Skeletal New York / Esquelética New York

Esta es una crónica para el diario Clarín de New York durante el brote de Covid-19:

And this is a quick English translation:


Skeletal New York

59th St and 5th Ave at noon

It is Friday, March 27, around noon. The city is getting ready for the worst of the debacle, and I go out again after several days with the attitude of the proverbial survivor determined to review the state of the world after the world ends. The symptoms I was suffering were less intolerable than enigmatic, especially in their seemingly random way of coming and going: deep muscular pain, outbreaks of overwhelming exhaustion, a growing cough, nausea, a barely insinuated pain in the center of the chest. Fever no. But the doctor who attended me by videoconference on Thursday (there are no face-to-face visits for cases like mine) regretted that the media insisted on this fever issue. Despite its absence—she concluded—I’d better assume I was infected and celebrate that the worst was over.

This Friday in early spring the weather turns out to be ideal for the convalescent; the atmosphere is crystal clear and the sun dazzling. Everything has changed since Monday, when I still wasn’t sure I was sick and had ventured into the drizzle with my dog. The discontinuity induced by COVID-19 is so fundamental that we speak of that remote time in mid-March with a sense of unreality: the idyll of the world of the past, when children attended classes and drinkers swirled their glasses in crowded bars. On Monday, when the main restrictions had already been ordered, people did not seem so suspicious; now, a woman who walks towards me on our shared sidewalk slowly begins to deviate so that our trajectories, when they cross, do so two meters away. I, without realizing it, respond to her invitation by deviating too. I am amazed at our virtuosity in the execution of this dance that we didn’t know but improvised so well, although I realize that a blunt, impersonal hostility is what makes us so precise. I tell myself that it would be good if the Furies that the virus has awakened return to their niches when everything ends.

Everything? Our disorientation is palpable and not hard to understand: of the recent catastrophes, this is the one that has produced the least dramatic images. That must be why in our conversations we tend to say “Chernobyl” rather than “the AIDS crisis”. We consult the death charts, but they do not show us the bodies. We see the nurses slumping at the door of their hospitals, but not the patients who are suffocating inside. We scrutinize photo after photo of empty places: planes, buildings, trains, shops, theaters, streets. I’ve seen plenty, but nothing had prepared me for the real-life spectacle of plague-ridden New York. I was afraid that when I wrote I would resort, for comparison, to the wonderful photos of deserted streets and shops taken by the photographer Eugene Atget in Paris a little over a century ago, but now instead, when I go out, I think about those panoramic views of plateaus that Cowboys cross in classic westerns.

It is disturbing to recognize that the city has never been more splendid. After crossing Central Park (duos of boys with their fathers or mothers or babysitters play extremely slow baseball games), I went down Fifth Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum walking south, through the aristocratic section. Before, I would always look up over the delirium of taxis and workers to see if a glimpse of the immobility of this or that molding on the balconies of the buildings would offer some respite from the noise. But now on the sidewalk there is only a man who walks his pet and a young couple who hold gloved hands and murmur through their masks. The owners of the mansions have gone a couple of weeks ago to their vacation homes in the Hamptons or Florida, carrying the plague (which has attacked the highest classes first). The doormen seem relieved: I’ve never seen them so calm while talking to the suppliers, nor so tiny in front of the stone and brick masses that have acquired a fossil air. It is as if we were visiting Pompeii or Herculaneum: everything is suspended in mid-performance. In Borges’s The Secret Miracle,” God grants an author about to be executed the chance to arrest the physical universe for a year. The gesture of the sergeant commanding the platoon is fixed at the decisive point of his trajectory and a raindrop crystallizes on the condemned: we are him. This or that shuttered business still encourages us to take advantage of the offers it proposed on the day of the declaration of the catastrophe, and the Met Breuer, on Madison Avenue, announces the retrospective of the painter Gerhard Richter that opened just a couple of weeks ago. There are no horses or coachmen in the southeast corner of Central Park, in front of the Plaza Hotel, temporary residence of global magnates, and the Apple store where tourists used to flock is a banal cube that covers an unnecessary basement. This corner, which is one of the most hyperactive in New York, has become a brief collection of details and distances, and each momentary person is an event. But why is everything so individual and sharp? I find the answer: pollution levels have violently dropped, and the air has never been so transparent in the city. That’s what leaves it so naked. Despite the gelid, abandoned extensions, the feeling (for the ex-patient, the probable immune) is of surprising intimacy.

The impression breaks when I remember the price of this temporary regeneration. Recent projections anticipate 10,000 deaths in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, but we have stopped paying attention to the projections. The exact number does not matter: it is the flood. And here, where safety nets are laughable, millions of jobs are lost minute by minute (three million jobless claims have just been announced nationwide). Recently we were amazed at how streets and even entire neighborhoods were acquiring the air of ghost towns due to the migration of customers to digital commerce; migration has now turned into a stampede. And when it all ends, what will happen? This is a phase of experimentation and learning: not only in hospitals, but also in schools, in stores, in restaurants. If it does not extend for more than a few weeks, we will probably return to the old habits; if it lasts longer than that, many transformations will be final. So when I walk back home, passing the Dakota Building and the Museum of Natural History, central institutions of the pre-existing order, I spontaneously take the emotional position of saying goodbye to that old, now skeletal New York, that is still there, for the moment, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out to be one of those structures secretly gobbled up by termites that suddenly collapse for no reason, at the slightest blow.