Magazine June 1, 2020, Issue

Burb Your Enthusiasm

Lydia Hassebroek sits with her brother Felix during the coronavirus outbreak, Brooklyn, N.Y., May 10, 2020. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

Ithink I’ve been red-pilled by the coronavirus. For nearly 30 years, I was part of the New York City matrix of the proud and content. “I love this dirty town!” the wicked newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker exclaims, amused by a senseless fistfight on the street, in Sweet Smell of Success. My thoughts exactly. Even better: Cynical newspaper editor Henry Hackett screams on the telephone, “I don’t f***ing live in the f***ing world, I live in f***ing New York City!” in The Paper. Do the residents of any other region take so much perverse pride in being a strange, angry, chaos-loving tribe? The way we New Yorkers talked ourselves into talking up Gotham’s manifold flaws was the urban form of vice-signaling, avant la lettre. As Andre Gregory puts it in My Dinner with Andre, New York is “the new concentration camp where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves and the inmates are the guards and they have this pride in this thing they’ve built.”

Since my family decamped to Long Island on St. Patrick’s Day, in a desperate vortex of unusually thick midday traffic, I haven’t slept a night in the city in eight weeks. The last time that happened was a quarter of a century ago. I still make occasional forays back to the apartment to pick up items, but the virus has wiped the snarl of perverse urban arrogance from my face. What was it that was so great about living in Manhattan, anyway? I’m trying to remember, and I draw a blank. I miss going to the theater, a bit. I miss (some of) my friends. That’s . . . about it. Fancy restaurants I don’t miss, not their $18 glasses of pinot noir nor the way the staff expected you to beam with delight when presenting you with a $38 entrée containing five scallops and a hunk of polenta. Nor do I miss the crowds, the subway, the homeless dudes, the traffic, the cramped aisles of the overpriced grocery stores, the subway, the weird and unnecessary aggression, the mountains of garbage on the sidewalk twice a week, the rats, the dilapidation, the potholes, the bedrooms the size of closets, the closets the size of lockers, the subway, the subway, or the subway.

It’s kind of funny (and by “funny” I mean funny in the New York sense, i.e., horrifying) that the New York City subway system now looks like a hypodermic needle of poison that injected America with a deadly virus. We don’t know exactly what happened yet, not all of the facts have been adduced, but certain patterns have emerged. Like when you come home from work and there’s a guilty-looking dog with boot breath lying in close proximity to a boot that’s been chewed to pieces: We wouldn’t want to jump to conclusions, but suspicion appears to be warranted. Learning that we are the fount of America’s worst crisis in a century has, naturally, made New Yorkers humble and abashed. Just kidding: We spend all day on Twitter yelling at people in Florida for going to the beach, then telling each other the real problem is that President Trump wants us to inject Lysol. Some 27,000 New York State residents are dead, with lots more in the commuter belts of New Jersey and Connecticut, but did you hear the president just said something wacky on Twitter?

You’ll pardon me if I seem reluctant to take another bite of the Rotten Apple anytime soon. Out here by the beach, life is comfy. My children adapted so smoothly that I worry I’ll never be able to talk these two into understanding why a cramped apartment beats a large house with a yard where bunnies come to play in the grass. It’s been a while since any of us have had to step over an unconscious drug addict on a sidewalk or negotiate the Road Warrior–like series of vehicle-threatening obstacles on Ninth Avenue in Midtown. Miraculously, my wife and I kept the girls adhering to the B.Q. (Before Quarantine) bedtime treaty even though school now starts an hour and a quarter later than it used to. Being well rested, everyone is less grumpy in the morning, and there’s no mad rush to get the kids in their uniforms and out the door. By 9 o’clock they’re in virtual school, the alert faces of their classmates visible in neat boxes on their computer screens.

On parole from the metropolitan concentration camp, my wife and I snooze late daily in a king-size bed that wouldn’t fit in our bedroom in the city. The morning commute is a trip down the stairs instead of a nervy foray into the honking fury of rush-hour traffic (or the even more sinister precincts of the subway trains). I no longer have to grip a filthy metal pole clawed by thousands of others each day, I no longer have to spend three hours a week sitting in my car waiting for the streets not to be cleaned during the twice-weekly ritual we call “Alternate Side Parking,” and my car no longer acquires a new mystery dent or scratch every week or so it spends in the asphalt jungle. Dinner, thanks to my able wife, is a proper multidish meal every night, with salad and fresh-baked bread and other wonders, instead of the previous can of soup or frozen pizza. Child-care costs have retreated from high to nonexistent and no one ever gets caught in the rain without an umbrella because who needs to go outside on rainy days anyway? America should reopen soon, but in the meantime my family will manage fine. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go sign for the case of wine that just arrived. Oh, rosé this time? Lovely.

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Letters

A reader responds to Theodore Kupfer and Ramesh Ponnuru’s article, “Coronavirus Lockdowns: Going the Distance.”

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