Redbuds are in bloom. Dogwoods have just come into flower. Under a steel-grey sky, I walk the short distance to check in on my partner’s business as I’ve done daily since she closed her physical space six weeks ago.
At Manley’s, Andrew, his coworker, and I chat from behind our masks. It has also been five or six weeks since I bought a case of wine – something we’re not in the habit of doing – and obviously we underestimated how much Cab Franc and (funky, natural) Chardonnay it would take to get us through this.
Someone’s at the grill inside a dark La Bonbonniere (to the GoFundMe for which I just donated), and out front of Mohammed’s currently shuttered Casa Magazines an MTA bus driver – smoking the butt-end of a cigarette with soiled N95 at his chin – speaks into a cell phone: “Yeah, yeah. I didn’t know that Costco sold caskets.”
Already disoriented by my first in-person shopping in a month, I’m jolted by his declaration as I carry my eight (this time, not 12) bottles of wine. Call the restraint a hopeful gesture.
Family-owned, Sam’s Deli has remained open as usual through the crisis. I wave whenever I walk by, worried for the older gentleman behind the counter. Then I’m back in front of our neighbors’ place. They bear the misfortune of having allowed HBO to use an exterior shot of their townhouse in the opening credits for Sex and the City (the story is long, sad, and bizarre – a parable for our times about mass tourism, social media, and the experience economy in an age of omnicidal late capitalism – but let it suffice to say that it was out of generosity of heart and not greed for a payout that, after months of being begged by a young location scout – who told them he’d be fired if they didn’t relent – they at last relented, signed over the rights, and the rest, as they say, is history).
Yesterday, in the sun, I was walking past this same townhouse with my mind elsewhere when I looked up to see a party of four, dressed like Vanderbilt Tri-Delts, taking photos on the sidewalk. After two decades of disrespect – including from the star of the show that has brought them so much grief – our neighbors at last posted a “No Trespassing” sign on the chain which has long hung at the bottom of their steps. We’re accustomed to occasionally encourage tourists to respect our neighbors and get the hell off, please, but yesterday, when one of these sightseers stepped over the chain with a broad smile, I saw red and launched into a severe tongue lashing.
Unsurprisingly, they seemed shocked – they were just living their Sex-and-the-City fantasies after all – but types that they were, the clipped apology from their spokesperson came across more as rebuke than contrition.
“Look, we already said we’re sorry,” she glared at me from between her pearl earrings.
“Are you from here? Do you have any idea what’s been going on in this City? Elders live here. They’re at risk for this disease,” sure, I was on my high horse at this point, but I hope I can be forgiven my outrage.
“We’re nurses,” said one of them.
“That’s not how you get the disease,” said another.
“Well then I thank you for your service,” I replied in the face of this yawning irony, “but why don’t you show some respect for our neighbors.”
“We said we’re sorry three times now,” the spokesperson repeated.
None of them were wearing masks. All of them were wearing precious metals. I should mention that, at this point, I was also holding a four-foot-tall potted umbrella tree. The whole situation was too farcical, and – in the face of their condescension and indifference, giving up on prevailing upon them regarding the humanity of others – I walked away.
Of course, I’m aware of the current state of our knowledge about the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (knowledge which has led to guidance verging on the hypochondriac regarding the risks involved in touching surfaces, like fences, gates, and metal chains), and – as a non-essential New Yorker who has largely been at home for six weeks – I’m also easily capable of imagining how it must feel to someone at greater risk from COVID-19 than myself to – on top of everything else – be besieged in my own home by tourists who could care less about my well-being.
I relate this both to exorcise the anger that I can still feel lingering, and because I find it instructive in unpacking the ideology of healthcare hero worship that has understandably sprung up as this crisis has unfolded. This ideology, like all ideologies, has a political use, and while I myself have referred to our healthcare workers actions as heroic, I will no sooner call the individuals heroes, in a blanket sense, than I called police and firefighters so after September 11th.
Healthcare workers don’t need hero worship fanned by cynical politicians. They need PPE, adequately funded public health and medical systems, paid sick and family leave, etc., etc. As a friend’s friend who works at the Guggenheim put it years ago, relative to her dismal pay, “You can’t eat prestige,” and you can’t eat gratitude either. Just remember, under cover of the budget crisis, Governor Cuomo has pushed through austerity measures that will further starve our public healthcare system of necessary funds, and no amount of pot and pan banging will make up for hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts, unless it is the pot and pan banging of the cacerolazo.
As one healthcare worker at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx put it in this video: “I want to thank everyone for thinking that we are heroes, and you know what I mean? We may be so, but we’re also human to.”
Our healthcare workers need forgiveness of their student loans. They need emotional support to deal with their trauma and loss. They need the things that human beings under immense stress and strain need. Cheering is fine, but not if it blinds us to the realities.
Coming back to the four SJP fans though, as I reflected on the unpleasant encounter and tried to breathe down my adrenaline, it eventually occurred to me who they might be. They’d left my first question unanswered, but a myriad of factors led me to conclude: No, they are not from here. But, yes, they’re obviously here now, and on the strength of having lived five years in North Carolina, I recognize a certain type of Evangelical when I see him, her, or no other gender. These were the good Presbyterians and Baptists I’d known (not Biblically) in college, the good Presbyterians and Baptists who were now – from my graduating class – mostly mothers of five in the alarming suburbs and exurbs of the South.
Blame me if you like for making so many assumptions, rushing to so many judgments, but, in short: I concluded they may very well have been volunteers at Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse. So curious was I to test this conclusion that I even spent a few fruitless minutes on Samaritan’s Purse’s Instagram, but all to no avail. Already, I feel better, just having written this down. Maybe they weren’t nurses at all, and their quick-witted spokesperson just imagined it would be hard for me to counter such a claim. Maybe they are nurses, and I’m right that they’re in New York City just to enact sanctimonious charity. Some 60 beds in exchange for those aerial shots of Central Park? For those tear-jerking, heartwarming stories about José from Queens – an immigrant, a boxer – and maybe how his soul was saved? For Franklin Graham’s outfit, the PR is priceless.
Maybe there’s some other wholly unrelated explanation for the behavior of these maybe nurses, and I’m totally wrong about all of this: If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is humility about the limits of our own knowledge. Either way, call me ungrateful (and, of course, hindsight is 20/20; as it turns out, even with the strain on our medical system, we would’ve been fine – which is to say, just as dismally bad off, but not much more so – without the help from the hateful millenarians). The leaders of St. John the Divine made the right choice in rejecting a slated partnership, and – like Kunal Kamra – Reverend Billy is someone I’m comfortable calling, without reservation, a hero.
As he can be heard shouting in this video – just after planting a rainbow flag next to the Central Park field hospital, and just before being violently tackled by officers of the NYPD (who – even with, at that point, roughly 20% of the force out sick – clearly didn’t give a shit about social distancing):
“Get out of New York!”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.