All of a sudden it’s possible to hear the birds from my bedroom. It’s almost spring and I’m working from home, though “working” has been increasingly vaguely defined as the days wear on. I’ve never had this much time to watch the sun’s progress through my living room; it isn’t the luxury I’d hoped for.
Everything, it seems, is closing: the museums, the bars, the restaurants, the schools, the movie theaters. When I went out for groceries earlier, most of the businesses along my walk were closed, all the lights off and the windows showing me only my own reflection. It was like looking at face after face without eyes or noses or teeth, something essential missing and nothing in its place. I got a little dizzy. I kept walking.
John Lennon wrote a song called “Isolation” that I found in grad school, when I was searching for writing about loneliness. (Isn’t all writing about loneliness? But anyway.) I ended up using a line from it as the epigraph for the thesis, because of course I wrote a thesis that had an epigraph: the world is just a little town.
And today New York is just a little town, its streets as quiet as the streets back home, which is where the thesis was set. In the early evenings of March, I’m used to hearing kids yelling in the street, maybe throwing a basketball or two against whatever wall is closest, ringing bicycle bells with freshly unmittened fingers. In the distance a car is generally blasting something, turning slowly up and down the block. Two weeks ago, I heard the jingle of an ice cream truck. Today, all I’ve heard are the birds.
It would have been good if I’d ever learned to tell apart the different singers, warblers and mockingbirds and chickadees. My grandmother knew these things. Sometimes I forget I can’t ask her. Mostly, when I forget, I want to call and tell her I’m okay; sometimes, I want her to call me and tell me I’m okay. But we’ve said everything we’ll ever say to each other. Besides, there’s already so much I would have to explain.
At the grocery store, I looked for things that would last, but they’re mostly sold out. No pasta, no tomatoes, hardly any ramen or mac and cheese. The onions are gone, yellow and green and otherwise, and the only loaves of bread left were Wonder original white. And beans? Forget about it. Everyone else got those last week.
I am okay, I kept reminding myself. There is more food out there; it just isn’t here yet. And you have enough at home for now. And I breathed in through my mouth and out through my nose, the way they teach you to do when you’re anxious. My anxiety used to be unusual. Now it just feels like a given.
When I moved here in 2016, I already knew a few things about the city. First: no one has that much space at home, unless they’re very, very wealthy, and the people I knew and was coming to know were not very, very wealthy. Second: it almost doesn’t matter, because the city is everyone’s living room. Who cares if you lived in a shoebox? The sidewalks go on forever, and the coffee shops stay open late, and someone is probably throwing a party you’d be welcomed into without question.
So in New York City there is a very real sense, right now, that we’ve been cut off not only from each other but from ourselves, from places that are ours, if not ours alone. The sidewalks are empty, and the coffee shops are closed, and when I see photos now of parties I shudder, angry and worried and alone.
But not really alone, as long as Griffin is in the next room, as long as my friends and family text me back, as long as I can still hear the birds. We are all alive right now, checking our own temperatures and counting cans in the pantry and trying to figure out what else to do, now that our plans have gone so spectacularly awry. Improvise? But how?
In the meantime, I check the news. I wash the dishes and sweep the floors and check the news again. I make plans for the impossible future, when I will know all the things I don’t know now. I listen to the world outside. The sun is going down now; it’s very quiet. But spring is coming, and when the roar of this place comes back to us it will sound beautiful, a song I could place no matter how long it’s been unsung.