Letter from Ground Zero V

In the days immediately following 9/11, I wrote three descriptive email dispatches to friends. They shared them, and the dispatches wound up going around the world, garnering the name Letters from Ground Zero. Then, in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy devastated the New York area, I wrote Letter from Ground Zero IV. This is Letter from Ground Zero V.

It’s a cool, damp, exuberant spring. But Plague stalks the city, swinging his scythe through all he breathes on. Yet the little Callery pear trees on my street are in blossom, swaying to a different rhythm, lazily dropping creamy petals in drifts of a confetti snowstorm. At this time of year I go into my small city garden to attend the dawn chorus of birds singing against the background roar of the metropolis. Today there is no roar. No city thrum. No muffled pounding urban mighty heart. No truck-gear clash, horn-blare, exhaust-pipe sigh, no wheel-screech or brake-squeal. No storefront grate clanking open, no doors banging, no car radio blaring from drive-by last-night partygoers.

Today there’s silence. Palpable silence. Broken at 7 AM and 7 PM, when New Yorkers momentarily manifest themselves on building stoops or balconies or windows to applaud and cheer the nurses, doctors, and other health personnel who are changing shifts, keeping the rest of us alive. Otherwise, profound silence—although perforated every few minutes by an ambulance siren. The birds have no competition. They’re as indifferent to the absence of the city roar as they were to its presence. They are descended from dinosaurs.

Today New York City is the global epicenter of coronavirus cases. But everyone else will get their chance, as the scythe sweeps west and south. More have already died from Covid-19 in New York than perished on 9/11. Crematoria, operating at triple speed to cope with more than triple usual quantity, soon will be unable to deal with the number of bodies. Reporters, themselves braving the streets, stammer to find synonyms for words like brave, valiant, dedicated, to describe the medical workers, EMS personnel, and myriad other aides, cleaners, staff, delivery people, and other essential personnel who still have to or choose to go to their jobs—even volunteer to do so. People have taken to wearing white ribbons to honor them. It’s an understandable gesture of reverence, combined with a famishment to do something. But the television tributes soon become ritualized, sentimentalized, as facile as curbside stuffed animal tributes to victims of accidents or homicides—momentarily allaying anxiety but ultimately useless, because the system itself needs to change. Will the salaries and working conditions of these heroic citizens be improved when this crisis is over? Really?

Locked down, in front of computers, we are depersonalized, disembodied; it’s a bizarre, ethereal/visual/virtual communication to which we are now sentenced. It has flattened us to two dimensions on screen—and that’s if we’re lucky enough to have the technology to begin with.

A siren swells and then wails down into the distance.

After 9/11, I could walk the abandoned streets of disaster, and notice. Notice that the birds had been burning—sparrows caught in the upwind of the fireblast, their tiny charred corpses clogging Wall Street gutters. When Hurricane Sandy flooded out all power in my neighborhood for days, I could walk 20 blocks to where electricity was still working, charge my computer at a Starbucks, and crouch on the steps there, writing. This time I can’t leave my home. Both 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy were, respectively, national and regional “local” tragedies, and people elsewhere were desperate to know what had happened, what it smelled and tasted and felt like, free from politicians’ glib lies. This time there is no elsewhere.

This time, everyone—the whole human species–is in the crisis, and each experience is specific. In such a cacophony of uniqueness, this report may be irrelevant. But words are all I have to offer, though the center of the mandala is everywhere.

I go out to the street in front of my building and stand there. The street is empty. Up and down the block, the cross streets seem empty, as if a pyroclastic cloud like the one that breathed death on Pompeii had struck, sending everyone scurrying inside to hide—and to be packed in ash. The streets have been emptied but the obituary pages are still filling. They take more and more space now in the morning paper—a paper reported to, written by, edited, printed, published, and delivered by intrepid souls.

Transformation seizes everyone, siren, whether we seek it or not. In Italy soccer stadiums were turned into hospitals, ice rinks into morgues. Here in Manhattan, one of the largest conference venues in the world, the Javits Center, is now a hospital; as is the Arthur Ashe tennis stadium, home to the US Open; as is Central Park’s massive Sheep Meadow—site of so many concerts and festivals, so much joy—now a tent city filling with patients.

Because the worst is yet to come. The apex of the curve is expected within the next two weeks. Siren. Already everyone knows someone siren who has tested positive, or may be dying, or has died.

Normally unlikable steamroller politician New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose ego is the size of Montana, has humbled himself before Trump and other governors to get equipment needed to save New Yorkers’ lives. Cuomo’s emerging as a kind of anti-Trump national figure as people across the country and even world recognize his sudden roughhewn growth into a compassionate, honest, effective leader. Given the lack of national leadership that is not malevolent, states have been competing in bids for ventilators, beds, and staff, but Cuomo is trying to initiate a networking structure that might address the rolling death wave as it sweeps across the nation, state by state. Some governors, of course, still follow Trump’s nonchalance blindly—to the death of their hapless citizens.

Aeschylus wrote that one “who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom.” He added “through the awful grace of God.” This wisdom today comes through the awful grace of Nature—of which we are a part.

Grief is how our species learns.

We learn geography through war: names like Nagasaki, Mogadishu, Da Nang, Bosnia, Mosul.

We learn economics through poverty, politics, and panic: the current and coming economic crash has already yielded more unemployed than did the Great Depression—and the aftermath will be so unpredictable that the questions alone are staggering; The Black Death in 14th Century Europe ended feudalism; will Covid-19 transform or end capitalism, socialism, patriarchy itself?

We learn science through emergencies, although scientists try to persuade culture after culture to support research before a crisis.

We learn our interconnectedness through tragedy. Today, scientists are leading the way, dropping professional competitiveness, sharing research, collaborating across political and national boundaries.

Aeschylus understood his species. We learn through grief. I would hazard that we also learn through laughter–the laughter of recognition–but very rarely. Yet we do learn. Still, time has sped up and now our learning curve is too slow. A spring wound so tightly must uncoil. Our species has put in motion some things it cannot stop. In many respects, 9/11 is still going on. A climate-change-affected unprecedentedly dangerous hurricane season is predicted this fall. COVID-19 will not be over in a few weeks or months or, to be honest, possibly years. Siren. Hope can only be reached through honesty.

This is a new new normal, replacing the old new normal that we were just beginning to get used to, instead of triaging, as we probably should have, the idea of normal altogether. It may no longer be up to us when this ends—but it is up to us how it ends. If we can’t evolve swiftly enough, can we mutate?

Every major catastrophe in history has offered the shattered society left in its wake a chance to literally re-settle. Resettle everything, from family structures to economic systems, national borders, scientific discoveries, life expectancy, concepts of the universe, definitions of power, definitions of everything. This is our chance, given us by the natural world, which apparently knows well how our species learns.

None of which comforts those who died alone. None of which comforts those who mourn them.

I step into my garden and sit quietly so as not to disturb the birds. They glance at me and glance away—a bemused, dismissive gaze. As if they could be disturbed by anyone who had not descended from dinosaurs. Their indifference is comforting. Siren. There will be more letters from ground zero this time, I’m afraid.

Forge courage. What can we learn from this?