by David Winner
For years now, I’ve run up and down stairs in Brooklyn parks. An attempt to stave off a middle-aged paunch has morphed into a serious endorphin addiction.
My favorite steps lie on Lookout Hill right behind a statue of George Washington in the eastern corner of Prospect Park. Sometimes, I climb with my big yellow mutt. Sometimes, I climb alone, not focusing much on passersby except when joggers, families with children, and those damn birdwatchers get in my way.
Then came Covid.
My eighty-eight-year-old father, alone in Charlottesville, told me he wasn’t so concerned about protecting himself as he’d lived a long life and was content to die. And my uncle in Rome (nearly blind in his mid-sixties) ran out of food in the midst of the Italian catastrophe and was taken in by friends at the eleventh hour.
Back in Brooklyn, I grew concerned about my six feet of separation, just a little less than the space between people if they hewed to the edges of the stairs on Lookout Hill. Bravely I traipsed up and down, risking my ankles if I were to mis-land and my skin if I were to tumble into the thorny vines off to the sides.
Foucault famously discussed “an enclosed, segmented space,” in the time of plague, “observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded.”
The stairs did not resemble the space that Foucault describes, a circular medieval prison called a panopticon. And no one other than myself is observing the young white family that blocks my way one morning. Not the little boy, seven maybe, moving dangerously close to me as I boil with self-righteous rage. And imagine their attempts to reason with him in the parlance of educated Brooklyn parents. “Do you really think you should be getting so close to that man, Harrison, can we discuss this?”
At that very moment, while I am fighting the good fight in Prospect Park, a friend’s body in Sunset Park hurts so much that he can barely move. All essential activities (urinating, defecating, swallowing) seem impossibly painful. And in England, in Leicester, the brother-in-law of a friend gasps for breath. Weeks later, well after his ostensible recovery, he staggers onto my friend’s Skype session and staggers away, exhausted by the effort.
Another family on the path kindly but firmly direct their kids to stay away. When I run by the handsome blond father, both of us keeping to the edge of the stairs, I praise his and his wife’s childrearing as if I were broadcasting from my lookout post in the panopticon, encouragement for correct behavior, punishment for infringement.
My college closes, and I start teaching remotely. Shelter in place is mandated. Most stores close but liquor stores remain open, making affluent Park Slope resemble ’70s working-class black Washington according to an acquaintance’s Facebook post.
Largely Hasidic Borough Park is one neighborhood away from me. Many New Yorkers, particularly secular Jews like me, view Hasids as insular, patriarchal, just plain weird. But I once flew from New York to Warsaw on a plane full of Lubavitchers who were visiting the ancient village of their rebbe. Over the Atlantic in the middle of the night, I was awakened by dozens of dancing, chanting, exhilaratingly mystical men.
While the overseers of the panopticon are on a break, hundreds of members of the Hasidic communities of Borough Park and Williamsburg attend a wedding. Infection spreads through the descendants of Holocaust survivors determined to repopulate the Jewish race. More than six feet, I try to give them twelve, those carriers of the plague.
Dawn, my wife Angela’s cousin, Bob, her husband, and their teenage daughter all have it. They seem okay but share a house with Angela’s 97-year-old aunt. They self-quarantine, but they could already have given it to her. Meanwhile, my father goes one last time to Whole Foods. Those over sixty are supposed to stay home, and he’s nearly three decades past that. I imagine the market ringing with disapprobation as he clings to his cart like a walker, but he tells me that no one seemed bothered.
My leadership position in the Covid panopticon is out of character. I’m not generally so obedient. I bike through red lights and onto sidewalks. My dog can be the only one off the leash in the park. Not a risk taker, just a minor-league law breaker.
But back in the park in the last day of March, I come up with a list of rules. Winner’s Rules of Order govern running up and down Lookout Hill. Perhaps I can create a makeshift signpost that demands that in the name of public safety:
- All families must congregate in open areas to avoid blocking trails and stairs.
- All children over the age of three must be informed that they should stay out of people’s ways. And be given (no, not beatings, I’m a liberal guy) heightened time-outs if they fail to comply, some offshoot of Guantanamo’s heightened interrogation.
- No individual shalt pay so much attention to their phone as to ignore social distance.
- All couples must. . .
And so forth. Perhaps the park can build me a treehouse, so I can root out disobedience from above. Really, though, the primary rule breaker is myself, or at least I am exploiting a loophole. Dog-walking and exercising shouldn’t entail so many hours away from home running up and down stairs.
Far from Lookout Hill, authoritarian governments exploit the crisis. Viktor Orbán has seized even more power in Hungary. Jeanine Áñez Chávez has postponed Bolivian elections. A friend I’ve made in Iran tells me that, “Our government and regime don’t give a fuck about the people. We are hostages, not the citizens.” Stateside, Trump’s bizarre populism may be more dangerous than his authoritarianism. Denying, lying, and stalling as Covid spreads.
I don’t know whether he’s still calling it the Chinese virus because I can’t stand to listen to him. The wife of a friend, an RN from the Philippines, takes a car service from Queens to Mount Sinai in the Upper East Side, not so much because she fears infection but because Asian people are getting harassed on the train and around the hospital. The parents of a Filipina student of mine have been mistreated in Rome, but I guess I can’t blame Trump for that.
One night, Angela and I get mad at each other. “But I cook all the meals,” I scream, though it isn’t true. “But they’re terrible,” she rejoins, which is true though she later takes it back. A text chimes. Dawn’s husband, Bob. Dawn’s blood oxygen is at 86% and they fear intubation. When Angela’s father was dying from COPD and lung cancer and when my mother was rasping for breath in her last days, their levels were nowhere that low. This is terrifying.
Angela’s phone dies, and we (still mad at each other but panicked) search madly around for a charger, scaring our poor dog. We find it, power up, and text Bob back, but he does not respond.
My cousin Frank in the West Village also has it. Not nearly so bad as Dawn, but he is in his seventies and smoked much of his life. His job (trumpet player for the Metropolitan Opera, sometimes on stage in ancient Egyptian attire) may have kept his lungs strong.
My father and his much younger half-brother in Rome always complain about the media hype of hurricanes, blizzards, and the like. In the early days of the plague, I joke that if they somehow survived WW3, they would pick themselves out of the rubble and declare it a “cable news exaggeration,” a favorite phrase of my uncle’s. My father and I receive a dictated e-mail from him declaring that it is good that he is “semi-blind,” so he can’t see that Italy’s “great humanitarian effort” is “folly.” My father, alone and anxious, has jumped off that bandwagon. It no longer seems exaggerated.
The peak is upon us, and I refrain from Lookout Hill.
Dawn is better. After several days in the hospital, she is being released. She is exhausted, though, and speaking is difficult. Frank continues to improve but tells me that his recover has not been “linear.”
My uncle cannot return to his own apartment because Covid has been discovered in the condo, and the place has been quarantined. He writes to say that the TB epidemic of 2018 killed more people but that nobody wants to listen.
Without my Lookout Hill endorphin fix, I’m getting depressed, irritable. I return to the park, wearing a mask even though it’s uncomfortable, swearing to stay not six but nine feet away.
Most risks have immediate consequences. If you get caught in a riptide, you drown. Not that afternoon, not the following month, but right then. But if I catch a dribble of Covid sputum on Lookout Hill, I may wake up one morning two weeks later not with one of the mild sore throats that have been scaring me but a deep exhaustion so I can barely make it to the bathroom to pee. A compression in my chest so I can barely breathe.
On the stairs, a man deep in his phone approaches me. He walks right in the middle. Even if I slide by him, hewing to the side, I’ll be much closer than six feet. So I jump off the stairs into the underbrush, feeling morally superior. Look what I’ve done to avoid infecting you, I silently address him. I glance down at my feet to see what’s below them in case I might trip on vines or stones. There aren’t any. Just dozens of beautiful spring daisies.
“When you were very little and we lived on Wertland Steet,” says my father, more and more upset by the administration’s response, “there was a woman who lived across the street, quite mad and a nymphomaniac. She came over in the evenings with absurd stories of people on the street plotting against her. One couldn’t call the police. She’s Trump!”
It is a glorious sunny day in the park, mid-Passover. There are hundreds of people and many Hasids. It is slow-going on the stairs. I have to stop often to keep proper distance. Sometimes, I have to jump off them, steering clear of daisies. Friendly dogs come my way, but I must not pet them. They may carry the virus on their fur, or I could be carrying the virus, bringing it to their owners.
A Hasidic girl (fourteen or fifteen maybe) and a Hasidic boy of about ten are walking below me on the steps. I have paused to allow them to pass, but the boy inexplicably turns around and dashes towards me. When he is only a couple of feet away, I plunge off the stairs, losing my balance and possibly murdering more flowers.
The boy has turned around again and begun to head back to his sister when the words “excuse me,” flee my mouth without proper input from my brain. No adult is around. The girl is the closest thing. I can see her hesitate. She hears me but doesn’t know what to do about the strange man addressing her.
“Excuse me,” I say again, and she stops and looks up at me.
“Can you tell him?” I pontificate, gesturing towards her brother, “can you tell him to stay away from people?”
The expression on her face still haunts me. Confusion, fear. I must have looked so terrifying in my sweaty gym clothes and ridiculous mask.
She may not have seen how close her brother had come to me. She may not have known what this was all about. This could be the anti-Semitism that she’s been warned about. Do I want her to wear a gold star? Will I shatter her family’s shop windows? Drag her, her brother, and her parents to someplace resembling the camps from which her great-great grandparents had escaped.
Trump urges people to liberate themselves from quarantine in Michigan, Texas and Virginia.
As the two people who look in on my father in Charlottesville may be Trump supporters, I beg him to keep clear.
There is silence on the phone.
“Well,” he says, “I’ll do my best.”
There is nothing more I can do. I can bark down at the disobedient from my treehouse. I can terrify teenage Hasidic girls, but Virginia is hundreds of miles away, far from my panopticon.
The next time I find my way to Lookout Hill, I regard Washington’s ominous words emblazoned upon his statue. “Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!”
Of course, I don’t know the future of myself and the other not-so-brave fellows (and females) on the stairs.
But the community college classes I’ve been teaching remotely for weeks have taken a dark turn. My students live two rivers away from me in impoverished, ungentrified neighborhoods in Jersey City. My middle-aged white mug appears on their computer screens like some Big Brother figure as I feel obligated to show myself, but very few choose to reveal their faces or their living spaces. Fewer and fewer of them log on, only about twenty still participating out of sixty-odd students in three classes.
Awkwardly, I’ve asked my classes how everyone was doing and have received bracing if non-committal responses: okay, fine, okay. Then I get an e-mail from Gregory, living with his mom and stepdad. He’s too upset to deal with the stupid assignment I’ve concocted about Covid because his cousin and his aunt have died, and his mother has tested positive. Tears well up in Gregory’s eyes the next time we encounter each other on Zoom.
Two students have it in an evening class. One participates from home. The other sleeps through most of the days. A student from Turkey and another from Morocco report to the class about the shitshows in their countries.
The following day, April 23, I learn that sweet Adriel, who came from Ecuador as a toddler, is doing poorly. His father, who is younger than I am, has just died from it. Angela and I speculate about what we don’t know. Adriel’s father may not have had the luxury of working from home. For him and so many other immigrants from the Global South, the problem may not be being over-zealously monitored in a panopticon but being sent out to work in the dangerous world outside.