The Ground Beneath Our Feet
Like a soldier after the trenches, New York is a different city amidst the dystopic reality of COVID-19, and yet there is hope to be found
It’s hard to remember New York City before COVID-19. Like a soldier before the trenches, normalcy seems a distant memory, a picture-perfect postcard of life that felt like a very long vacation before dystopic reality hit. Was there really a time I could casually walk into a restaurant that served insert-your-country-fusion food and eagerly squeeze into a tiny table for a boisterous dinner with friends? Was it only a couple of weeks ago that I watched unperturbed as my fellow New Yorkers, in a grimy subway car, stoically ignored faces mere millimeters away from them because that is the unspoken code of city transit? Was it really just last month that I was trying to decide which of the plays coming to Broadway in the Spring I would snag discount tickets to during previews in March? The thoughts feel too shamelessly luxe to mention, like a bubble bath in a drought. The city, known for its throngs of people, speaking eight hundred different languages, has been silenced except for the ambulance sirens that blare ever more frequently carting the sick to the hospitals where the real heroes, the doctors and nurses, work overtime on the front lines of a crisis to stem a rising tide of coronavirus cases that has brought the city that never sleeps, to an absolute standstill.
As I write this, New York City is the new Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic in a country that rapidly saw its case load cross China’s and balloon at alarming speed, aided by a dysfunctional government, a leader pitting state against state in a Hunger Games like tussle for resources and egos that took a long time to realize that America is not immune simply because she is powerful. Yet I feel confident that the city will recover, as will the world, but only after the crisis has peaked and fallen in city after city and nation after nation, only after the virus which seems determined to put humanity on pause has made its way around a globe in which we have arrogantly erected walls and drawn borders that nature is impervious to. I think constantly about my family, my mother and brother and his family, in Mumbai as they wait out a 21-day quarantine which I hope faintly will be the worst of it. And I think about my father in Mexico which is as yet less affected but can’t close its borders to the U.S. as India has, because the economic costs would be too high. I’m isolated in limbo, unable to travel to those closest to me but increasingly thankful they are safe. I feel relieved that so far my friends, if affected, have only mild symptoms. I feel guilt over the privilege of having an over-stocked fridge and steady work and despondency at the plight of those who have lost jobs or loved ones. I feel helpless about the unspeakable hardship facing people like migrant workers in India who cannot afford a day off, let alone a lockdown and were left with no choice but to walk hundreds of kilometers home.
I am not special in the highs and lows of life in the time of corona. I bounce between cabin-feverish joy at the novelty of being able to do an Instagram Live yoga session and have a Zoom virtual dinner date with friends in the city or FaceTime with my niece and nephew across an ocean and the gloom of waking up the next morning and realizing that it is yet another day of virtual contact, no hugs on the horizon. My wonder at the imagination of the countless artists that are connecting online with their audiences from streamed mini concerts, to late night hosts filming shows at home, to Patrick Stewart reciting Shakespeare on Twitter is tempered by a news cycle that only gets worse, numbers ticking up exponentially, hospitals having to choose who to forsake and who to save, a world map graphic blotched with ever larger red patches. I imagine it’s the same for everyone. In a situation where no one is truly spared, we are all succumbing to COVID-induced swings as a salve to hanging in the balance where there are no answers to when and how it all ends. Increasingly though, I find that hanging in the balance is crucial. It is a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true, that crisis and especially uncertainty illuminate what is important.
At some point in between the denial of convincing myself that going to the movies was fine even as the theaters got emptier (I frequently write about films) and the reality of people gingerly grocery shopping in masks while staying six feet apart like sword-less fencers, I got a grip and stocked up to minimize supermarket trips and therefore exposure. I had to be knocked out of complacency by my girlfriends who put me over the edge on our group chat: “Whole Foods looks like Armageddon is coming.” Indeed, it was, just not in the form of a food shortage but I was grateful for the vigilance. I could have bought gluten-free pasta and pesto sauce, salmon or canned chickpeas to toss into a salad, things I typically eat. Instead I searched for packets of split moong dal, ghee and all the spices that were missing from my figurative masala box, which was most of them. I drink coffee but I bought tea and chai masala instead. I found myself on an evening in mid-March sitting at my window looking over the city’s buildings to the East River eating khichadi just like my mother makes it and drinking chai just like my grandmother used to, so I could feel just a little bit closer to the women that made me and the country that will always be home. The small act was the first moment of stability in days that became the stuff of science fiction.
Over the ensuing weeks after we were instructed to stay at home in New York, I found more and more moments like these to tether me. I would wake up each morning and register a sense of dread as I reminded myself that today would not be normal. My morning news reads made it increasingly apparent that the city had missed the boat on truly flattening the COVID curve and was hurtling towards disaster. After a few days of this, I accepted that things would get much worse before they got any better and turned to the cabinet where I kept my parents’ record collection, pulling out Aretha Franklin and Leonard Cohen, The Supremes and Kishore Kumar. I traced my father’s careful handwriting on the sleeves, notes to my mother or simply his name and the date, finding something concrete to hold me steady as the music buoyed me up. Instead of binging on the prime corona fodder of Netflix originals, the gone-viral drama of Tiger King, I watched the Apu Trilogy and Life is Beautiful and reminded myself that humans have always been both resourceful and resilient. When sleep eluded me, I pulled fat fiction off my shelves and read authors who had written during war, depression and heartbreak, a sign that art had and would sustain us. I found comfort, even communion, as Bob Dylan released his first ballad in eight years in the middle of the night on March 27th, his poetry speaking to all souls upended by sudden chaos. I watched Trevor Noah broadcast in a hoodie from his home on Friday night and toured the Louvre online on Sunday afternoon. In reaching back to artists from the past, the present seemed less jarring and less permanent and in seeing creativity come alive as cultural institutions and venues shuttered, the silver linings turned up.
As Milan, Paris and Barcelona came to a halt, the new silence in which New York was shrouded felt particularly acute for a city which was famous not just for its attractions but for its hustle. Within mere days as Broadway theaters, cinemas, restaurants and retailers closed and thousands of employees were furloughed, the pulse of the city quietened. Whilst people scrambled to claim unemployment insurance or adjusted to working from home, as a writer who is somewhat used to work life in isolation, I felt incredibly grateful to have work at all and even more of an onus to write. Just the act of putting pen to paper, type to screen, seemed tangible at a time when so little felt concrete. When everything in communal life was closing, the ability to connect to people by putting words on a page felt like a blessing. I found even more solace in other people’s words, from beautifully written op-eds in the national papers and international press about the shared experience of a pandemic to hilarious memes on Instagram. Just weeks prior to the stay at home directive, my father, who teaches poetry, had suggested almost presciently that I listen to a podcast called Poetry Unbound which never failed to lift me out of myself when stomach-churning COVID anxiety hit. And in an effort to embrace the dimming of the hustle, I returned to my meditation practice guided by Gil Fronsdal on Audio Dharma. Sitting in the silence instead of resisting it made it more habitable and comforting.
The one indulgence that the new world of social distancing afforded was being able to go out for a walk, something that feels like a life raft in a city of tiny apartments devoid of back yards. I began to take early evening walks to close-by Central Park which was so uncharacteristically quiet from the solo cyclists and hushed mask-clad couples, that the birdsong sounded operatic. The world was closing, country by country but nature was open. Spring was everywhere in the park, riotous yellow daffodils and deep violet crocuses bursting on a canvas that had been drained of people. Outside of the city I had seen images of dolphins swimming in Venetian canals and vibrant sunsets in unpolluted Mumbai skies. All of it felt like a reminder that we are just a species that has for too long infringed on other species and that nature has abundant wisdom even if it feels cruel in the moment.
As I walked back to my flat past the dim awnings of once bustling restaurants and closed mom and pop stores that dot every city block, I felt pangs of love for a city that has become home away from home in the more than two decades I have spent here, a city that as New York State Governor, Andrew Cuomo, said in his increasingly heartfelt daily news conferences, “loves everyone.” Many of my friends had understandably left to self-isolate in homes upstate where their kids could have much needed space, flown to other states to be with family or simply felt safer escaping what was no doubt a petri-dish. But in spite of living alone, digging my heels in felt like my only antidote to fear and was my way of loving the city back. So I joined thousands of boxed-in apartment dwellers in silent battle, cheering on the medical workers from our windows every evening at 7 pm as hospitals filled up, supplies dwindled and refrigerator trucks were called in for a mounting toll of bagged bodies.
I reached a point where I no longer had to remember to wash my hands and swab the doorknob down with Clorox when I came home. It had become second nature. And coming back to an empty flat, whilst lonely at times, had its advantages. I didn’t worry about infecting family members, I was spared the challenge of homeschooling kids whilst juggling work and I could watch whatever the hell I felt like without a debate, although that part soon got old. Still, I found myself connecting more than ever. I had long conversations with my family that didn’t feel like the usual perfunctory check-ins to make sure everything was fine, because nothing was fine. We had plenty of time for each other as the unspoken specter of when will we be able to see each other hovered in the background. I spoke to my childhood besties in India, my tight-knit group of college roommates now scattered across the U.S. and the know-you-so-well friends that had become the fabric of daily adult life, on regular FaceTime calls that echoed the endless phone conversations of high-school era landlines, whose intimacy I didn’t realize how much I had missed. Friendships that lacked consistency and depth conveniently fell away. This wasn’t a time to catch people up on your life but rather to wrap yourself in the comfort of those that had always been there. The thought rang truer as a friend’s cousin passed from complications due to COVID-19 and another was unable to say goodbye to her uncle, who died of kidney failure, because hospitals simply could not take the risk of allowing potential coronavirus carriers in. What we had hoped was fake news months ago, was only too real now. I realized that the many who would be spared, would undoubtedly know someone who would be critically ill or die and that not a single one amongst us would be unaffected.
As I write this, I cannot help but cringe slightly at myself. A day spent writing that begins with soul music and ends with a walk in nature seems like a gift when thrown up against the delivery person, the food vendor, the doctor or indeed Ranveer Singh, the Madhya Pradesh migrant worker who passed away, not from the novel coronavirus but on his long walk home in the aftermath of Delhi’s lockdown. I’m offering this as the only experience that I know, a way to bear witness to a human tragedy at a time when armchair donations seem to be the limits of my helpfulness, when we are instructed to stay in and when going out and getting our hands dirty is not an option for the unessential. In one of many COVID-inspired moments of truth we are learning that most of us are unessential. It seems that humanity, the most social animal, is being denied its essence but I believe loneliness is bringing us back to the source. In isolation, I have connected more deeply to the things that matter; a sense of home, relationships, art, nature and the silence that allows us to elevate truth, wisdom and necessity.
The coronavirus has already swept through China and possibly peaked in Italy and Iran with Spain and the U.K. supposedly nearing their apexes. In the U.S., in spite of leading the world in cases, the worst, they remind us constantly, is yet to come. Even President Trump, the great denier who, for as long as he could, held livelihood over life itself, has called to extend isolation till at least the end of April. Corporations, like leaders, are realizing that action is a collective necessity, not an option. Fashion companies from Dior to Nordstrom are making hospital protective gear, Netflix has created a relief fund to help workers in creative industries while Facebook has created one to support small news outlets that are in danger of being obliterated. Apple is donating millions of masks and Google has made sizable donations to the W.H.O. Philanthropists from Bill Gates (who predicted this very crisis in a Ted talk in 2015) to Ratan Tata are stepping to the fore and individuals are starting GoFundMe pages at unprecedented rates to help local communities.
In New York, where the case count is almost a quarter of the country’s and where hospitals are at or near capacity, there are increasing glimmers of humanity’s goodness. Governor Cuomo, a once divisive figure, has shown himself to be an inspiring leader, negotiating tirelessly for the state and recently welcoming a medical naval ship that is essentially a floating hospital with a thousand beds. The Jacob Javits Convention Center and the Billie Jean National Tennis Center are being converted into makeshift hospitals and in a scene that hasn’t been seen since the Civil War, a donor has contributed a field hospital that has been erected in Central Park. People have found ways to help both restaurants and hospital workers by donating thousands of meals a day to hospital staff and organizations like World Central Kitchen are providing free meals to families in need. Volunteer nurses dot the city in their blue scrubs, neighbors shop for the infirm as grocers continue to stock the shelves, city cops work tirelessly even though one in thirty have been infected and people have taken to stitching masks at home to aid the shortage. Cities and countries are experiencing the effects of the coronavirus at different speeds on varying timelines and if my writing is a missive for some, from the future of the disease, it is one of grim tidings that are full of hope.
This challenge, the greatest humanity has faced in the century since the Spanish Flu of 1918, is not going to be a matter of a few weeks but many months or more with a vaccine still a year away at least. Its impact will be felt for years to come. Nations have spent time, manpower and resources building weapons for combat and nature in the form of a virus has brought them all to their knees suggesting that we are not the most intelligent species after all but rather that we have been using our mammoth intelligence to all the wrong ends, more concerned with what divides than with what connects. A world, perpetually at war is coming to fully realize its interdependence and will have to work together in an unprecedented fashion. People constantly looking outwards for the next purchase or achievement, are being forced to take a collective step inwards. For many of us, those who are not robbed of time entirely, or called upon to work tirelessly through it, this pandemic will grant a gift of time to reflect. My hope is that we will come out on the other side with a kindness towards each other and our surroundings and a reverence for what nature bestows that we have long forgotten. The uncertainty of hanging in the balance will see us land more gently, assuredly and respectfully, on the ground beneath our feet.
Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani