Remnants of my life covered the suburban lawn in front of me the day I became a coronavirus nomad: backpack, tents, sleeping bags, an oversize suitcase filled with all my clothes, black hockey bag, a week’s worth of freeze-dried food, two computers, cameras and lenses, a flip-phone, cables, cords and an internet hot-spot. A friend of mine and her husband, who owned the lawn and the house next to it, had piled it there for me to take. I was no longer welcome. They even parked their car across the street, instead of in their driveway, so that I would not be near it.
“I don’t want you near my kids,” my friend spat in an email to me earlier that day.
I wasn’t even sick. All I’d done was come from New York City. That was enough, although there were more confirmed cases of the virus that day in Westchester County, where she lives, than there were in the City. Sometime during the train ride up from Grand Central my mood turned funereal. Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” started playing in my head: “The bats have left the bell tower / the victims have been bled / red velvet lines the black box.”
I’ve known Jen for 15 years, and I’ve changed her name to respect her privacy. We once lived together in my studio apartment on Avenue B, in Manhattan’s Alphabet City. She loved Glee and The Wire. She changed my life. Because of her, I became a journalist. Times were good. Then they weren’t. When we broke up I gave her the choice of the apartment or moving out and taking the 50-inch Sony flat screen TV I’d just bought. She took the TV. Then she married, started a family and bought a house. The TV sits in their living room to this day. Their two children call me Uncle Nick. They sent me Christmas cards every year.
None of that mattered anymore. All that mattered was the virus.
On their lawn, I had to separate the cherished from the essential. I could only take what fit in my backpack — I could only take what I needed to survive. One tent, one sleeping bag, a small pot, cup, gas burner, food, long johns, three pairs of socks and two pairs of underwear. What about a computer? Which one? The smaller one, duh. What about the framed Polaroid of the beloved ruins of my old Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood — back in ’96 before the gleaming glass towers came and everything changed?
Was it a relic of the past or a portent of the future — or both? I had my hand on it but couldn’t look at it. If I did, I would have to keep it. It had to be preserved, which meant not taking it with me, even if I might never see it again.
Welcome to the First Great Global Pandemic of the 21st Century. Scientists say there will be more.
There will likely be a world-wide recession and, along with it, a sudden, sharp and painful reordering of the global industrial order. Entire countries’ fortunes may change. The rich will ride it out, as the rich always do. But the traumas are just beginning for the poor, the creative, the workers customarily paid in cash and for those who, generally speaking, find their liberty and make their lives on society’s margins — in other words, people like me.
As a freelance journalist, I don’t get weekly checks. Sometimes it takes a while to get paid. The eve of the pandemic was one of those times for me. That’s because, two months before, in the middle of winter, I decided to take my life back. That meant leaving the woman I’d been living with, and the apartment on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive that she’d been in for 30 years. It had felt like I was living her life, not my own. I missed the Brooklyn artists’ loft I’d been gentrified out of. I missed my old rough-hewn existence — the one I’d ripped from whole cloth, and stitched new parts to every week.
Jen let me stow my stuff at her house in a private community beside a lake in northern Westchester. I took off for the frozen Adirondacks, to find myself again, on the highest peak in New York State. Two days later, on a frigid afternoon in late January, I reached Mount Marcy’s shoulder. I was soaked in life-threatening sweat. I stopped for a break and my gloves and outer clothes were frozen stiff in 60 seconds. Snow swirled around me. When it paused, an Arctic wind blew. So much moisture was suspended in that wind that looking through it was almost like opening my eyes underwater.
There were no trail markers or cairns in sight. There was only a blank, white moonscape of snow, ice, dwarf pines and cliffs. Where was the trail? Which way should I go? Alone and 10 miles from the road, it would be easy to die. One false step. One wrong decision. I took out my map and compass and plotted a course of escape, over one frozen mountain after another. A friend joined me a week later and, together, we traversed the Great Range: a chain of mountains connected by mercilessly steep cols, including seven 4,000-foot-plus Adirondack High Peaks.
We kicked and clawed and pulled our way up frozen, snowy cliffs with ice-axes and crampons. We slid down steep, snow-covered alpine summits in our snowshoes. At one point, my friend told me later, I jumped off what he feared was an unsurvivable cliff. We camped out, at nearly 5,000-feet elevation, on the knife-edge summit of a tri-sided granite fortress sheathed in snow and ice called Gothics. The red-gold sun set behind Marcy, silhouetting its volcano-like summit cone. The blue sky faded first to purple then black. A canopy of stars twinkled to life.
I had not planned it that way, but I was ready for the coronavirus pandemic. I’m almost 50, but after what I did in the Adirondacks, I was in as good shape as I was at 20.
When I got back to New York City, I kept working as a freelance journalist, revealing how a squad of prison guards killed a mentally-ill inmate and covering the Tessa Majors murder. I reported on the arrest and prosecution of the three teenaged boys who were charged. The youngest one is 13. For days I sat feet from him as defense lawyers and prosecutors fought over his future in family court. Some days, as the lawyers and judge debated his fate, the boy rested his head on his arm and slept at the defense table. Sometimes a court officer tapped the boy gently to wake him, but mostly they just let him sleep. I wondered which was kinder.
Meanwhile, after work, I managed to avoid being homeless for two months by couch-surfing with friends in the city, and with Jen in Westchester on the weekends, and then staying with a new lover while waiting for a check to finance a new place to live, and a new life. I have rebuilt my life before. It gets tougher, not easier, each time, but I’ve done it enough times to know what it takes and I’ve always been able to do it. I didn’t think this time would be any different.
I didn’t think about the virus. It came before the check did.
At first, it played in the background like a news broadcast on a bar TV: only news junkies and nuts were paying attention. Few people in this country cared until the virus exploded in Italy in late February. Then came March, when the World Health Organization declared Coronavirus-19 a pandemic. People in the U.S. finally tuned in.
Jen and I joked about one of the fictional brands of heroin sold by drug-dealers on The Wire: “Pandemic.” Then the virus hit here, and started killing our people. It wasn’t funny anymore. Jen and her husband and I talked about what they should stock up on. They were supposed to take their children to a birthday party at a play space with ball pits and trampolines. Jen didn’t think that was a good idea. I didn’t either.
“We’ve got to get ahead of this thing,” I told her, referring to the virus like the monster we were beginning to realize it was. She shouldn’t take her kids to the party, I told her, and she didn’t.
“There’s going to come a time when you can’t come back here,” she told me later.
Neither of us thought that time would come less than a week later. Neither of us thought to put my things in her basement, so that I could get to them without having to go through the living areas of her house. The next day, on Monday, March 11, I took a train back to the city for work. That was the week our world changed. Like 9/11, it divides the great, happy before, from the stark, severe after.
That week, dread crept across the city as New Yorkers gradually realized that death loomed, invisibly, in the air around them like poison gas. Still, earlier that week the mood was light enough that a high school girl walking with friends down Clinton Street on the Lower East Side joked that she’d weaponized the virus to defeat a bully.
“I told [him] I had da corona,” she joked, “Dead-ass.”
Then, fear started to fill some faces I passed walking down the street. By Thursday morning, March 12, scared people stormed supermarkets. They carried away cases of toilet paper and 100-pound sacks of rice. One friend, previously a staunch gun-control advocate, called me and asked what kind of firearm she should purchase: an AK-47 or an AR-15? I told her to get an AK — they’re easier to clean and keep operational. If she couldn’t find either, a 12-gauge shotgun would do. Load it with buckshot and slugs, I told her.
Then there was my new lover, the Misfit Queen. Marie is a beautiful, gap-toothed goddess born in Germany and raised in an artists’ loft in SoHo. She’s been a writer, a playwright and an actor, but to pay her bills these days she mostly waits tables, sells hats and works in a chocolate shop. She is cool and fun, but angry a lot, too. For most of our brief relationship, we were either fucking or fighting. I thought I could handle her. I thought wrong.
That week, her parents got stranded in Germany by the coronavirus travel ban. She cried and wondered aloud whether she would ever see them again. She alternated between rage and fear and everything seemed to make her angry. The slightest normal things I did — like washing the dishes, or putting the groceries away — triggered her. One night I tried to spoon her, and she yelled at me. When I left for work the next morning, she told me it was time for me to go. She was right; I didn’t put up a fight.
My last night in New York City, I went shopping with food stamps at the Key Food on Avenue A. That was where Jen and I used to shop when we lived together over a decade ago. It was way more expensive now than it was then, but the nostalgia warmed my insides, and looking back on it today, that feeling was priceless. I brought Marie steaks, soap and organic eggs. I looked for toilet paper at several stores but they were sold out. I settled on two dozen red roses.
It didn’t help. In the morning, I said goodbye. Marie said I’d never really loved her; I answered that I really tried. We left it at that. A stint in a homeless shelter was looking like my only recourse, as my previous hosts or their partners thought they’d already done their fair share for me, while others were self-isolating because of the virus. I was on my own. So I decided to grab my backpacking gear from Jen’s and literally head for the hills, north of the city. I wasn’t totally broke: my editor fronted me $200 when he learned the beancounters still hadn’t paid me because their new accounting software was incompatible with freelancers, or some such shit.
It was Saturday morning, March 14. I walked north, through the Village to the Astor Place subway station. There wasn’t a cop in sight. I hadn’t seen one in the subways for a week, I realized. I hopped the turnstile and rode the 6 train to Grand Central, which was virtually empty. That made me happy. That’s when it dawned on me that life had turned surreal, like a Twilight Zone episode. There’s no going back, at least not any time soon. That made me happy, too; the latest incarnation of New York City, ruled by cops, corporations and foreigners with money, made me sad.
Maybe what we replace the old order with will be better, I thought hopefully, for a moment.
Riding the train to Jen’s suburban town, city apartment blocks gave way to subdivisions and, ultimately, leafless trees and reservoirs. During the ride, my sister texted me. We hadn’t spoken in a decade. I called her up. She was fine, living near her mom in Asheville, North Carolina. She hadn’t talked to our other sister in a decade either, or to our 72-year-old father. He’s living in the Dominican Republic, she said.
He had another son, she told me, 40 years younger than me. I used to not want kids. Then I couldn’t afford them. Now it’s probably too late, even if I could. That’s OK, though, no regrets. I’ve lived life the way I wanted to live it, mostly.
When I got off the train, a railroad worker in a hi-viz vest was spraying disinfectant all over the train station where people touched things, like door handles, handrails and the ticket machines. After her email announcing I was no longer welcome, I didn’t even bother calling Jen; I just walked the three miles to her house.
On a country road with no shoulder, people drove past me without slowing. They slowed for a deer that bounded across the road in front of me, but not for me. Some drivers wore face masks. One wore silver, reflective goggles and a triangle-shaped respirator.
Then I was standing on Jen’s lawn, solemnly pushing the last of what I needed to survive into my backpack. She’d stayed in the house, and sent her husband out instead.
“We’ve taken steps to isolate ourselves,” he told me. “What do you need and where is it?”
And like that he retrieved the things that I needed that hadn’t been on the lawn. The whole thing was immensely sad. I felt nothing but sadness for all of us. That and the sense that the ground beneath my feet was shifting, as if gravity had given way.
There were two last things: my knife and a small case to protect my computer. I only asked for the case. He went back inside the house, but Jen cracked the door just enough to stick her head through.
“We’re done here,” she said, as she shut the door.
I walked back to the train station. I rode to the last stop in gentrifying former farm country, 100 miles north of the city. It was dark by the time we creaked-and-hissed into the station. Four of the five passengers aboard the nearly-empty train disappeared into waiting cars. Clouds covered the stars. I was alone under the black sky. I walked away from the station on an old dirt road and crossed a crumbling concrete bridge over a stream before entering a field. In a far corner, I found a flat spot covered in wood chips. I took off my backpack, set up my tent, climbed into my sleeping bag and quickly fell into a dead, dreamless sleep.
I awoke just before dawn, the morning train’s powerful diesel engine shrieking as it sped up the valley, a crossing signal clanging. I wanted to write, to add my voice to the record of this time. I broke camp and walked back to the station, looking for a place to plug in my laptop. I found a live outlet behind the Pepsi machine. The sun was just rising over the hills when I sat down and started typing. A railroad worker sprayed the small station, aerosol fumes mixed with cleanser and fragrance.
I was so absorbed in remembering all that had happened that I didn’t notice the portly security guard in black six-pocket polyester pants amble up to me.
“I see you’ve been sitting here for two hours,” the guard said in a sincere, caring tone. “You going somewhere?”
I told him I was, but I wasn’t sure where. All I knew was that I wanted to keep writing, and keep breathing.
“I just want to see you get where you’re going,” he added.
Two days later I made it to the Berkshire Mountains, where I found a home in an abandoned camper at an old ski resort. Each day since, a new bird adds its call to the chorus that heralds morning. Soon, trees will burst with leaves and flowers will blossom.
I’m not scared about the virus, but I respect it. Life will renew itself, as it always does, and I’ll move on.