Another week accompanied by the score of ambulances and birdsong. We can now add new the elements of drama thanks to increasingly dire warnings from the radio and television, alerting us of “War” and “Pearl Harbor” moments ahead, which always seem to be still two weeks away, more often than not I turn off the news; there is nothing hopeful to report. We stayed at home almost all week but last weekend, in need of some supplies, we masked up and ventured outside. Within minutes we found ourselves sniping at each other, the other pedestrians being too close, too inconsiderate and the streets were navigated as if walking through a landmine. They illustrate a social injustice which did indeed have a war time feeling, the homeless abandoned in mid-town emptiness, delivery boys on bicycles riding down the center of car-less Avenues, the middle classes – those us who stayed – wearily scared of what lies ahead. Those who frightened us most were the indifferent ones; couples walking without masks, laughing, brushing close, the runners throwing out plums of breath, the young huddled in happy groups, the strays and the lost peering into closed store windows.
At seven o’clock each evening there is the jungle noise of cheering and applause from apartment buildings around us intended for the doctors and nurses but instead of being encouraging, it sounds eerie, thin, echoing off concrete buildings offering only a sense of frailty rather than endurance. Banalities and tautologies are shared with the doormen, “I’ve never known a time like this” I tell them, they sarcastically agree, its done ritualistically because the fear is infectious, a moment where my throat feels sore and a cough generates self-incrimination, you walk backwards in time and ask what you have touched, who you were close to, question if bodily defenses were risked in the name of intimacy or laziness.
Surprisingly the days don’t drag at all. The air lacks its familiar dirty fragrance, it is country fresh, the sun razor sharp. During the week I set up office and look south to apartment blocks over the disheveled roofs of lower tenements, mysteriously adorning old and new technology which we speculate might be cell phone towers or something worse (we hint surreptitiously to friends who love a good conspiracy theory). Along with these suspicious bolted-on machines, there are also chairs and an old sofa that has been exposed to the weather all winter, on another roof top the promiscuous scatter of cigarette butts and a coffee mug thrown from windows above. The sun catches the far roof and miraculously drifts towards me during the day so that our small terrace is warm and burning from its rays by mid-afternoon.
At weekends we have a cocktail hour of Martini’s then dinner with a French sparkling wine from the borders of the Champagne region, bought in bulk creating an illusion that we are riding out the pandemic with Churchillian style. It is at lunch and dinner times that we get to talk about our days, hers in the living room where she has breathing and yoga lessons on line, and mine staring into my computer screen with headphones on connecting with India, Colombia, Portland, Miami, and Basle on any typical day, everyone working from home. In the background there are sometimes the unsettled sounds of children, dogs, traffic.
At dinner last night we talked about a Polish friend who is going through a divorce from her American husband and how hard it must be for the youngest of her four children. Mary told me again about the time she stayed in her frigid house in Pittsburgh once and the shocking austerity of their lifestyle. To reciprocate I started talking about the time in my youth when I took a British Airways flight out to Warsaw, still very much a communist state, one Sunday in February to visit her and her family for a week. Arriving at night I was immediately shocked when the door of the plane opened and I stepped out into the coldest night I had ever experienced, it was like walking into a metallic wall and I laughed out loud at its surprise, it was immediately obvious that my coat was inadequate for a Polish winter. At the foot of the plane, observing every passenger was a soldier in a large coat of fur trimmed with thrilling flashes of red and gold insignia, holding a world war two semi-automatic rifle with its distinctive round canister, something I had only ever seen from old newsreels and a quintessentially Iron Curtain image. Was I afraid? Not at all, I was of an age where I was fearful of all the wrong things, I was occupied by the predictable youthful male anxieties and self doubt, oblivious to the real hazards of life; I shrugged off the fact that I was stepping into a country very soon to go through political revolution and a visit which at least part of the time will be monitored by the seriously unscrupulous authorities. Even during the short walk from plane to terminal building the cold etched into my eyes, froze the hairs in my nose, stung the roots of every hair on my head, it was impossible not to smell and taste its grip it seemed like the atoms in the air around me were shivering.
After a short time with a bemused customs agent I passed into arrivals and met my friend and her parents who were both distinguished doctors. Despite this fact, I found myself in a tiny car which took me to their house, it was clear that this rattling, boxy car was the only one available to the Polish people as during the journey I didn’t see any other kind. Their house was rambling and beautiful, I stayed up into the early hours with my friend talking about American Jazz legends, Miles Davies and Chick Corea who surprisingly were like Gods to the Poles, I was slow to realize at the time that there was a meandering freedom in their music, unstructured and individualistic that spoke to them.
I was lent a women’s fur coat which was necessary even to step out the door and taken to a variety of their friends and relatives who were curious to meet a westerner and all of them served me watery soup based on Cabbage. On one occasion I was taken to a severe concrete apartment building to meet an “explorer”. He and his wife had managed to combine two apartments into one and kept it open by knocking down the walls, something I had never seen before, a bedroom with just a mattress on the floor abutting the wide living room, polished wood floors, rugs from South America, artful African spears on the white walls. I remember being impressed and a little intimidated as it felt ahead of its time and hinted at a lifetime of adventure. His wife was kind and attentive, but I suspect I disappointed the bearded husband with my lack of worldliness and adventure, and he soon disappeared to explore the other side of his apartment. They had arranged a taxi, apparently a rare event, to take me back and by the time I left them night had already fallen, it was lightly snowing, a large policeman stepped out in front of us from nowhere making the driver slam on the brakes just in time, he walked to the empty front seat and threw himself in and barked his address, the reek of vodka was overwhelming, as was his complete authority, so we had to drop him off first and I sat in silent terror in the back.
So over dinner last night I wanted to tell this story of my trip to Communist Poland in the 1980’s where food was rationed, lines extended around the block and shelves were empty, Lech Walesa and Solidarity was on every one’s icy lips, the time when we went to the Cathedral followed by the Polish Secret Police but across the dinner table I could see that Mary was already lost in her cell phone and had no sincere interest, perhaps I had told it to her already once or twice before.