Nothing quite literalizes what it is to live in fear right now like encountering another person on my daily walks. It’s a new thing for me to shrink from contact with the people that I approach, but I have too when I so many of them not taking social-distancing protocol seriously, if they are even considering it at all. Last week, for example, I started walking down a tight sliver of a makeshift detour walkway designated by white and orange plastic barriers in front of a building undergoing construction on Roebling Street in Williamsburg. From the other side where I was headed, two people started doing the same. The path was so narrow, we would have both had to turn sideways to all fit through when we met. There was no hesitation in their gait—we were doing this. I turned around and walked in the street instead.
These brushes with contact are frequent, but it could be worse. I’m lucky that I live right on the border of Ridgewood, Queens, in an area of Brooklyn that is rife with residential areas offering precious space and less foot traffic than the more bustling areas of the city. It didn’t feel lucky when I moved out here a few years ago, further than I’ve ever lived from Manhattan while still technically living in “the city,” but the world is turning itself upside down and inside out in all kinds of ways, I guess. We are on societal pause, but I keep moving as much as possible. This is what I need, I figure, to stay alive and healthy right now.
But it’s an imperfect method, one that puts me in probable harm’s way. I walked by a man on Friday who coughed without covering his mouth just moments after I’d passed. It was a dry cough. Before, I probably wouldn’t have been able to parse it out from the rest of the urban ambiance, but it cut through everything, a morbid perversion of the cocktail party effect at a time of no parties. Repeatedly I’ve approached two people walking abreast so as to take up the entire sidewalk. They silently offer approachers the choice of squeezing between them or swerving into the street to miss them entirely. I never squeeze between them. The other day, as I waited to pick up a prescription at my local Duane Reade, a teen brushed by me so closely that her arm grazed mine. I couldn’t believe it.
These people enrage me. They’re the epitome of selfish New Yorkers who walk around like their city has a population of one, not 8.6 million. The kinds of people who use their bags to take up an extra seat on the subway during rush hour, or who walk down a crowded staircase on the left. They have a new outlet for their active absentmindedness. I know not all flagrant disregard is conscious aggression—New York’s ruling social imperative is to fill space. Unlearning this manner of packing ourselves together so that we can get to where we need most quickly is bound to be a process. The people I pass who immediately dart across the street when they see me or take one more step to the right just to make sure we’re far enough apart—three feet or six feet, depending on the source—those are my people. We sometimes weave around each other with the deftness and coordination required by dance. It’s funny; mutual avoidance fosters an empathy that is counterintuitive and yet so tangible you could pass it between you like a ball, if it were still safe to do that. Those people get my appreciative nod in the event that we lock eyes while otherwise averting each other’s existence.
As a writer, you trade physical isolation for the hope of virtual connection. Being alone is a necessity, but in most cases, it’s hardly the point. It’s so weird to experience the practical inverse of that—conscious solitude in public. The means is now the end. We all live in our own bubble, they say, and now ideally, we all walk in one.
Another thing I fear is that my walks will be taken away from me. Part of this is the confusing #StayHome messaging, which implies that we can never leave our houses and apartments for any reason. As a result, people scream from inside their apartments at those outside to go home. For the past two weeks, I’ve read everything I could about social distancing, scanning articles immediately to see what experts say about going outside, and then going back to reading the rest of the piece. I watched a video interview with a quarantined woman in Italy—what was it, two weeks ago or five years?—who said she had to fill out a form every time she left the house. I read about India’s 21-day lockdown, declared by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “There will be a total ban of coming out of your homes,” he said.
I just don’t know what I’d do without my walks. Maybe it’s just another trite example of turmoil begetting faith, but I believe that these walks are helping to keep me sane. They are, literally and figuratively, the bright spot of every day. I’ve been reading about the air quality repairing at a rate that seems virtually magical as a result of fewer cars on the road and other virus-related inactivity. I’m not sure if I’m imagining it now as a result of my reading, but the smell, texture, and lungfeel of the air reminds me of my childhood. Maybe it’s just that I tend to not spend much time outside in March and this crispness that’s so new to me has always been there for the inhaling.
My boyfriend and I typically take these walks together. Our goal is always 10,000 steps—a number that I know is arbitrary, with marketing origins for a Japanese pedometer in the ‘60s, but 10,000 steps is useful for the structure it provides. On a good day, we do our best talking on these walks. He is sometimes zen about the way things are, and optimistic that humanity will learn lessons from this and build on the collapse and tragedy that have already set in and will likely be here to stay for some time. For me, there is no genuine hope yet, only the active refusal of dread when possible. I don’t know what the future holds, and my open mind sometimes weighs on me like a curse. I wander from one anxious scenario to another, like a germaphobe in a bathhouse. Is this the beginning of the end? Will we have to fight for our lives soon? Take on intruders who will try to rob us when society collapses? If we have to walk to South Jersey to see my family, will we get there without being shot down on the Garden State Parkway?
On a walk last week, I teared up thinking about eating with my boyfriend’s family at Olive Garden last summer. Will we ever again get to experience something so enjoyable and easy to take for granted?
The irony, it just won’t quit. Outside is a refuge, and the internet hasn’t felt safer in years. All those pieces about how modern communication promotes isolation seem kind of silly in a time when we can only isolate. Y2K turned out to be a silly fable that sought to illustrate how dependent we are on technology—little did we know that it just might be our salvation. I think about the people who endured the Spanish flu of 1918 and how confusing it must have all been—how did they even know what to do? How did they know when it was finally okay to leave the house?
There’s something about sharing the experience of doom that has softened me. I can’t even remember what it felt like to be invested in petty rivalries. I’ve been liking tweets with abandon. There’s a palpable hunger for connection in my various inboxes. Just posting a stupid picture on my Instagram stories sometimes yields a response that takes over my life for a few minutes, both to read and respond. All I have is time at this point, so I appreciate the distraction. So many of the people I know, we cling to each other at a remove: via video chats, texts, social media. I’ve been talking to people earnestly without feeling the need to pivot to sarcasm or snideness so that I don’t come off as cheesy. Every single time I’ve written, “I hope you’re well,” in an email, I’ve meant it sincerely. The stakes are so high I have vertigo. I don’t have illusions about the actual safety of the internet—Oprah Winfrey trended at No. 1 on Twitter last week because of some lie people made up about her getting arrested. #ReopenAmerica trended this week because our maniacal president cares more about money than human lives, even when surrounded by direct proof that our economy is built from popsicle sticks and glue, when something as simple as illness could pass through and threaten to decimate civilization as we know it. But at least we have the means to be informed, if we can sniff out the bullshit. At least we can spend isolation connected.
When I walk I try not to think too much about what might or what could. It’s hard to check my anxiety, but when I can, I find that it’s more soothing to focus on the concrete. I also mean that literally and figuratively. I started documenting the personal protective equipment (PPE) waste that I’ve seen littering the streets of Bushwick and Williamsburg. The indigo, fuchsia, and blue gloves are striking against the earth tones of pavement, pops of color like synthetic flowers through asphalt. So many trees—magnolias and Callery Pears, in particular—are in full bloom. I can’t decide if their head start on spring means they know too little or too much about our changing climate. On Friday, I saw a dog’s turd standing on one end, like a brown crayon in a box. That was interesting. So were the squirrels rifling through a pile of trash bags outside of a school that I saw the other day. They’d torn a big hole in one of them and froze when they spotted me spotting them. They knew that they’d been caught and they were so animated in their arrest before they scampered off that they may as well have been teleported from an old Disney movie.
Regularly, I walk amongst strewn McChicken wrappers and empty beer cases and flattened Pepsi cans and cardboard packaging for cheap headphones and stacks of abandoned mattresses and so much plastic everywhere still. I’m not sure if I’m just seeing it all now or it’s always been there and I’ve ignored it. Every remnant of human activity is potentially soothing (after all, we’re still here) and worrying (did they practice social distancing to get that McChicken?). But virtually everything that passes my eyes on these walks is interesting, worth pondering. What has been and will be lost is too vast to consider. The world is broken and terrifying. The walks I take give me solace by placing me in the center of what’s left. And sometimes I can’t help but think to myself, despite myself and despite everything, really, what a wonderful world.