I drove through the “epicenter of the global pandemic today.” What was it like? Nothing in particular.
Colleagues in the Department of Art at my university answered my earlier plea for medical supplies by offering up their hidden stash of nitrile gloves. So I drove from my home in Readington, New Jersey to the university in Lodi (Bergen County), and called security to let me in. The security guard, who’s seen me hundreds of times before over more than a decade, professed for the nth time not to know who I was. After some pro forma wrangling, interrogation, and perusing of my ID from-a-distance, he let me in.
I went up to the office of my colleague Ard Berge (an artist and a gentleman), gathered a few boxes of gloves intended for some art-related purpose,* and set out for my brother’s house in Ridgewood (also in Bergen County). I got there, and texted him. He came out and half-greeted me in his way. I left the boxes on his porch. We chatted for a few minutes at a distance of about five yards. Then I drove home.
I needed melatonin from Walgreen’s, so I got some. My wife wanted me to get avocados from the grocery store, so I did. And then at last I got home, half an hour before curfew. About 100 miles of driving through four counties of north Jersey, including Bergen, the one hardest hit.
I recount this parade of banalities precisely because it is so banal. As a friend of mine, a Manhattan-based internist put it, it’s “sort of the calm before the storm here. Disquiet.” A little reminiscent of September 10, 2001, I suppose. I don’t mean to deny that much of life has ground to a halt, or to deny that it has caused a great deal of financial and other hardship for people. But having spent time under a decades-long military occupation in the West Bank–including cities like Hebron, literally locked down for decades–I’m struck as much by the similarities of our current situation as the differences between this “lockdown” and others I’ve been in.
The Times and other outlets have gone out of their way to stress scenes of desertion and desolation here at the epicenter. I don’t deny that such scenes exist in the places where they’re claimed to exist, but I didn’t happen to see any today. Traffic was light, but it often is on Sunday. The roadways were decidedly not deserted or abandoned–not the highways, not the county roads, not the local roads. I personally didn’t see a single cop on the way to Lodi or Ridgewood (and only two on the way back to Readington), much less checkpoints, or demands for papers or warrantless searches by soldiers with machine guns. Quite a lot different from a drive of comparable distance in the West Bank, e.g., from Bethlehem to Jenin.
As I drove through Paterson, a city renowned for its hard urban edges, I couldn’t help noticing how unusually crisp and clear the air seemed, and how for the first time, the city seemed fully visible, bathed in afternoon sunlight.
The security guard at the university seemed paranoid, but security guards are always paranoid when I’m involved. And my own behavior–fumbling suspiciously about in a colleague’s office, reciting an implausible-sounding story about a mission of mercy involving nitrile gloves–didn’t inspire confidence, even in me.
People were out and about in my brother’s tony suburb, Ridgewood–jogging, biking, walking, chatting-at-distance. The weather was bright but a little chilly. No one seemed to mind. My brother seemed weirdly relaxed for a guy about to head into battle. But I guess Hector did, too.
I thought I saw more ambulances racing about than usual, but it could be my imagination, which is fairly active, as imaginations go.
Walgreen’s was empty, except for me and a lady wearing a face mask.
The grocery store seemed pretty much normal. Some items were sold out, but most of the store was well stocked. Yes, I told the check-out lady, I did find “everything I needed.” And I wasn’t lying. I hadn’t even wanted a Mexican corn salad, and found one of those. I was probably the most paranoid-looking person there, a scarf wrapped entirely around my nose and mouth, blue nitrile gloves on my hands. But people around here are too polite to say anything, so no one did.
That was my slice of “lockdown” today. Everyone’s slice is bound to be different, depending on the person, the day, the time, the place. Hard to know what someone else would have seen today at a difference time and place. Also hard to know what the future will bring. But for whatever it’s worth, that’s what the present was. I guess we’re about to see how long it lasts.
*With his permission, of course. Thanks to several colleagues for being such helpful accomplices to my crime.