On Foolish Optimism

The Last Normal Day Part 10 by Joe Keohane

The Last Normal Day:
Part 1 by Samantha Irby
Part 2 by Zaron Burnett III
Part 3 by Luke O’Neil
Parts 4-5 by Chris A. Smith and Shane Ferro
Part 6 by Kim Kelly
Part 7 by Julieanne Smolinski
Part 8 by Josh Gondelman
Part 9 by Jeb Lund
Part 10 by Joe Keohane
Part 11 by Linda Tirado
Part 12 by Aisha Tyler

On Foolish Optimism

by Joe Keohane

Perhaps the fact that I ended 2019 doubled over, pouring sweat, gasping for air, in front of an ER  nurse at a city hospital, being told to wait until she finished her conversation with a coworker, augured poorly for the new year. 

Perhaps the fact that she didn’t actually tell me to wait, but instead held up a lone index finger without looking at me while she and her coworker discussed how much they hated their jobs, should have struck me as a metaphor for a healthcare system that was not quite up to the challenge for dealing with human suffering on a scale most living Americans have never experienced before. 

And perhaps the fact that I had just spent an entire year sleeping no more than four hours a night, thanks to a toddler with a sleep disorder, while working very long hours on a very challenging, stressful book project, only to deliver it and promptly contract pneumonia, should have suggested I maybe step lightly for a while. I’ve always fancied myself a pretty lucky bastard. Perhaps I should have conducted myself with a bit more foreboding after I received diseased lungs for Christmas.  

But I didn’t. I saw the pneumonia as a fittingly dark and ironic end to a trying year—just 2019 giving the old garbage can a few more shakes over my head to get the last banana peel out. Things were, to my mind, looking up. Our daughter by then was sleeping well. We made Christmas happen despite my inability to walk a block without feeling an overwhelming desire to lay down on the sidewalk. I felt optimistic coming into 2020, despite the social and political wreckage accumulating around me. I had so many plans. I resolved to finally study guitar seriously. I had a list of writing projects I was excited to have time for. And I planned, as fools always do, to get back in shape.  I had gained enough weight in 2019 that the child who is somehow my doctor sent me for a diabetes test. Once that came back negative--a result my friend Susan had a plaque made to commemorate--I shelled out for a personal trainer. I despised every second of our time together, but I lost 5 pounds in short order, and felt much less like a pig balloon full of ketchup and mayonnaise. 

I clearly remember my breakthrough. It came on a Friday. After weeks of medium torment, my trainer really ratcheted things up on me, and I somehow completed the workout. I remember that she clapped for me at the end of the session, and told me she’d never clapped for a client before. I remember going home and puking. And I remember the date: Friday, March 13, 2000, because it was the last normal day. 

We lost all childcare on March 15 and didn’t have it for months. The childless cannot grasp how hard this shit is on two-working-parent parents. We attempted the charade of Zoom preschool, but it mainly gave our daughter something to fight with us over. When she came down with a slight fever, we were quarantined for two weeks in a small apartment. I remember when the doctor told us not to go outside, I panicked at the prospect of being trapped indoors for that long. I thought I would go insane because I hate being cooped up. But I did not crack up. At least not completely. When a friend asked how it was going, I said not bad, because I somehow managed to kill the part of me that cared about endless confinement. I wasn’t kidding. Though that thing, whatever it is, keeps coming back to life.

All the while, tens of thousands of people were dying in my city. It’s hard for anyone to understand what it was like in New York at peak Covid-19 here, but it was terrifying. There were sirens 24 hours a day, but otherwise the streets were eerily quiet and tense. But what was weirder, and scarier, was the nature of the catastrophe. Unlike 9/11, this was a mass casualty event without spectacle. So many people were dying. There were refrigerator trucks full of corpses in front of hospitals, and ambulances lining the blocks. But, save for that, you never really saw any of the death. It was an event that could be happening a dozen miles away, or it could be happening inside you that very instant. In your eyes, on your hands, in your lungs. I remember looking out my bedroom window at the other buildings and searching their blank silent windows and wondering where it was. It was like a rapture. 

We didn’t understand yet how it worked, which made it weirder and scarier. Mail was scary. Grocery shopping was scary. The fucking air was scary, and all the sounds it carried were bad sounds. When I opened my kitchen window, I could hear neighbors screaming at one another in their apartments. When I went into my corner bodega one day, the ordinarily unflappable co-owner was screaming at a kitten. In those early weeks, you’d take care not to breathe too much when you took the trash out. People would run across the street to avoid one another. It was that tense.

And there was the helplessness. One of the things that made Covid such a mindfuck is that it defied all of America’s models for what to do in a crisis. You couldn’t band together, because then you’d all get sick. You could donate money, buy gift cards from local stores and theaters, or throw some money at GoFundMe campaigns for the ruined staffers of bars and restaurants. But none of that really alleviated that deep sense of helplessness. It was all done remotely, digitally. Unlike volunteering in-person, you didn’t get the visceral charge out of it--you didn’t feel like you were part of the thing fighting back. You were just a scared person bathed in the cold blue light of your screen, tapping a button to activate some bits representing the transfer of money from one account to another. It was a kind of helping that just reinforced the loneliness of the situation. 

It’s been said before the Covid-19 exploited some key American vulnerabilities: an individualism that can be indistinguishable from pathological selfishness. A society that moves around a lot. And, of course, a government ruled by vandals, paranoids, and dead-enders. But for me one of the hidden vulnerabilities was our national addiction to a certain idea of heroism. James Baldwin wrote this about cops during a protest march: “There they stood in twos and threes and fours, in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with most American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club, or a fist, or a gun.” The coronavirus crisis was incompatible with American hero mythology, with our idea of action. We simply did not have the psychological tools to cope with something that would not respond to violence, threats, or bombast. You couldn’t kick its ass, or root for the army to kick its ass, or even console yourself with fantasies of kicking its ass yourself--that sad but enduring Walter Mitty man-saves-the-day fantasy that I suspect provides much of the drive of the American male’s love for guns. No, with Covid there was no comfort in violent fantasy. You couldn’t do anything. You really could only do nothing. In fact, for the vast majority of us, nothing was the thing you had to do. And the country failed spectacularly, and 2020 feels like the year that will never end. 

But New York has been different. My family stayed here, and I watched as that initial terror gave way to something else: an abundance of grit and good humor in the face of terror and tragedy. I watched as neighbors made a habit of checking in on other neighbors and making sure everyone had what they needed. When grocery delivery services were backed up for weeks, anyone in my building who managed to schedule an order would alert the neighbors, so everyone could piggyback grocery buys. I watched as pedestrians in my neighborhood stopped running across the street to avoid one another, and instead made a point of greeting one another, a good morning, a wave, a thumbs up, a smile with the eyes. I saw people asking each other how they were doing it, and meaning it, and getting candid answers. I saw my bodega guy implement a policy, during the Great Toilet Paper Rush of 2020,  in which only people in the neighborhood were allowed to buy toilet paper from him. I laughed as the supermarket employee I always joke with kept sidling up next to me in the meat aisle in a crazy hazmat suit and nonchalantly said things like, “Hey, whatcha been up to?” I actually teared up when a bunch of margaritas we ordered from a Mexican place showed up in plastic cups with little motivational notes scrawled on them. I teared up again when the lady from the auto repair shop waved off my apology for missing an appointment after my kid’s school was cancelled yet again, and instead asked a lot of questions about how we were holding up. 

At the very worst of it, I volunteered as a driver to distribute donated respirators to front-line medical workers. This was, as you’d expect, a little intense. I joked to a friend that in January of 2020, I said, “it’s gonna be all blue skies and green grass from here on out,” and three months later I was driving 90 miles an hour around an empty New York City in a car full of medical supplies, wearing a gas mask, slathered in hand sanitizer, blasting Waylon Jennings with all the windows up because I was nervous about the air in Queens. (I say “joked” because I wasn’t literally wearing a gas mask.)

Out on these rounds, I saw the hospitals—those cities of the dead—and I saw the hollowed-out looks on the faces of hardcore city doctors and nurses I met, but also saw the resilience, and the dedication, and I marveled at just how energetic, and tough, and fucking funny they were. I met some of the other volunteers, too, usually while leaning on our cars on cold spring mornings, chatting as we waited for the obstetrician who was coordinating the day’s drop to show up. They were all so unassuming, these volunteers. They were all doing it, they said, because it was a thing that needed doing, and they could do it. There was a remarkable feeling of solidarity, in those runs. One day I was driving through Harlem doing deliveries when I slowed to let an old woman pass. She looked at me as she shuffled across the avenue, nodded thanks and held her fist high over her head. I walked down Mulberry Street in Little Italy at 7pm and watched as people hung out their windows cheering--for the front line workers, but also themselves, and their city. I saw a city of 9 million people figure out how to beat this thing back, and I saw them start to succeed at it. And they were marvelous. And they are marvelous. So many people are just so fucking marvelous. 

So yeah, 2020 didn’t quite pan out the way I’d hoped—and I’m not even getting into politics here. I think the last eight months have taken years off my life. I’ve acquired both an ulcer and a shrink, for instance--though not the ‘rona. It’s been hard. And I got off easy, compared to so many other people. But recently, I’ve started thinking ahead to 2021: cautiously, and with foreboding this time, but not with fatalism. I don’t feel entirely lost or hopeless, despite the state of the country. Life is lived locally, and what I’ve witnessed over the last seven months, since that last normal day, is a testament to what people can do. It has been the most inspiring thing I will ever see. 

During the very worst of it, as I said, there were the cheers. Every night at 7pm, the whole city would take to its windows and bang pans together and howl, and then sing New York, New York. My daughter called it “the clapping” and she was right there in the window with us most nights, with a metal mixing bowl and a wooden spoon that eventually broke from the battering. One night, we went up to the roof of our four story apartment building to hear what it sounded like from up there. I remember the air was still, and the sky was starting to turn pink around the edges. It was quiet, save for the sirens. But then we heard it, this faint din of clapping and banging, originating in the distance, coming from three different directions at once, sweeping across the surrounding neighborhoods in a rising wave, growing louder as it made its way from block to block, building to building, window to window, person to person, climbing from the street to the sky, and finding the three of us there.

Joe Keohane is a journalist in New York City. His book, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, comes out in April of 2021.

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