Up in Smoke

There go our lives as we once knew them. Again.

People keep comparing the coronavirus pandemic to the attacks on 9/11. What happened in September, 2001 is likely the closest reference most Americans have for drawing similarities to this new catastrophe, in terms of the tremendous loss of life and the seismic disruption to our lives.

In my body they feel the same — the wired sensation of being on high alert at all times, the knot in my stomach, the lump in my throat making it hard to eat and easy to cry. But these two tragic events are different; in these early days of self-quarantines and social distancing, we don’t yet have any idea just how different.

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For me, one of the most significant differences is that 9/11 brought the people in my life closer to me, physically, while the virus is forcing us to distance ourselves. I was part of a sort of chosen family in the East Village — a tight group of friends that, even before the attacks, gathered often for meals at favorite haunts like 7A, Sandobe, Jeolado, Deanna’s, and Life Cafe. After the towers came down, uncertain of where it was safe to go, we gathered in each other’s apartments. For the first several nights, we took turns hosting pot lucks. There was something so reassuring and emotionally stabilizing about those evenings in each other’s company.

There was no social media, no FaceTime (no smartphones yet), no Zoom. We just called each other up, mostly on land lines, and made plans to see — and comfort —each other.

(In September, 2001, The Daily News caught wind of a pot luck I was hosting and interviewed me for a round-up on ways people were taking care of each other. See photo up above.^^^ Oh, my hair was so long! I miss those Old Navy khakis. I wore them until they basically disintegrated.)

Now we’re forced to stay apart, in our homes. We are only a week or so in, and it is already excruciating. I’m fortunate that I am married, and happily so, and that neither of us is sick, so far. I can’t imagine what this must be like for those who are alone, or recently separated, or living far apart from their person or family members. Or those who are sheltering in place with understandably restless children, or their exes — or their abusers.

I’m having a hard time not being able to socialize with colleagues and friends, being equal parts social butterfly and introvert, as I am. (My agent asked me to come up with a German term for that, and I hereby give you “mittelvert.”)

I am by nature a connector, often drawing writers and other friends together. It’s what motivated me to create Kingston Writers’ Studio, a writers’ co-workings space I will now likely have to shutter, and Kingston Writers’ Association, a Google group for networking, through which I had been hosting gatherings at bars and restaurants. Now I’ve begun hosting those on Zoom, and it is no doubt a boon. But, boy, would it be so much nicer to hang out with people in person, especially at such a terrifying, uncertain moment.

In a way, though, being physically apart is bringing me closer, emotionally to some people in my life — some family and old friends. And it is inspiring me to mend fences, reaching out to those with whom I had fallen out in the past.

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Another difference is that right now, I fear for my future, work-wise, because so many people are being laid off in my field and others, while after 9/11, there were suddenly lots of new opportunities for me.

For several years I had already been a stringer on the New York Times Metro section’s “leg work team.” I had a beeper, and I’d get calls at all hours to go report on breaking news, mostly in downtown Manhattan. I’d do my reporting, then call in my notes to a “tape room,” punctuation and all, where they were recorded for a reporter to use in an article.

Sometimes it was a fire or shooting. Other times it was something more mundane, like unseasonable weather, for which I would have to go around doing man-on-the-street interviews, asking people how they felt about it being 70 degrees in February, or 50 degrees in June. I did that so often that at a certain point, when I’d head to Tompkins Square Park in search of subjects, I’d notice people turning away and giving their friends looks like, “Shit, here she comes again, that New York Times weather lady. Don’t look at her and maybe she’ll leave us alone.”

It was pure comedy when they sent me to the Staten Island Ferry terminal during a hurricane to ask riders how they felt about being stuck there, riding out the storm before they could get home. I have never been so drenched, or wind-tossed. The notes in my reporter’s notebook got completely washed away.

After 9/11, the Times called me often. I also got a bunch of attack-related assignments from the Daily News and Time Out New York. Those led to much more work for years to come, unrelated to the tragedy.

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One last comparison: On September 12th, on the way to do some reporting for the Times, I stopped into a Thai restaurant in midtown for some tom kha soup. I marveled at how despite the devastation the day before, so many restaurants and businesses were still up and running. In the wake of unspeakable destructions, I could still soothe myself with just about any kind of food I wanted.

In stark contrast, right now, restaurants are closing their doors — many, sadly, probably forever. I want to support them by ordering takeout, but I’m not sure it’s safe, so I’ve started buying gift certificates to use later.

But I could really go for some Thai comfort food.