium.
As I handed him a dollar, I tried to synthesize so much of the overwhelming madness of the past weeks into an instantaneous public health warning: “There’s a sickness going around,” I blurted sloppily, “try to keep your distance from everybody.”
His face immediately fell. It’s affable contours became solemn. “Fuck man,” he said dejectedly, “Is it killing people?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. It was killing people, and it was communicable by touch, cough, sneeze, and contaminated surfaces and air. What was I supposed to say to this man that was oblivious to this invisible menace, and without refuge, safety net, or even the most basic amenities with which to protect himself?
I nodded my head (yes, it’s killing people). “Mostly the elderly and people with respiratory issues.” This was what everyone was saying at the time, and that younger people should be fine. He nodded, face still crest-fallen. As I brought my window up, he was approaching a truck in the next lane.
As we drove away from that intersection of the New Jersey Turnpike, I couldn’t stop thinking about that man, and about our surreal interaction. It became an unexpected moment of clarity about just how out-of-the-ordinary everything really was. “Is it killing people?” he had asked. I’ve had to field a lot of crazy questions, especially while teaching teenagers for a living, but when in life are you ever asked something like that? It felt so dreadfully apocalyptic, and also shameful: like warning some poor sucker that a horde of flesh-eating zombies was just behind you as you rushed in the opposite direction.
“Is it killing people?” The man’s voice reverberated along the emptiness of the road in front of me. Had I said the right thing? Should I have done more? My warning had been panicked and short, and perhaps insufficient. But did it at least communicate some of the gravity of what was happening? Or did it just create more anxiety and existential terror?
And then I checked my privilege, and thought that maybe I was projecting my own lived experience and understanding of the world - even as it broke apart at the seams and started to unraveled. A homeless man faces catastrophe and the extremes of uncertainty every day. It was a luxury for any of us to now feel inconvenienced, out-of-sorts, disturbed, immobilized, and helpless. We were the soft ones.
It seemed biblically just now that the rich and poor alike would face a common existential threat - one that didn’t discriminate according to social status - for this brief blip in our history. And perhaps just like in a pulpy science fiction novel, it was probable that the last man to know about the end of the world, would also be the one most likely to survive it.
These peculiar nighttime musings continued for a while as my foot pressured the accelerator, plunging us forward into the darkness, barreling us closer towards our blissfully oblivious cats in New York City.