I am not a doctor or nurse or hospital orderly, not a cop or a firefighter or public transit worker, not stocking shelves and manning checkout counters at grocery stores and pharmacies, delivering mail or parcels. I am not homeless. I am not out of work and unpaid and can meet my monthly maintenance. “Not essential,” I am a university professor with tenure on a research leave with plenty of time, enough money, and good health insurance.
Told to stay at home, these digital photographs are an index of the virus, real enough but not really real, as I ventured out and about walking for an hour in the soupy gray weather the other week on the Upper West Side. I am coming to understand that I am more or less non-exposed, just as the pandemic social protocol intends me to be. For those of us not in the grim thick of things, what lucky and relatively privileged people like myself in big cities see of the Coronavirus are all the empty places, abandoned avenues and side streets, and shut up shops that the pandemic leaves in its wake. I don’t see the virus itself, only the wake of its attribute of action. The sickening feeling of is registered at the backside of acute suffering.
This is an antimony of suffering. On the one hand, these are not normal New York streets. The unreality of the empty place is a constant and depressing sign of this health crisis and its actual impact on “all of us” holed up at home. On the other hand, what is “home” at a moment of social and moral chaos? More or less unafflicted, the mix of empty melancholy and distinct worry is a mark of something unfair and unjust in the social world. The sense of distant place that I can see here before my own eyes belies the actual terror that I know other people suffer in hospitals, nursing homes, homeless shelters, and out there on the other side of the racial color line in poor and working class and immigrant communities across the city. That worried disjoint should remind me of them.