By Rebecca Chace
Today a man died in front of our building, or maybe he didn’t. It’s spring 2020 in Brooklyn, New York. Yesterday, the death count was only forty-six, the day before it was sixty-one. Up and down have replaced north and south on the compass. I opened our front door, masked and gloved, inhaling Pine Sol from the spray bottle we use on the door knob we share with other tenants. The man’s body was collapsed against a small iron gate separating our line of garbage cans from the rest of the sidewalk. He was curled on his side and his exposed behind was facing us.
We were on our way to install an alarm on the door of my elderly mother’s apartment, where she lives with twenty-four-hour caregivers working in shifts. My mother has Alzheimer’s and she’d wandered out of the apartment the day before. She got downstairs and halfway down the block, no mask, no gloves, before her caregiver caught up with her. Where am I going? she asked. Home, said Pearl.
At eighty-six, with emphysema, if my mother gets the virus she will die.
My first thought when I saw the man in front of our doorway—what if he has the virus? My second thought—is he alive?
I’ve lived on this block for five years. My husband has lived here nearly twenty, but we will always be outsiders. White artists who moved into the neighborhood because it was what they could afford. Our street is a main artery toward the subway station. There’s a needle exchange and drug counseling storefront around the corner, a halfway house, and two low-income housing buildings with a sign in the lobby forbidding anyone to enter except TENANTS AND THEIR GUESTS (as if this weren’t true of all buildings). A large public housing project, two blocks away, has the word GARDENS optimistically included in its title. The tall, leafy trees swaying over the sidewalk in front of the house are often used as urinals, men lean against their forgiving trunks and drink a bottle from the liquor store across the street. But this man wasn’t leaning or pissing anymore. He came to a stop right between the tree and the front door.
Walking over and past bodies on the street or subway platform is not new to me, practiced as a subjective form of heartlessness. Who do I give money to? Why don’t I carry sandwiches to give out? When do I swipe someone into the subway? It depends on my mood, how much cash I have on me and how late I am, as much as anything else. Some people I can’t walk past, some I’m afraid to touch. I haven’t ridden the subway since mid-March. I’m employed and working from home, unlike many of the people on my block. The backside of the man with his pants falling off was brown and clean. Most of the people on my block are black or brown, so the fact that his body was clean was something I paid more attention to than his skin color, at first. He was clean, his clothing looked new and he was wearing shoes. This was the list of facts which made me assume that he wasn’t homeless, though he could be an addict, come to the neighborhood to score, or a drunk sleeping it off.
How many of these assumptions am I willing to question?
How many make it possible for me to live in this city?
I turned my eyes away from him, pity mixed with revulsion at seeing someone too far gone to pull up his own pants. Of course I couldn’t touch him. We called 911 and stayed six feet away, waiting for an ambulance to come. I could say that the six-foot distance was social distancing in the time of Covid, but that would be a lie. I would have kept my distance even if I wasn’t afraid that he was carrying the virus. He wasn’t moving, his eyes were closed, face pressed against the sidewalk, no mask or gloves. Was he still breathing? I couldn’t tell.
I was born in this city, in a broken nation built on slavery, where black and brown people are dying in greater numbers from this virus than white people. I’ve been shopping and delivering groceries as part of a grassroots response to the pandemic, but I volunteer with an afterschool group, not the local needle exchange, because I’d rather spend time with children than junkies. Growing up here, I was taught that it was safer to step around fallen bodies.
I avoid thinking about it as I avoid the bodies of strangers.
Most of us move like minnows on the sidewalk, trying to maintain the six-foot distance, even with masks on. We step onto a stoop to let someone pass, or into the deserted street. How narrow is the sidewalk? Is she wearing a mask? Is she even looking? I give way to everyone, afraid of becoming a vector to my mother and afraid for myself. When a black man walks toward me, I nod as I step out of the way, feeling like an idiot, as if a nod can mitigate all the times white women have crossed the street as he walked toward them. Sometimes they nod back, sometimes they don’t. This is New York, you get everything and you get nothing.
There has always been a virus that people are afraid to catch.
There are maps showing the demographics of who has left the city in plague time.
My mother’s caregivers take the subway to come to her apartment in Manhattan. One of them lives in Brooklyn and one in the Bronx. They are both from Trinidad, and one of the questions the homecare agency asked me, trying to find a good match for us, was if my mother was racist. I’m sorry, they said, but we have to ask.
No was too simple an answer; so was yes.
Standing outside, waiting for the ambulance, another man rushed up, no mask, no gloves, and put his arms around the fallen man, calling him by name. We told him that we’d already called 911 but he pulled out his phone anyway, panicked. He kept hugging the man and talking into the phone to the dispatcher.
He was fine ten minutes ago—about forty years old—I was just coming back to get him. Wake up! Wake up!
We could hear the sirens heading to our address this time. Someone came out of the shop on Fourth Avenue. Does he need Narcan? We’ve got some in the shop. Do you know how to do it? Aren’t you supposed to just shove it up their nose? I don’t know. What’s Narcan? It’s for when you O.D. But how do we know—
The sirens got louder. Red and white lights disappearing in the cold spring sun.
The EMT jumped out of the ambulance wearing gloves and no mask. We kept talking about it later. Did you see? The ambulance guy wasn’t wearing a mask. Do you think he has one? Maybe they ran out. He had gloves on. Yeah, but no mask. You think they’re out of masks? We watched the medics bring a stretcher and move the man from our front gate into the ambulance. Do they put the dead into an ambulance?
I suppose they must.
What do I know of this man? He collapsed in front of my door in the middle of the day, someone knew him and we called an ambulance. It might not have been the virus, could have been an overdose, could have been a heart attack.
He might have made it through.
There is a woman who sits on the corner across from our building and screams for hours, harsh repeated cries. She’s white and dresses like a young girl in a flimsy dress, sweatshirt and sneakers, but has the face of an old woman. She squats on the sidewalk, bare-legged, nursing a bottle with her red shopping cart next to her, plastic bags and bits of cloth fluttering from her wheeled metal companion. We heard from the local deli guy that she’s not homeless, she has a room in the big hotel on Atlantic Avenue—which isn’t really a hotel. There is nobody to call for her. The deli guy told us that when he calls the cops, they don’t come. It’s not the pandemic, they’ve never come when he calls.
Some days the whole city is screaming through the throat of this bare-legged woman, and I’m not proud of it, but after a while I put on my headphones.
She’s still there, but it’s been quieter on the corner for weeks now. The empty buses don’t stop and the birds seem louder.
I want to thank the first responders, the delivery people and the birds.
I keep seeing him every time I open the door, his back curled like a question mark.
Wake up, man! Wake up! He was fine just ten minutes ago. I was coming to pick him up.
What was he wearing? A friend asked. What she meant was, did he look destitute? Was he bare-legged, cracked feet, ripped shirt, fly down?
He was dressed normally, pants and a sweatshirt. Oh, and he wasn’t wearing a mask or gloves.
About midnight last night, fifty cops in riot gear ran down the street in front of my building, chasing protesters. In one week, the sound of ambulances in deserted streets has pivoted to the sound of chanting and police sirens. The virus doesn’t matter since George Floyd was murdered. Fires burn, combusted by this forced compression of racism and death. In the streets where we stand and march, there is no distance between us now, though most of the protesters are masked and most of the police are not. One sign, magic-markered on cardboard: The Cops Will Kill Me Before Covid-19. We hand out bottles of water and cola—the cola is for the eyes in case of teargas and pepper spray. Last night, we brought our garbage bags back inside from the curb so they can’t be used to start a fire. Even the corner store, which never closes, pulled down their metal shutters before dark. The sign with the rainbow on our front door, thanking first responders, sanitation workers, and delivery people already seems like a relic from another time.
Before going out to protest last night, I nailed a new sign to the tree in front of the building:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun
Or does it explode?
— Langston Hughes
By the time I came back, just as the first curfew imposed on this city since 1943 took effect, I saw that the sign was gone.
Maybe someone took it to the protest.