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We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
—“Recuerdo,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
I was young and in love in New York when I remember first reading those lines from an earlier period of rebellion. We bought fresh bread instead of apples and pears and gave away our money, even our subway fares, to kids shaky and a little bit menacing with a steak knife. Pleasure and danger were always close. We kissed on the ferry and frolicked in a broom closet at Macy’s and by abandoned rail tracks in winter and in any part of Central Park that offered just enough concealment and carried just enough risk of being found out. New York, the poet didn’t quite say, burst with possibilities for public sex.
That all waned decades before social distancing—with AIDS, with the domestication of the docks, the sanitizing of Times Square, the explosion of homelessness and cops and enthusiasm for moral policing. Flaming youth no doubt found a way; with any luck, they will again. And pairs in first flush could still drain the night, exuberantly, tenderly, till “the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.” What emboldened ardent souls, though—the lovers who just met, the lovers who were pledged, the lovers who might never know each other’s names—was more primal than romance. It was what had always drawn so many to cities, especially New York: the chance to be simultaneously anonymous and known, to be yourself, in your skin, in a crowd, in the streets, in proximity to the skin of others.
That’s what made New York electric when kids like me wrapped ourselves around each other and downtown drag queens ruled the night, in the days before so much about the city was reduced to greed and ambition and bows to that mayor or this police chief for cleaning the place up. That’s what somehow survived, too, with a weak pulse—the sensual idea, the prospect that in any crush of bodies something might still go zing!
Now proximity is killing us—or might. We who are nonessential turn away, cross the street, or walk in the bike lane when another body comes close. We pass judgment on sunbathers, picnickers: The louche have a new name; maybe we shame them on Instagram. We’re cautious, and we ought to be, but we have been in training for distance for a long time, and it’s showing.
We probably don’t think too much about how central sex has been to creating distance in the political sense. I didn’t think there was anything political about a romp in the park in the late 1970s, either. I was a white working-class girl with a white Army-brat boyfriend who’d inherited the freedoms for which others had paid. Sexual freedom seemed the least of these—but of course it would, for us, relatively protected, relatively confident of getting the benefit of the doubt. We didn’t even fully know whom we owed. Bohemia had been a social and political fact when we were growing up. All the meetings and the marching and the riots had gone before; all the arguments about multiple oppressions had been had (though hardly settled) by people who were just a little bit older. Liberation rode on a song. It was easy to take things for granted when Marvin Gaye had been the soundtrack of your life. We would wise up soon enough, because in that moment, sex was being wielded with particular cunning as a political weapon not only against the liberation movements whose fights had made kids like us feel daringly alive but also against the ethic of solidarity, which bohemias had always tried, imperfectly, to advance against inhumanity.
Anyone who spent part of lockdown watching Mrs. America, the FX on Hulu series about the 1970s battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, would have gathered that the New Right’s fight against the ERA wasn’t waged primarily to stop loose “libbers” or abortion or godless homosexuals or even the amendment. In the figure of its chief strategist, Phyllis Schlafly, it was waged for political power. It used fear and lies, enabled religious fanatics, and exploited the real anxieties of women who felt the ground shifting under their families, their incomes, their identity, their lives. Like the contemporaneous fight against sex education led by the Christian Crusade and the John Birch Society (which sold fear of depravity when overt racism and the Red Scare became outré), it sought to build a base for an agenda with different, less homely priorities. Kneecapping organized workers, redistributing wealth upward, dismantling the state’s social program and fortifying its violence program—the prisons, the military budget, the new cold and hot wars—those were the priorities of the original “Make America Great” campaign, later renamed the Reagan Revolution, which, among other things, would look the other way as tens of thousands of gay men died of AIDS.
Stoking suspicion—of moral contagion, of one another—had been mainly a tactic, which became a fact as fear of sex, of strangers and child snatching, of crime and juvenile criminals, of touch and proximity, rippled through the culture, echoed by liberals out of opportunism, cowardice, or rage and inflated by a media jacked on scandal and alarm. Unlike the TV movie version of events, that politics of fear and retribution never retreated. It just took more baroque, bipartisan forms.
Many of us are legitimately afraid now and alone. Shocked by vulnerability on so many levels, people worry over large questions. What does freedom mean? What is public health, beyond the metrics of disease? Will I be loved, kissed? Will I die bereft? They withdraw. They lash out. Contagion is shocking and exploitable. A masked neighbor on my street avidly checks an app he says broadcasts the latest Covid-related crime. His is a learned response, and why not? We criminalize HIV; we monitor sex offense registries and banish whole populations from civic life; we lock up 6,000 ex-cons in mental institutions as “sexually dangerous” for fear of what they might do; we consign millions to pestilence in prisons. None of it has kept us safe.
Our thin hope is that what has been learned might be unlearned. So much about social life turns out to be about negotiating distance and proximity. The politics of fear points in one direction, solidarity in another. Both make demands first on thought. An injury to one is an injury to all, solidarity famously affirms. The slogan implies a humane reordering of economic and international relations, but its primal source is a reverence for the human person in the most quotidian of circumstances. Reason plays a big part in that. What, after all, is more remarkable—that the subways, which New Yorkers may not experience again in the same way, were dirty, loud, and occasionally frequented by the random nasty groper or that every day millions of people pressed their bodies against one another, not sexual but strangely intimate, not fearless exactly but wordlessly acknowledging that the space each occupied depended on a certain generosity among all?
We groused. Of course we did. But if that proximity made us especially susceptible to the virus, its spirit value-signaled something else. Because anyone who ever considered the experience while emerging into the light from underground had to marvel at this unlegislated and unacknowledged generosity, this most common love, among most of us, most of the time. Defiant humanity, it said, is possible, if we want it.
Coda: Every passing day threatens to make the one before seem irrelevant. A graph of daily Covid-19 deaths in the US resembles a fire: 1,379 dead on May 27; 478 on June 1; 1,039 on June 2; 448 on June 7; 926 on June 9; 345 on June 14. The fire is the thing, the spectacle of disposability that connects the health crisis, the economic crisis, the immigration catastrophe, and the protests in the streets in the name of all the George Floyds, all those extinguished more methodically, with less notice, and for so long. Whether or not one can join the protesters and without dismissing every legitimate concern about proximity and danger, they have struck a blow against political distance. The politics of fear is potent, but it may be losing its grip.