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One of the uncannier tortures of the current disaster is that so much of it has occurred out of sight. A microbe is not a tornado or a tsunami. It spreads without us seeing it. Then, for a lot of us, quarantine slapped blinkers on our eyes, blocking out the world. We can’t see one another anymore, and we can’t see our families—except for those of us who have no choice but to see them all the time. If you’re lucky, the crisis unfolds where you can’t see it. If you get sick enough or you’re homeless or you drive a taxi or work in a hospital, a morgue, an old folks’ home, or an Amazon fulfillment center, you have no choice but to glimpse the wider scope of things—if not Covid-19 itself, then at least its world-halting consequences. The rest of us have our phones and laptops to try to make sense of the moment, plus whatever we can see out our windows.
So far, I’ve been among the lucky, locked down in a small Barcelona apartment with two people I love and lots of windows. The strictest lockdown in Europe went into effect here on March 16. Since then, except for five memorable strolls to the grocery store and increasingly leisurely expeditions to take out the trash, my world has shrunk to the narrow, intersecting streets I can see through the windows, the parked cars that never move, the slivers of sky above it all. Some days it all feels tiny, as if the buildings are just stage props, two-dimensional, and the sky has been painted on. When it rains, the windows fog, and the whole world contracts into a small, soft, wrinkled box.
Other days, the sunny ones, the world feels huge out there, as though this block really does still connect to other blocks, to other streets and other cities, other countries and continents, other worlds, to a future as well as a past. It helps that the air is cleaner now than I’ve ever known it, probably cleaner than it has been for most of the past 150 years since textile factories, built with money from the slave trade and the sugar plantations of Cuba, began to make this city rich. Those connections were never easy to see here, either, except in the smog that stained the horizons.
Some of what I can see is almost reassuring. I rarely spot a single passenger, but the buses swing around the corners as they used to. The street cleaners come every day, and the garbage trucks empty the bins. These days I don’t mind the racket they make, even when it wakes me: a sweet lullaby of farting engines and shattering glass announcing that the city is still alive. It was too easy to miss them before, to imagine oneself alone in a city that somehow functioned on its own. Now more alone than ever, we see the lives that make it work and the work that lets us live.
I see things I never used to. People in masks, of course. That would have been disturbing just weeks ago. Now it’s the bare faces that provoke an involuntary twinge of mistrust. Last week I saw a woman walk by with two small children, all three of them wearing white fabric masks. For a moment I was shocked by the sight of those little masks on those tiny faces, but the kids didn’t seem to mind them. They were poking each other, playing and screeching and racing ahead of their mom. Seeing them was the best thing that happened that day.
I see a lot of the neighbors who live in the building behind ours. Maybe too much. Their apartments have spacious balconies about 15 feet from our kitchen window, which puts us on intimate enough terms with the couple opposite us and the couple in the apartment beneath them that my partner thought to name them. There’s the “upple,” or upper couple, and the “lupple,” the lower one. The upple, sour and depressed, have always avoided eye contact. The female cleans, hangs the laundry, smokes resentfully; the male rolls endless joints, plays video games, and watches porn on his phone.
The lupple are newcomers. They moved in at the beginning of the year, cheerful and in love. Sometimes they wave at us. In the early weeks of lockdown, we would see them doing yoga together every day and sometimes, unbearably, singing to each other as one strummed a guitar in the evenings. For a while last winter, before the virus hit, we were sure the upple was breaking up, but quarantine seems to have been good for them. They’ve been talking more. Sometimes the male even helps out with the laundry. The lupple, meanwhile, have been looking more and more listless. They haven’t sung to each other for weeks. I fully expect the two couples to have switched roles before this is over, if it ever ends.
The police are out there too. I see them drive by at least once an hour, cruising in slow loops. Our upstairs neighbor told me they’ve set up a checkpoint at the bottom of the hill and they’ll fine you if you can’t convince them you have a good reason to be out, but from the window I’ve seen them stop someone only once. It was a young African guy. Pandemic or no pandemic, some things don’t change. I watched as four of them made him empty his pockets onto the roof of their car. They finally let him go, then stood around laughing and spraying disinfectant on each other’s hands.
For a while, before the infection curve began at last to flatten, we were hearing sirens all the time. We still see ambulances pulling up to the buildings across the street. I make a point of not looking to see whom they cart off. I would rather keep the sick and the dying in the category of the Things I Cannot See out the Window. That category is a large one. It includes the tens of thousands of dead, of course, and all the people toiling to keep the rest of us from joining them. It includes the young African men I used to see scavenging scrap metal from the trash and the migrants of a different sort, the herds of sunburned, moneyed tourists who have all flown home by now. It includes the teenage boys, mainly Moroccan, who live in the center for unaccompanied migrant youths up the block. They must be going crazy behind those grated windows, their shelter transformed into a prison. I don’t see the people in the actual prisons, either, or any of the things I know are there but didn’t see even in circumstances that counted once as normal: all the invisible labor, hidden theft, and not-so-secret violence that make a city and a society run.
But that’s how it always is, isn’t it? Many of us don’t usually see the people who pick our vegetables and slaughter the animals we eat, and we don’t see them now. We’re suddenly more anxiously aware of things called supply chains, which are not things or chains but people: people working in fields, mines, factories, warehouses, ports, people whose health our health depends on, a vast web of interdependency that we also cannot see. We can’t see the spiders lurking in it, either—the rent we can’t afford to pay, the management companies we’re supposed to write the check to, the private equity funds that hide behind them, skimming off the profits. Just as they always did, things we cannot see set the boundaries of the possible. The enforced isolation of quarantine is just life under capitalism, only more so.
Then there are the birds, which see far more than us and gossip even more than we do. They start at about five each morning and keep at it all day, chattier and bolder than they ever were back when the streets still clanged with our foibles. Should it tell us something that this pause in the system is being celebrated by so many other living things? It should. Our absence looks different to the birds. They see the promise of a world no longer driven by the furies of consumption. They see life opening up again, a different kind of web. And surely they see us behind our windows gazing out at them, remembering in our misfortune how much we have failed to see and doing our best—some of us—to see it all anew.