At a time in this crisis that now seems ages ago, Masha Gessen, a New Yorker columnist whose essays I admire, wrote about why she was not a bad person for leaving New York City during a pandemic.
Her daughter had asked if the family was going to be like “those people”—the “rich white people who leave the besieged city because they can.” Her mother’s justification on March 30: “If we got very ill, we wanted to be those people who were not stressing this already overtaxed city, taking up hospital beds that were needed by people who didn’t have the option of leaving.”
The family’s destination was Falmouth, Massachusetts, landing at a time when local residents on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket were asking fleeing New Yorkers to stay away and not infect them.
Gessen’s column mostly targets the hypocrisy of the locals. Here were people whose livelihoods depend on the infusion of revenue from seasonal New Yorkers practically demonizing their bread and butter. They fall into the broader category of “otherizers” who ignorantly stigmatize outsiders. But she also takes a swing at New Yorkers feeling smugly virtuous for not leaving the city when they could have.
Anyone—and especially anyone at risk of dying from COVID-19—is entitled to leave a dangerous place. But if you are one of “those people” with the means to pick up a family and establish a second household in a safer locale for an indefinite period of time, please just shut up about it. Recuse yourself from commentary. Stifle your desire to avenge indignation at being made to feel morally incorrect.
I recommend reading Gessen’s column, first because it speaks to the cluelessness of the New Yorker minted intellectual—those who believe that beautiful thoughts make personal actions unassailable. But also because it is a reminder that many of the voices that constitute the intellectual left seem incapable of honestly addressing either their own financial means or the privileges they bestow on their children. It has been that way for a very long time and will probably remain that way for a long time into the future.
A pandemic, like a war, is all about counting, and the elemental balance sheet pits financial leverage against financial hardship. One of the triggers of New York City’s 1863 Draft Riots was the fact that draft-age men who could afford to pay a $300 commutation fee were allowed to hire a substitute—a poor man to possibly get maimed or die for the Union Army in the wealthy man’s place.
London during the Blitz has been the go-to metaphor for cities besieged by COVID-19’s “random” strike of death. Who can forget the most famous non-leaver of Britain’s struggle—the Queen Mother, who would not take her family out of Buckingham Palace? In regard to surviving the palace bombing on September 13, 1940, she famously said, “Now we can look the East End in the eye.”
Because London had teams meticulously counting all the bombing damage in near-real-time, they knew the East End—with its docks and factories—as a frequent German target. But it also happened to be densely populated, with working-class people packed in tenements. In essence, the Queen Mum was confirming: “The poors have nothing on us.”
Daily life in this city has become a compendium of counts—the hospitalized, the intubated, the recovered. Beds in Javits Center, ventilators in dwindling stockpiles, the number of daily tests, how many days’ worth of PPE a hospital has left. How many healthcare workers have died, how many cops and MTA workers, how many grocery store workers. Only three people in the bodega at the same time—three in, three out.
Like London during the Blitz and itself during the Civil War, New York during COVID-19 presents an absurd juxtaposition of everyday life (albeit without remunerative work for many) and illness and death for at least 20% of the population.
The city’s map of confirmed COVID-19 cases by Zip code is like a poverty heat map—highest counts in the densely populated immigrant neighborhoods of Queens (Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Corona, Jamaica, St. Albans); lowest in the Upper East Side stomping grounds of Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn.
The numbers are also higher in my Zip code, as are the numbers of people who have been dying at home, presumably of COVID-19. Reading about these cases, I wondered about the ambulance I’d recently heard heading south on Fort Washington in the middle of the night. The siren was blaring, but the vehicle moved at a speed you’d have to call slow. This cunning killer had managed to pluck from my mind a Wilco lyric I’ve always thought too clever for everyday use: “I assassin down the avenue.”
Our collective sense of helplessness is thankfully offset every night at 7 p.m. with the communal clapping, cheering, and banging of pots and pans. From inside my open window, it feels massive this throbbing presence coming from everywhere. When I first went out to the park across the street to observe neighboring buildings, however, I realized that about 75% of the windows were shut and black. Where were all those people? They couldn’t all be essential workers or out walking dogs or queued at the grocery store. Most likely they’d gone, left the city for where it’s safer, even those in the modest income brackets of my neighborhood.
I imagine all the empty apartments of Manhattan’s big-gun “leavers”—all that palatial real estate that seems vacated even with its owners present. All the three floors worth of brownstones that Brooklyn leavers were leaving. You can’t help imagining all that space in contrast to three or four generations of a Jackson Heights family sheltering in the same small apartment because there’re nowhere else to go—no breathing room and no history of healthcare. This is when the ambulance assassins down the avenue, coming for the grandma in her seventies, the dad in his fifties.
As REM advised apropos New York exits: “It’s easier to leave than to be left behind.” That’s what many of us think about death—that those doing the leaving get off easy. It’s the grieving survivors carrying the load. The horrid fact that COVID victims are dying alone, in isolation from their families, makes this residual pain all the more brutal.
Thinking about our better selves while riding his bike, David Byrne posed this question in the face of coronavirus: “Are we a bucket of crabs or a community?” I don’t want to go with the crabs, but it’s hard to think of “a” (as in singular) community of anything in the way Americans live their lives.
Perhaps the antidote to this devastating pandemic of counts lies right there in the counts—specifically, that 25% in the city’s windows making the ruckus of 1000%. These people’s zeal to amplify communal emotion is like the way cats puff their tails when threatened by an adversary. I am much bigger than I appear so don’t mess with my city.
Are these 25% virtuous simply because they don’t have the means to leave New York let alone store a 24-pack of toilet paper? Maybe the leavers, with their advanced application of Ivy logic, would say so. But here’s a better question: Is 25% enough to do the job of community? §