The Coronavirus Crisis Reveals New York at Its Best and Worst

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

It happened slowly and then suddenly. On Monday, March 9th, the spectre of a pandemic in New York was still off on the puzzling horizon. By Friday, it was the dominant fact of life. New Yorkers began to adopt a grim new dance of “social distancing.” On a sparsely peopled 5 train, heading down to Grand Central Terminal on Saturday morning, passengers warily tried to achieve an even, strategic spacing, like chess pieces during an endgame: the rook all the way down here, but threatening the king from the back row. Then, when the doors opened, they got off the train one by one, in single, hesitant file, unlearning in a minute New York habits ingrained over lifetimes, the elbowed rush for the door. In the relatively empty subway cars, one can focus on the human details of the riders. A. J. Liebling, in a piece published in these pages some sixty years ago, recounted the tale of a once famous New York murder, in which the headless torso of a man was found wrapped in oilcloth, floating in the East River. The hero of the tale, as Liebling chose to tell it, was a young reporter for the great New York World, who identified the body by type before anyone else did: he saw that the corpse’s fingertips were wrinkled in a way that characterized “rubbers”—masseurs—in Turkish baths. Only someone whose hands were wet that often would have those fingertips. On the subway, in the street, nearly everyone has rubbers’ hands now, with skin shrivelled from excessive washing.

At the other end of the day, in Central Park late at night, the only people out were the ones walking their dogs. Dogs are still allowed to have proximity, if only to other dogs. They can’t be kept from it. The negotiations of proximity—the dogs demanding it, the owners trying to resist it without being actively rude—are newly arrived in the city. Walking home down the almost empty avenues, you could see the same silhouette, repeated: dogs straining toward dogs on long-stretched leashes, held by watchful owners keeping their distance, a nightly choreography of animal need and human caution.

More here.

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