Like everyone without the luxury of a home office, my computer has become a slightly sinister presence in the bedroom, being the portal to another more serious world and I cannot ignore a certain menace in its dark form when I go to sleep and wake each day. It doesn’t help that I am familiar with the objects history, the severe German designer Richard Sapper was behind its first evolution many years ago and his design has kept close to its roots despite several updates, portraying functionality and elegance in its matt black housing suggesting ruthless efficiency. But these days I fear cold corporate perfection a little and seek something more human and trustworthy. This entails a walk daily to Central Park, which is almost empty, to admire the progress of spring as nature ignores, and rejoices in, the pandemic. The crab apple trees don’t disappoint, heavy under pale bloom nor the cherry trees clothed in shocking pink. Normally at this time of year we might expect to see sweet Asian couples in wedding attire being photographed under their canopies, peeking shyly into the lens in order to send their fantasy to the other side of the world.
Today the Park is quieter than I have ever seen it, except the songs of the birds who sense our predicament and are fearless, a red cardinal poses for my camera with a new and striking indifference and I think I hear their laughter in the air around me. I walk there up Park Avenue, silent and formidable, a doorman came out and took a photograph with his cell phone, equally amazed at the sight of the empty city. Melancholic church bells followed me up the wide street, dreadful in the stark repetition, somehow linking this time with others in history when plagues took hold. I don’t trust that guy ahead who has a baseball cap the wrong way around, suspicious of a person who would own such an ugly dog or walk out in his slippers, nor the jogger suddenly behind me who leaves behind him an imaginary slipstream of viral cells, in my mind as fiery and pink as the leaves in the park. Glancing at the mansion blocks and houses, sedate in their wealth but now if feels like they could be turned to dust by this outbreak.
The other major event in my lifetime, AIDS, was also a time when we had fear of others. For me it was the very worst time as I was in my twenties and largely single. Then like now I imagined a family tree of dangerous connections, who I had slept with became tied to everyone she had slept with, and on and on. Today we are doing the same thing, it feels reckless to have invited a guest to dinner last week as it was impossible not to think of her recent travel and social contacts, and despite the cautionary measures (we show each other our hands in disbelief, elderly looking, white and wrinkled thanks to constant washing) there is some lingering doubts and the potential for blame and accusation.
An event such as this pandemic can leave you questioning what a city is for. Without culture, socializing and places to eat and shop it is a suburb. I wonder if by enduring these hardships I will feel closer to this city, it has always been an in-between place for me, one that I should have stayed in for three or four years, rather than the twenty or so I have lived here. I am comfortable with this paradox, staying in the place I like least. Mary always quotes the line from Miles Davies, when asked why he doesn’t play ballad’s any more….it’s because he loves ballad’s. There is something overwhelming about living in a place you love, in a place you identify personally with, one full of possibilities and hope. I have placed this emotion on a handful of towns and cities; Shrewsbury on the Welsh border of England, Brussels, a grey, quirky city of hidden elegance and charm and Sydney which, when I knew it, was part English garden suburb and part California. All had the benefits of being walking towns, offering themselves for up discovery, tempting you with reasonably priced real estate and hopeful signs of creativity and charm in the cafes and shops, places where you might find like-minded people. New York will never be one of my aspirations. Instead I think of a small road of honey toned Georgian houses by the Abbey, perfectly proportioned, right sized, tall windows and disrespectable meadow gardens, each house a different personality and a shabbiness that money cannot buy. Then, to complete this retrospective sentimentality, a night walking up to the old church passing men and women in evening dress despite the cold, heading to the choir for Handel or Mozart and a pint at the pub later.
It strange on this grey wet day, confined to our home and feeling sorry for myself, to be staring out at the tall apartment blocks outside my window, too far away to be interesting, too close to be ignored in this low lighted early spring evening, with flickering movements just slight enough to hint at other fearful indoor lives, and be dreaming of an English market town, such illicit fantasies. In front of the apartment blocks on 56th street there is a small tenement building, a memory of the older city and soon, I would guess, to be torn down like many others. It seems empty today, the window across from me has its curtains pulled tight for a week with a neat long slash like opening, a Fontana painting, and from time to time I think I see a slim hand on them, next to that apartment a cat is occasionally sitting by a window a self-composed sentinel for the shadowy presence I sometimes see briefly stalking that tiny space.