When I read that the art critic Peter Schjeldahl had died on October 21, I was surprised that my eyes teared up. I knew from a New Yorker essay of his that he had advanced lung cancer. The obituaries said he was 80 and had smoked since he was 16. He was also a recovering alcoholic and apparently not the greatest father. Before 2019, I knew nothing about his personal life beyond his writing on art.
The tears, I realized, were for my own future life without the sensory crescendos of a new Peter Schjeldahl review. I could say unequivocally that he was my favorite living critic, and not having his sensibility in real time felt like a serious loss.
A month or so ago, I started noticing big subway ads for “Coca-Cola.” I insert the quotes because I can’t remember the last time I saw that infamous font advertised anywhere that wasn’t an AMC theater.
One version of the ad shows a beautiful young couple—white, male and female, both very blond—having fun at home while holding bottles of “Coca-Cola.” The other shows the same style of couple, only Black, each with light skin that seems to match the other perfectly. The weird demographics notwithstanding, my first thought upon realizing that these ads are part of a campaign was: Who still drinks Coke?
The diminishment of men—every age, race, and nationality—is now another thing to worry about. Or at least the New York Times thinks so. In a recent column, David Brooks looked at a new book by Richard Reeves looking at “the male crisis”—boys and men struggling in the United States and across the globe.
Brooks notes that “Reeves talked to men in Kalamazoo about why women were leaping ahead. The men said that women are just more motivated, work harder, plan ahead better. Yet this is not a matter of individual responsibility. There is something in modern culture that is producing an aspiration gap.”
“Where are the people?” one of my friends asked when we saw West Side Story at the Lincoln Square AMC a week before Christmas. We knew the Spielberg musical was tanking at the box office, but we thought that a theater sitting on the actual terrain of the movie plot might be a draw. It was a rainy Saturday night, and I had to assume that the old people—the only viable audience for entertainment set in 1957—were staying away because of that and Omicron. Even with Tony Kushner as screenwriter, these aficionados of the late, great Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (1981-2018) could not be coaxed out.
But then you could ask “Where are the people?” about anywhere in New York. When there’s a void of crowd, an emptiness, you sense that the would-be masses are off together doing the same thing. But what—hunkering down or partying hard? Regardless, they were doing it outside the five boroughs.
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree has historically claimed the whole of December as far as tree media goes. Last year’s conifer drama wasn’t related to COVID but to a tiny saw-whet owl that came as the tree’s unintended plus-one. “Rocky” was described as being “rescued,” as “clinging to the branches,” as a “stowaway.” A Syracuse paper had the most Onion-esque headline: “Oneonta owl found in Rockefeller Christmas tree inspires a children’s book.”
Though there was no Oneonta owl this year, the 79-foot, 12-ton Norway spruce made its customary hyped appearance with the Daily News and the Post dutifully amplifying the fact sheet bullets: more than 50,000 multicolored lights! a 900-pound star with 70 spikes covered in 3 million crystals!
Back at the start of the pandemic, one strain of the thinking internet’s insatiable need for copy was served by warnings against making a metaphor of the coronavirus. Forget that it came from China, that it was happening in an election year, that Trump had dismantled the National Security Council directorate charged with protecting us against such threats. Don’t take the bait.
Most of these exhortations were against casting COVID-19 as payback from some unknown dispensary of karma. Paul Elie in the New Yorker reminded us that Susan Sontag in the New Yorker had the final word on illness as metaphor in 1978 and again in 1989. She poked massive holes in this human impulse, so we mustn’t narrativize the pandemic as we narativize our individual lives.
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!)
Early in COVID lockdown this spring, America’s viral diversion of aw was watching penguins subvert their societal role as aquarium attractions to temporarily become commanders of the gaze. First they waddled the halls of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium to have a gander at their fellow marine life. Then another waddle from the Kansas City Zoo ventured to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for a look-see.
Suddenly we thought a lot about animals captive in zoos because we had ourselves become captive. The parallels could not be starker: the primary complaint of zookeepers is the incessant drudgery of shoveling out feces; our own obsession at that time was hoarding toilet paper.
During the dark hours of what is now a previous crisis for America but an ongoing one elsewhere, Queen Elizabeth delivered a message of uplift. She sought to remind her people that “the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humored resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterize this country.”
In the context of hopelessly toxic Twitter feeds, that hyphenated “fellow-feeling” arrived like a Beatrix Potter bunny hopping across the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.
The only thing that Americans can say about fellow-feelers is that we have two warring factions. This discord is our national tragedy. New York City, on the other hand, has always managed to pass as a cunningly diverse (if spectacularly unequal) assemblage of fellow-feelers, whatever the scale of crisis.
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.