I live in Manhattan, in the East Village. And, no, I don’t miss the wail of ambulances threading their way up First Avenue, day long, night long, rushing north, carrying the stricken to nearby hospitals. I don’t miss walking by portable morgues and their makeshift barriers, erected so we wouldn’t see bodies being brought out a hospital’s side exit.
I do miss the quiet, the strange peace, the empty streets, the feeling of solidarity among those of us who stayed, who don’t have country houses or parents or fancy friends with guest rooms. Perhaps this is because it reminds me of the East Village I moved into 40 years ago, when streets were deserted at night; when you could make out on your doorstep for an hour and not a soul would pass to catcall; when you knew your neighbors, knew the shopkeepers. We’re all in this together, that was the feeling. Despite the dirt, the rampant crime (one block west boasted one of the city’s highest murder rates, as drug gangs fought for turf), we were a community. Just by buying bread at the bakery around the corner (sturdy semolina, nothing fancy), I was invited to dinner at Phyllis’s, the counterwoman’s, house and later to her granddaughter’s wedding. The block was bustling with seemingly indestructible old women—Polish, Sicilian, Irish, Spanish—who would, before sunset, drag folding chairs to the sidewalk to watch another day dwindle. Just by befriending one of them, my downstairs neighbor Marie, I was invited to her sister Annie’s for dinner, out in Jackson Heights.
This is how it felt during lockdown. Passers-by might be few, but those of us remaining, we were in it together. Fear of crime might be replaced by fear of contagion, but if fear doesn’t drive people apart, it can drive them together.
There was one figure who brought us together just by his very essence: Ali. He was our pharmacist, and like shopkeepers from years past, he knew and greeted every customer by name. Ali would give advice, deal with recalcitrant insurance companies, unresponsive doctors. It was to him we went for home remedies and preliminary diagnoses. As I said, he knew our names.
It was early days in the pandemic. We were rushing around in a panic, desperate to buy gloves, masks, hand sanitizer. So it was that one Saturday afternoon I went to Ali’s for acetaminophen. None was on the shelves. “I knew there’d be a rush on this,” he said. “But I ordered a massive bottle! It came today. Come back Monday and bring an empty bottle, and I will fill it up for you for free.”
On Monday the pharmacy was shuttered. It was shuttered the next few days, too. Then we heard the impossible: Ali, our wonderful Ali Yasin, had been stricken with Covid. His sons sounded optimistic. He was on a ventilator, but he was strong, he would make it. At 68, his energy had never seemed to flag before. He was in the hospital for months—at one point well enough to go off the ventilator.
But then he was put back on.
He died in May.
A neighbor broke the news. We stood in my apartment crying, too afraid to hug.
Perhaps Ali’s death was symbolic, because life felt harder after that. A new landlord, intent on renovating and increasing rents, emptied half the apartments in my building and commenced dusty renovations as soon as indoor construction was allowed again. Most of my other neighbors fled for more peaceful pastures.
In August the noise from the street began. This had been the bright light of lockdown in a loud city—the relative quiet: fewer cars and trucks, fewer shrieking-into-cell-phone throngs of bar-hoppers stampeding at all hours. By necessity, we were spending more time at home, so at least our homes really were a refuge (if one ignored that endless stream of ambulances). I could sit in my living room, gazing north at the Empire State Building (my calm watchtower for decades), and after banging pots at 7, feel cocooned in quiet, safe in silence.
But, as I said, then the noise began. From across the street. A newly reopened restaurant decided to have a live band play full-blast in its open storefront four hours a night, six nights a week. I couldn’t even make a phone call. Their electric guitarist might as well have been on my fire escape: The racket echoed back and forth across the narrow side street, and by the time it stopped I’d be frantic.
I was trapped in the city, trapped in my apartment, cornered by relentless racket. I told myself that being blasted out of my apartment was better than being on a ventilator, the way Ali had ended, but that’s a false choice. We shouldn’t have to fear an invisible foe, a sneaky virus. We shouldn’t be driven insane when home. We shouldn’t have to teach people how to be neighbors. Adding to the feeling of helplessness was the fact that the police, the mayor’s office, our councilwoman, did nothing.
After four months of this, the restaurant had to shut down (Covid clusters). Now reopened, it seems to have got the message: Play all the music you want, but keep your doors shut so a few hundred people aren’t forced to listen.
But that feeling of helplessness has not gone. Part of this is due to Covid: Although vaccinated and cautious, I see crowds of the merrily maskless tromp by and wonder how long it will be before, as in Mumbai and Marseilles and Montreal, our rates rise again. And I wonder how long it will be until the doors of the restaurant open and our apartments are no longer our own. And I know Ali will never return.
It’s like walking on thin ice, trying to convince myself that those aren’t cracking sounds I hear.
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.