Disorientation: Walking Manhattan
The camera homes in on a small boy running wildly in circles, trapped in a cramped room lined with adults sitting firmly on chairs. A circle whirling in a box, that box in a larger box inside an even larger box: a warehouse of boxes each holding a family of migrants. The boy, a caged animal. A scene from Ai Wei Wei’s stunning and disturbing film on migration.
All living things must move and act in space to survive. Without finding food in the day and shelter at night, we wouldn’t last. Even plants must move in space: lean toward the sun, away from wind. Toward or away, the most basic of actions: approach or avoid, drawn by emotion, attract or repulse. Motion paired with emotion. When motion ceases, life ends.
Moving in space leaves traces in the brain, in rats, bats, and people. The brain notes the landmarks and logs the paths in the hippocampus. It places the landmarks in a spatial array right next door, a synapse away, in entorhinal cortex. This from research led by O’Keefe and the Mosers and recognized by a Nobel Prize in 2014. Moving in space creates maps in the brain. Maps in human brains leap far beyond those of rodents. In people, maps in brains go abstract. The neural substrate that arrays landmarks in real spaces also arrays events in temporal spaces, people in social spaces, and ideas in conceptual spaces. Layers of spaces code landmarks of places, events, people, and ideas connected by networks of paths.
Our lives are spent navigating those layers of networks. We are smack in the middle of our physical spaces, our temporal spaces, our social spaces, our conceptual spaces, the spaces of our desires and values. In each we are surrounded by a landscape of places, times, people, ideas. We create those landscapes and use them to find our ways smoothly and efficiently. We know how to get from where we live to where we work to where we shop to where we meet friends. We know when to go to work, to home, to shop, to friends. We create a moral landscape, what actions we should take, which to avoid, what is more important, and what less. Our own actions, as well as those of others. We know where to go, when to go, to whom to go, what to do to find what we need and what is needed from us. For each of those spaces we know what is close and what is far, we know where it is safe and where it is not, what to approach and what to avoid.
Suddenly, mid-March 2020, real space contracted: Stay home. All our spaces shrank and tumbled, the landmarks and paths were scrambled and jumbled. Our normal routines, our usual actions, ceased or failed. But then, trapped in place, how to eat, how to work? How to reach those we need to see? What, now, is important, essential, just, and what is not? We were disoriented, in real space, in temporal space, in social space, in our moral spaces. All our landmarks and paths in all our spaces had to be created anew.
Recreating those spaces depended on what was safe and what was not. What to approach and what to avoid. Was it safe to leave home? Could we shop or must we order in? Those deliveries: did they need to be disinfected or set aside for days? Could we touch door handles, newspapers, packages? What could we breathe? All that was unknown. The simplest decisions were fraught with uncertainty. We froze in place, afraid to touch, afraid to move. We sought information everywhere, we followed the path of the virus on a microscopic scale, a human scale, a geographic scale. The unfolding events of the virus captured us with the intensity and suspense and speculation and rumor of unfolding sports or politics. Friends fell ill. Others lost their jobs. It was a war. The enemy, invisible, was here and there and everywhere.
Fear set in.
Years ago, I had to stop running and began to walk. Miles each day. I walked to see, I walked to think, I walked to unwind. I walked cities wherever I was, to see people, to see where they went, what they did, how they interacted. To see the lives they built. Walking felt good. Walking was good: the best way to elevate body, mind, and soul. Bodies are meant to move. Walking comes highly recommended, evidence-based.
I walked, every day, my starting point near Union Square, IPhone in hand, compelled not just to walk but to record. Outside was safe. So few people that it was easy to do what we were unnaturally supposed to do, avoid them. We quickly learned the social distance dance routines. Turn away from bodies and faces, even those in masks. Walk in the street, or cross it.
New York City froze. The streets emptied, the skies cleared. Manhattan was an abandoned stage set. The landmarks that had been lively and bustling now void of life: no crowds racing to trains in Grand Central, no shoppers on Fifth Avenue, no lines of tourists at the Empire State Building, no visitors to the renewed World Trade Center, no traffic on the bridges connecting the island to the world, only pigeons in the parks where Broadway slices the wide avenues, Union Square, Herald Square—Macy’s!--, Times Square, Columbus Circle. The paths among them, underground and above, were deserted: the subway and the busses ran vacant. The shops in Soho, filled with luxury goods and devoid of shoppers, boarded up.
Even empty of life, those landmarks stood their place. Sentinels, guarding the city, anchoring it firmly in place. The silent network of paths remained. Real space stayed in place, even without us, even without motion. Real space, its landmarks and paths, told the story.
You can pause lives outside but you cannot pause the lives inside. Inside overflowed outside. In the residential neighborhoods, dog walkers, runners, weary parents pushing oblivious babies in strollers or trailing kids careening on scooters. Workers dragging delivery carts. Taxis, trucks, cars disappeared from the streets as did planes from the skies, along with their whizzing and honking and buzzing and screeching. The only sounds, sirens and the cacophony of spoons banging on pans at 7 pm thanking the health care workers. The pummeling of sirens grew more and more persistent along with the rising curves of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. The eyes confirming what the ears heard. Refrigerator trucks parked outside hospitals and hospital tents sprouted in Central Park. Deaths soared and jobs plummeted. At once surreal, and all too real.
Anyone who could escaped the city for the country. The country seemed safer. The country seemed normal: even in “normal” times, you rarely saw people on the streets, only cars, houses were scattered and surrounded by greenery. Shopping malls went silent and still, but they were not in sight. What was in focus wasn’t jarring. Just as you were safe inside your house, you were safe inside your car. With a car, you could move.
With so many inside or away, the moving chaos on the ground gone, eyes could look up. The city emerged, a static chaos, stately tall-windowed turn-of-the-century harmonic stone edifices mingled with colorful brick walk-ups zigzagged with fire escapes, pseudo-avant-garde stacks of cubes, jagged or regimented, sleek smooth glass towers soaring ever upwards. Encampments of street dwellers clustered here and there under scaffolding, happy and lively, though far from safe. Then one day they were gone, to appear farther afield elsewhere. One lone pacer in my radius remained. He had set up home under a bright red Design Within Reach awning, spread a colorful carpet for a bed and a smaller one for an orderly display of running shoes—the denizen is slim and fit. Marking his rather abundant territory at the corners, four overflowing shopping carts laden with overstuffed plastic bags and a dozen mops and brooms sticking out helter-skelter like pick-up stix.
Temporal space contracted. There was no future, only today. Each day was like each other. It was hard to focus. The major decisions of the day were what to have for lunch and what to have for dinner. Complicated decisions. Work, for those fortunate to have it. Children, wrenched from school and friends. Checking in on family and friends, and checking again. Tracking the virus with fragments of news and endless speculation. Streaming some of the bounty offered by shuttered venues. Suddenly, cooped up inside, the internet at our fingers, geographic space hardly mattered. The first space to be realigned was our space of values, and that was our social space, those we needed to see. To approach.
Zoom became a verb. Within a week, I was teaching by Zoom to students scattered across the globe, a few hours of stability and predictability and normality as crucial to me as to them. Zoom links began to take over my calendar: teaching, meetings, virtual brunches and dinners. A heartwarming Bat Mitzvah--family, guests, officiators dispersed and together in dozens of windows. I had my first Zoom dream, familiar faces boxed in windows arrayed in a grid on a flat screen, jabbering and nodding all at once. Each one a caged animal.
The urban landscape began to change. Spaced lines formed outside essential businesses, supermarkets, bodegas, coffee shops, and pharmacies, spaces marked with boxes or feet or hearts or, in June, rainbows. The sidewalk vendors who normally sell Louis Vuitton and BaoBao knockoffs began to sell masks and hand sanitizer. Young suburbanites with cars heard about the empty streets and began to race up and down the broad avenues, blaring music and endangering the few pedestrians enjoying the empty streets. Locals took up other forms of wheels, bicycles, skateboards, and scooters, propelled by motors or feet. Posters of abandoned landmarks were pasted on facades of buildings with titles: Nowhere to go, Nowhere to dance, Nowhere to eat, Nothing to see.
New York City plants screens instead of trees, not just the enormous ones in Times Square, but modest ones at eye level along the streets, at bus stops and subway entrances and cell phone charging stations. Inside the trains. You read as you walk, smiling at tidbits of history, neighborhood news, local maps and restaurants, cartoons. Now those screens broadcast COVID messages: symptoms to watch for, where to get tested. Inspirational messages, “Call a loved one” in 10 languages. “Be a part; stay apart.” “Real New Yorkers can handle it.” “Flatten the curve” “Embrace the absurd.” Whimsical drawings showed how to wear a mask. Two circles with smiling eyes and masks with thumbs up: above one: “You take care of me;” below the other: “I take care of you.” At 7pm, “Hey NYC. It’s 7pm. You know what to do.” Then a sketch of hands clapping. We did. The over-sized screens that continued to light up an eyeless Times Square thanked faces of health care heroes. No longer advertising Broadway shows, they advertised streaming series. Near the half-price ticket booth, TKTS, the screens that formerly listed the discounted shows went blank except for: “TKTS will reopen at 10am on Monday April 13.” Mid-March when our lives suddenly contracted it was hard to believe that the shutdown would last, that we would last, even till April. Those screens glowed until they burnt out, sometime in May. Life stayed on pause. The sameness and uncertainty wouldn’t be measured in days or weeks but months, and perhaps years.
As the curve peaked and turned downwards, there were intermittent stabs at normalcy. One weekend early in May soldiers appeared at the recruiting station in Times Square. Like mechanical soldiers, they marched, turned, stopped, and saluted in unison, masked and spaced, again and again. A few days later, the Naked Cowboy showed up, guitar in hand, entertaining only a two-man TV crew and me. Two weeks after that, a couple of cheery Elmos bounced and danced and waited in vain for tourists. A flea market reopened along 6th Avenue above 23rd attracting bargain hunters. In deserted Union Square, a traditional site for protest, a slim, angry, middle-aged man with a white crew-cut and a commanding voice tried without success to arouse a crowd with a litany of “facts” refuting global warming and the virus--hoaxes perpetrated by scientists and the radical left to swindle you. Some boarded stores in Soho were adorned with larger than life photos of faces of masked health care workers or floating pastel shapes a la Matisse. In the window of a pottery shop, a large portrait of Lincoln sporting a mask was placed next to the slogan “Make the POTUS great again.” Spring came, almost in irony. Flowers bloomed in the squares and parks, a symphony of colors. One morning mid-May the racket of construction perforated the morning silence, surprisingly, a welcome sound. More people ventured out.
Still on pause, waiting.
On Memorial Day, May 25, George Floyd, a Black man, died in a White police officer’s chokehold. The video spread faster than the virus. No matter what direction I walked, I bumped into a march, and joined at the margins. Union Square was an epicenter. The crowds were young and enthusiastic, peaceful, easily as many Whites as Blacks, masked and spaced, carrying signs scribbled on pieces of ubiquitous flattened delivery boxes, chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe.” Walls of cops appeared at the edges. Then, after dark, rampages of looters, and a new rhythm to the day, marches in the afternoons, demonstrations in the evenings, looting at night. In the mornings, the fragrance of freshly sawed wood wafting from the furious boarding of stores. Fifth Avenue became a procession of coffins burying retail. What was once a colorful parade of temptations to wear or eat or read and that made our city safe turned into a uniform characterless row of boarded boxes. Not just an abandoned city, but a buried one.
A nervous curfew. Boarding wasn’t sufficient; husky guards lined Saks at six-foot intervals, 24/7. Guards along beloved Strands Bookstore. My building locked up at 6. Taggers descended on the boarded stores along with the looters. The urgent wails of sirens resumed, not ambulances now but police cars. Helicopters circled overhead, night and day. A war zone. A second trauma to a traumatized city.
The curfew held. The looting ceased. The curfew lifted. The marches and demonstrations tapered off. The helicopters flew off. Miraculously, the fear and anger were funneled into art, the boarded storefronts of Soho serving as canvases. Word spread, the streets of Soho became lively again, not with fashionistas but with painters and ladders, photographers, and spectators. It was a conversation, artists added to each other, echoed each other, painted over each other. Everywhere were striking images, symbols, slogans, quotes from Baldwin and Mandela. The images and messages changed and evolved; angry, crude, jarring, gentle, affectionate, peaceful. “Say their names” with their names or their faces. Fists. Slogans: Black Lives Matter. No Justice No Peace. Defund the Police. Inspirational messages and images: We Heart New York. Better Together. This shall pass. Look out for each other. Wisdom lies not in seeing things but in seeing through things. Pessimism is an indulgence. Despair is a lack of imagination. Real Eyes-Realize-Real lies. Hearts, flowers, and rainbows. Strewn on the sidewalks: Good Luck Spot. Post no Hate. It’s OK to be Black. The themes that had evolved through the 60’s and 70’s all at the same time.
Impossible to describe the hundreds of inspiring images, new ones every day. Just one story. Early on, a jewelry store in Soho had covered its boards with large photos of masked health care workers. Then taggers scribbled over them. That was overpainted with bright gold, followed by more tagging and myriad posters, then painted over with a strong graceful woman classically draped wearing a nurse’s cap and bearing a red cross flag. She led a parade of essential workers, a chef, a delivery man, a mechanic, a doctor, the heroes who sustained us. Later, the parade of heroes and its leader were transformed into an undulating river. The flag stayed. Undulating with the river, the words: Freedom is ours, Let it reign, Let it pour down. Three days later, enormous letters sprawled above the river declared: FREEDOM REIGN and a Black female doctor in scrubs was seated as if receiving the river. Taggers again left their marks. The transformations ended late June when the boards came down and the stores reopened.
Signs kept pace elsewhere. In Times Square, under the large Coca Cola sign: Together we must: start change, demand justice, end racism. A rainbow banner over a garden of rainbow hands proclaiming: We are all human. Another: We may be 6 ft apart but we’re all in this together. The screens lining the streets displayed the names in bold letters. The lion guarding the elegant New York Public Library in Bryant Park was given a mask as was Atlas holding up the world at Rockefeller Center. A huge colorful BLACK LIVES MATTER sprawled around semi-circular Foley Square, near the court houses and City Hall. Another, in bright yellow, filled the iconic block of Fifth Avenue under Trump Tower.
Mid-June New York City began to open. A truck offering haircuts waited for clients in the Upper West Side. Stores removed the painted boards and unlocked their doors. Some stayed closed, their contents removed. A few of the painted boards were saved; they are art. Hundreds are preserved in my IPhone. Late one afternoon, many boards lined a wide sidewalk in Soho, an opening at an outside gallery, with beautiful people drinking wine and chatting about the art. The fragrance of sawing plywood resumed, now to create platforms on the streets for restaurants bordered by flower boxes and topped with bright umbrellas attracting happy diners and drinkers. We dared to see a few trusted friends, six feet apart.
New York City’s landmarks and paths remain, holding the city, but the patterns of life along them have changed. Theaters are dark, but street life is returning to Times Square. The Naked Cowboy and the Elmos have found a few tourists to charm. Union Square is as it was, pick-up chess games, picnickers, kibitzers, guitar players, occasional demonstrations, artists selling their paintings, the aromatic famer’s market four days a week, with spaced shoppers. The High Line has opened and now the museums and gyms. Offices and malls remain closed. Schools are iffy. Tourists are few, so the sidewalks are filled with locals, themselves a colorful microcosm of the world. Traffic and traffic jams have resumed, though the mix is different. The yellow streaks of taxis are missing. In their stead, bicycles, scooters, and private cars transporting those afraid of public transportation. The pace of emergency vehicles is normal, and no longer jars.
Is it over? Far from it, but in the meantime, a welcome respite and relief, for the fortunate among us. We can move again, we can mingle at a distance, outside with masked strangers, we can see friends, outside, at a distance. We can plan a few days ahead, a week, maybe a month. We know what we can approach, what to avoid. Our spaces have settled for a time, they have shrunk and remain uncertain, but we can navigate again, and even more, we now know how to rearrange the spaces of our lives.
September 3, 2020