Since COVID came to town, I notice things when I wake up in the morning with an intensity and a clarity that wasn’t there weeks ago. When I look outside of my window, the “worldly dust,” as the Dali Lama once called it, has vanished. I see with terrible clarity. Everything seems illuminated. I have had these moments before. Twice. Both times Death was near and the illusive veil was pierced for me.
What do I see now? The parking garage attendant in a short sleeve shirt waiting for a car to pull in. Bright sunlight. Tulips in front of the Imperial House apartments.
Looking out of my window the world seems normal. There are no viruses flying around with spikes like those animated red balls with the nasty warthog look that the news shows concoct. Yes, there are people being put into refrigerated trucks each day at Lennox Hill Hospital, but you would not know the truck’s cargo unless you knew the truck as it rolled past.
As it has been for the past 51 days, it is eerily quiet with a stillness that should not be there this time of day. The subway is at the end of the street, and it is always busy in normal times. Despite the cold stillness, I feel like I do at 7:00 PM each evening. Fully connected. Connected to people inside buildings or walking on the street clapping, cheering, whooping, banging pots and pans, blowing horns - their dogs even barking in thanks for the healthcare workers. I think we are clapping for each other, too. I am sad that I cannot be on the streets soaking in this beautiful density. But in time.
When something unites us and we feel it, we are advocating for ourselves and we are a community.
Now, the sight of a very old woman leaving her building across East 69th Street, slowly pushing a metal cart toward Third Avenue to buy groceries is the only activity in a city that never sleeps. The subway is running with 97% fewer riders than usual. On the trains are only the heroes. Nurses, doctors, cops, clerks at grocery stores, superintendents of buildings and maintenance workers. The old woman looks very frail, and I notice she does not have on a mask or gloves. I fear the worst outcome for her. I would normally not even notice her, but today, with the day still young and 16,000 people suffering in these hospitals, I pray for her, whoever she is. Terrible clarity. Connection.
There are fewer sirens blaring along the two avenues that border my building. I learn from the Governor of New York that, as of today (Sunday, April 19th), overall death rates and hospital admissions have decreased, and the daily death rate has dipped below 500 deaths for the first time in 18 days. The data-driven administration notes that this indicates that we have reached the peak of the spread and that the wave of death (IF we continue to stay together alone), will likely continue slowing down.
“But the beast is still alive,” the Governor warns. The monster dies hard.
It is still alive enough for me to have panic attacks before I walk outside. Alive enough to chew up another 500 lives before I go to sleep again. This is guaranteed. Guaranteed come sunshine, tulips or cheers. But our data, our fear and our sense of being together are all we have right now. And our gratitude.
Along the way on this Calvary, we have discovered new heroes who we know and treat a different way.
I feel sad when I hear that World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors die. But I cried when I heard about Ferdi German, a 41-year-old subway inspector, who also died from the beast’s clawing last night. He is one of 68 Transit Authority workers who have given up their lives for this disease. Sixty-eight people whose job it was to make sure our trains ran. That’s all. They had no quarrel with this virus. They were just New York tough.
We talk a lot about Advocacy at ICF. We now call it “Engagement.” It is one of the criteria for convincing our analysts and jury that a place has earned the right to be called “Intelligent.” We say it is about telling your story to the world to attract inward investment and also for reimagining a city or town. We also say it is about connecting with your community. Making things clear so that everyone can be part of the change ahead.
We are ripe for imagining and reimagining New York now. Your hometown may be too.
As all tribes know, primal advocacy or engagement includes the ability of a leader to tell the story of an entire place and a people especially in hard times. It is true poetry when it rings true. It is poetry like the tulips are poetry. Like our seeing – maybe for the first time – old people struggling up avenues or ER nurses helping us hold on. The community becomes a canvas for a new Guernica. We engage now to find catharsis. Some places do it better than others.
New York has risen to the occasion in a way I was not sure it would again. Maybe I needed more faith in a place I profess to be my civic temple.
Part of the psychological sustainability we seek is being able to release through tribal identification. So each evening before I close my laptop I watch this video:
Guernica by Pablo Picasso
Sometimes I cry; sometimes I pray; sometimes I send it to a friend who asks me how I’m doing. I hope to be worthy of the word “tough,” as this Governor defines it. I hope not to become one of my fellow New Yorkers who has to say their final goodbye to their family over Zoom on a tablet, with only an heroic nurse standing by. I hope, really hope, that someday I can show more people how clear you get when the beast is near. Because when you beat it down – and when you know what is really out there in the sunshine – you get #NewYorkTough.
(Watch for an upcoming series of “No Place BUT Home” videos with myself and John Jung as we explore how cities and towns will be reimagined in the weeks ahead.)
Other “No Place BUT Home” Blog Posts: