Letters From Six Feet Away
When the school bell rang on Friday the thirteenth, we all laughed. All five of us. Five out of what should have been a class of 30. It was because of this that we were laughing, even though the very root of the joke was unfunny and frightening and deeply foreign to anything we had ever experienced, and it is probably because of that that we laughed in the first place. For when one is met with a situation so ridiculous and so surreal that every known reaction fails to meet the gravity of the moment, laughter may just be all that’s left.
Two weeks later, in a piece for The New Yorker titled “Abundance of Caution” and at a time when it seemed like everyone on Earth had just that, writer Adam Gopnik lamented on the fateful day. “The final weekend of semi-ordinary life in New York arrived on Friday the 13th,” he wrote, “In the week that followed, New York became a ghost town in a ghost nation on a ghost planet.” If nothing else came of this mess, at least I can now state that I lived through a day worthy enough to be immortalized on a glossy scrap of paper.
My recollections of the events were similar to Mr. Gopnik’s. In fact, I doubt there’s a person alive who had an altogether different tale to tell. We all drifted through the surreal day feeling the exact same thing – an awful, knotting pang in our chests that spoke of the uncertainties of the days to come. It was as if all of humanity had been bound to one another by an invisible string, and some hand jerked the string, and we all bent with the tug, and clung on to each other, while keeping six feet apart.
The wondrous part of it is that we now know that string was there all along, binding the whole of the human race. The sad part of it is that it took a plague for us to know that.
In the week that transpired, the plague known as coronavirus veered its course toward New York City, uprooting virtually all forms of daily life. The streets of Manhattan lay barren. Stores and shops, though mostly the local ones, shuttered their doors. Schools were closed, events were canceled. People stayed separated. I imagine something like this may be comparable to living in a war zone, but at least in a war zone one lives with a knowledge that somewhere people are free. This war had no fronts and no sanctuaries. The whole of the world was at war.
And yet in the wake of this wasteland, two things revealed themselves as abundantly clear about the humans we were now forced to distance ourselves from.
The first thing is, as if there was any doubt before, that the most petrifying of all human fear is fear of the unknown. The very nature of this virus is a nightmare of the unknown. Perhaps if it was a pandemic of the chicken pox instead, the panic would not be so great. That’s because we know the chicken pox; we’ve been taught that name ever since we were children, and with that, perhaps the scariest thing about the coronavirus is its name. The name is new and foreign and unknown, and merely on the principle of that, it becomes frightening.
So become the myriad of words that enter our lexicon with it: Social distance, self-quarantine, shelter-in-place – none of these words are inherently good or bad, they have no real connotation, but simply the fact that they are new makes us weary of them.
There is very little about this experience and its aftermath that isn’t new or unknown. When will things return to normal? We don’t know. What will happen to the economy? We don’t know. When will it be safe to travel? We don’t know.
Especially fraught in the midst of all this are adolescents – the people who on a regular day are already overwhelmed with the uncertainties of adulthood. But now, everything they at least thought they knew about the next few months hangs in a delicate balance.
Zachary Maxwell, a high school senior at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (FSSA) laments on this: “I think the most upsetting thing for most of us is that we’re missing out on a lot of our last year of high school – the experiences we’re supposed to have and stuff.”
Zachary is not the only one of a demographic of teens distraught about what has become of their last year of childhood. Rites of passage like prom and graduation hang in a limbo, and though these concerns may seem minor when faced with the very fatal adverse effects of the coronavirus, they do speak to another point.
The second thing that has become abundantly clear in the face of this wasteland is that, though it may not always seem this way, we humans are intrinsically connected to one another.
Just the thought of this one thing, this tiny, microscopic element that began on one corner of the globe, gently weaving its way to touch everyone of its 7.8 billion souls – if it wasn’t so devastating it might actually be kind of beautiful. It’s the string that binds all of us, and we feel each tug and wave and pulse. We feel as it ripples its course through humanity, touching our brothers and sisters like a wave at a football game, until it reaches and passes us. How ironic that the time we discover how connected we are is the time we are ordered to stay farthest away.
And yet it’s perhaps because of this that we are able to finally see the connections. In the sudden absence of human contact, as if someone pulled the plug on all society in one weekend, it is human contact that we now crave most of all.
The technology age has met its moment, though, to remedy some of the absences in human connection, Livia Santos-Havrilak, another FSSA senior declared: “I think technology has come in some serious clutch when it comes to staying connected with friends and loved ones, “ she said, “It would’ve been a lot harder to stay connected if this had happened twenty years ago.”
Children of the digital age like Livia have resorted to a myriad of virtual ways to remain in touch with their friends, ranging from texting to FaceTime to online gaming and even virtual reality. And yet a generation who seems to be constantly scolded for staying on their phones too much, wants nothing more now than to just see their friends again.
But of course that seems unlikely in the near future. Because the true enemy, the virus, is too small to be seen, we have instead vilified the carriers of the virus – the people. Mothers and brothers and neighbors and friends and strangers – any and all of them may be the enemy.
On the surreal and infrequent minute-long outings I have taken to the no-man’s land once called Queens Boulevard, the encounters I’ve had were strangers. People are repelling each other. If I happened to pass a person on a narrow walkway, there’s an immediate pause – how are we supposed to keep six feet apart now? And then some coordination must fall into play – no, you stay there, I’ll be here, walking with my side all the way to the shrubs and my face turned away from you – New Yorkers seem to have a way to say all that with just a look.
But it is saddening still, and strange to be so deadly afraid of one’s own neighbor. It’s as if all of humanity were magnets weaving through life constantly attracting and repelling, and you decided to take these magnets that attracted and physically hold them apart so that they could touch no more, and you’re strong enough to do this but you still feel this force, this energy bouncing off one magnet and the next – this primal and necessary yearn to attract, and yet the complete inability to do just that. It’s cruel to hold magnets apart. But that seems to be the state of things for the foreseeable future.
After sundown on Friday the thirteenth, a group of men stood in the hallway of my building. They were Jewish men, and on any other Friday evening they’d be in temple for the Sabbath, but on this Friday all worship was canceled. And yet they decided to pray.
In the narrow, dimly lit corridor they formed a circle, a makeshift congregation of five. They had their suits and their yarmulkes and their prayer shawls and books, and on the eve of a plague fit to join the canon of the Old Testament, they refused to cut off their connection to God. And so the five men prayed.
I wonder what they prayed for.
– by Alec Inagamov ’20