Urbi et Orbi

It’s hard to believe our COVID summer is already over. In New York, the weeks failed to coalesce as a season, and most people got sick of being told they should be either buying a house far away or pining for Italy while stuck in a state park. The New York Times offered beautiful photos of empty Italian streets but also an update on how businesses in Capri and other Italian tourist destinations miss “the interaction, the energy, the optimism, the shopping style” of rich Americans. (Funny thing: New York City’s small businesses miss “the shopping style” of rich Americans too!)

I have to give the Times credit for continuing to make me feel excluded from its “we” regardless of a pandemic. As for Italy, the paper of record would have done better quoting Billy Collins, whose 1991 poem “Consolation” semi-ironically defends “the modest precinct of home”:

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering it cities and ascending its torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, native streets,
fully comprehending every roadsign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.

For New York residents still residing in the city, there is a deeper connection with Italy. It’s like we were both left alone in pre-op, side by side on our gurneys, bonding over fears about the triple bypass we might not come out of. It’s hard to forget the March 27 image of Pope Francis delivering his Easter Urbi et Orbi blessing—“the city and the world”—from the empty St. Peter’s Square. The solitary figure dwarfed by unpopulated space warns the world against losing touch with the things that nourish people’s souls and thereby depriving us of “the antibodies we need to confront adversity.” Guglielmo Mangiapane’s photos of lamplight within a vast darkness are as visually striking as a pair of illuminated Esso pumps somewhere in the desert of a Spielberg movie or maybe Atticus Finch with his floor lamp in front of the county jail.

This ethereal image is the very opposite of internet abundance. It suggests the dire unbalance of resources when the world was caught standing still. The abundance had settled in different places, but for this small portal of time, every global inhabitant was equally deprived of a sense of wellbeing.

Long before COVID, the United States led the globe in producing too much of everything—not just garbage waste, CO2, and plastic to fill oceans but an excess of consumable media and entertainment. There was too much too see, hear, and read, even though the population of readers was dwindling. Proliferating American television concepts came at you like garment racks in Zara stores, where the objective for waiting in the dressing room line is to find out if you need a different size before everything in the store is replaced with new merchandise. But of course these perceptions of abundance only mask the reality of deprivation in terms of what actually counts for wellbeing: healthcare, housing, and wages.

I took the Pope’s “city and the world” blessing as if he’d flung the incense canister directly at New York, which has the extremes of “abundance” covered—dangerously dense immigrant neighborhoods on 57th in Queens, blocks of empty billionaires’ apartments on 57th in Manhattan. In June, Francis warned against falling back into making “individualism the guiding principle of society” after the pandemic has passed: “It is easy to quickly forget that we need others, someone to take care of us to give us courage.”

In terms of Urbi et Natio, Americans are not doing a good job of taking care of one another. That’s because decades of abundance for some and deprivation for many others have left us with a toxic imbalance, a place where courage is difficult to cultivate. “The land of the free” still applies to many, mostly white Americans. But as Francis knows, the brave people who call America home are still waiting for a voice. §