Some might call this the The Great Disappearance. Certain industries–whole deaths of the economy–are entirely shut down. Never has it been more obvious that this is a city of restaurants–they, more than anything, populate the lack. Glass-fronted properties reveal darkened, empty dining rooms at the joints of important avenues, they gape, vast and naked. Menus penned in fancy script quaint beside hurriedly printed sheets begging patience of their patrons, promising all will be well again last month, that “we” will be up and running again–but of course, we aren’t.
I’ve worked a lot of blue-collar jobs, in retail, manufacturing, sanitation, and more, but I’ve only worked in what we deem, in shorthand, the service industry for a short time, as a caterer in Berkeley. Pretty much everyone I know either has been or still is a committed worker in food and beverage service: Writers and artists often rely on these jobs’ flexibility, transferability, and relatively high wages (when tips are decent).
Jobs in service were largely seen as a rite of passage, of a kind, for middle- and working-class teenagers building their independence and climbing the economic ladder. But during our ascension to adulthood, the promise was prolonged, drawn out more and more. People my age found themselves working in bars and restaurants for longer and longer, unable to secure viable alternatives. The bottom had dropped out. But when we tried to talk about this, we were largely mocked for not working hard enough, for living with our parents, for being spoiled and overindulged.
The illusion that most of us were doing okay, that we were still just out of range of the American Dream, has been destroyed by the plague. Suddenly it’s all too obvious how tenuous our stability truly is. A lot of artists already know this from years of cobbling together their livelihood from assorted gigs and hustles, plus whatever benefits we have (i.e. trust fund, rich family/partner), whatever compromises we’re willing to make (i.e. live at home/with roommates), or miscellaneous means of gaming the system. Now it’s impossible to ignore the gaping holes in a system we all liked to pretend was airtight.
A few weeks ago, an article in the NYT noted that drag racers had taken over the city streets at night. That was undoubtedly true; we heard far more of them during quarantine than we ever had before. Their engines shredded the nightly silence, sputtering, gulping gas, and they’d fly–or crash, as the case may be. One late May night, two douchebags steered their bikes into obstacles on our block, then loudly, incomprehensibly argued outside our window for long enough to wake up half the building. Just about every night, the rumble of hungry motors cut through our sleeping hours.
A sense of permissibility encompassed the city, which some distinctly heard as a dare. For a moment, though, the dominant mood was more dangerous than playful. People were feeling trapped, walled in with their fear, and their loneliness–or going crazy from breathing the same air as the same people they’d overdosed on months ago. Underneath it all, the poignant awareness that there had been, that there still was so much death, that it kept going on and on. That the economy had effectively collapsed, taking many of our jobs and security with it. It was enough to coax the crazy out of anybody.
For many, though, isolation has been the crowning insult. The utter lack of in-the-flesh community has left us bereft in an utterly new way. We have long been accustomed to the luxury of mourning with others, keeping vigil together, assembling to pray, to air our concern, our worry, our anger, our grief. At the very least, in this city, there has always been the random but regular comfort of strangers who share our burden, the small gift of eye contact, of an elevator door held open, of a hand offered when needed. Not anymore. The virus has decimated our best coping mechanisms, transforming every other human to a potential threat.
Let’s dismiss another NY stereotype: New Yorkers are not mean. We are, often, rude; it’s hard not to be when you’re surrounded by a mad press of people almost all the time, most of whom similarly can’t be bothered to give a fuck about your commute/heartbreak/job interview, or what have you. However, New Yorkers tend to be very kind in the ways that actually matter. If you need directions, for example, locals will pretty much always try their best to help you. A person trying to maneuver a stroller down the subway stairs will often offers to help from strangers. It’s actually a lot like old-school cigarette smoker etiquette, generosity and kindness being the default.
The plague changed that, and things haven’t completely reverted to normal yet. We are, by necessity, rude to each other, suspicious of proximity. Some weeks back, an unmasked woman in a NY grocery store almost sparked a riot: Fellow shoppers shouted and shrieked at her for endangering them all with her recklessness. It isn’t a game, here; most of the country’s 100,000 deaths (and counting) have happened in this city. Although were long past the times when the body count broke 700 every day, the number continues to grow.