By Charles Lyons
This is not the sixtieth birthday I had in mind. Maybe that’s not the worst thing. The pandemic is far worse. But one positive side-effect is we’re starting to be warmer to each other again.
Case in point: As I waited on a long line in front of the Upper West Side Trader Joe’s this morning, an employee of the supermarket chain inquired whether anyone was 60 or over. I asked if it counted that I was a few days shy. A woman in front of me, a proper distance away, wearing an N95 mask tightly around her face, interceded on my behalf. “Let him, he’s so close,” she pleaded. She looked me over and added that I didn’t look my age. I offered to show the Trader Joe’s fellow my driver’s license but he smiled and waved me ahead. The woman called out, “Happy birthday!” I thanked her.
Later, at the Muffin Café on Columbus Avenue, another woman, impromptu, started singing from The Mikado, the comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. “If you want to know who we are!” she intoned. I told her I know where that comes from. “Are you a singer?” she wanted to know. “Hardly,” I confessed. I told her I had been in a production of the opera in High School. As we collected our coffees and quickly exited the cafe, we waved and smiled.
It’s not that these incidents couldn’t happen without the pandemic. New Yorkers always surprise me. But over the past decade, I’ve found the city increasingly loud, frenzied, and hostile. I’ve seen people blabbering on their cellphones with little sense of where they are. And when they bump shoulders with me, as many have, no apology is forthcoming. I get only the look of profound oblivion.
In the shadow of the pandemic, humanity has reasserted itself much like it did after 9/11. Eye contact is back, if only to make sure one is properly exercising “social distancing.” So, too, is politeness. We all know we need to keep a safe distance from each other, but now the body language of my neighbors is warm. And for those covering their faces, I sense the smile behind the mask.
During my short walk to the grocery story, I ran into the 94-year-old “Mayor” of the Upper West Side Theo Dixon and asked him about his health. “The way I’m staying safe,” he said, beaming, “is keeping love alive, and keeping a positive state of mind.” He continued, “You realize that you are just the dust in the universe, that the stars and the earth have been formed into flesh, and the flesh will decay, and you’re only passing through on borrowed time.” He added. “You’re suppose to enjoy, be happy, keep love alive and keep conversation alive.”
After days of self-isolating in our apartments, starring at our computer screens, we’re hungering for the kind of connection that “The Mayor” alludes to, that one can only get in the presence of another human being. My upstairs neighborhood, Christian, put it this way. After we chatted for a few minutes, I leaning out of the door to my apartment, he on the staircase, he said, “I miss this – just chatting with others.”
I don’t think these feelings are confined to New Yorkers. I’ve been hearing from friends around the country who I haven’t heard from in years. One wrote via Facebook instant messenger, “Hey Charlie, long time! Saw your name here on Facebook and thought I’d say hi.” Another wrote, “I was in the city recently and thought of you. How are you?”
This isn’t just happening because we have more time on our hands. The pandemic is forcing us to take stock in what matters most, and one of those things is other people, the thing we too often take for granted when we operate at higher speed. What is it that Wordsworth says in his poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us”? “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”
Weeks before the outbreak, I’d already been thinking about many of the important people in my life because of the upcoming big birthday. I usually scoff at the sentimentality of decadal birthdays, or any birthday for that matter, but when my father offered to throw a bash at his place, I accepted. I hatched a plan to bring together people from all periods of my life – elementary school, High School, college, graduate school, and, afterward, from my professional life in journalism, film, and as a professor. To my delight, many accepted the invitation, some booking flights from as far away as Brazil.
But when it became clear that the world as we knew it was racing headlong toward calamity, many out-of-town friends got back in touch. First came Volker, of Munich. Given current events, he simply couldn’t come. Then Tina, based in Boulder. She, too, would have to cancel her trip East. Next, Baron, from the Bay Area. Others followed. Finally, I sent the note I did not want to send. “For obvious reasons,” I wrote in an email to the forty or so friends who had confirmed, “I need to postpone the party.”
Whether socializing with dozens of friends or sheltering in my room, the pandemic offers an opportunity to reflect on the people in my life. Everyone I invited (and many more) means a great deal to me. I wanted to see them in one room together, to introduce them to one another. I wanted to celebrate them even more than celebrating my five decades on the planet. I wanted to show my appreciation for them, for they are a crucial part of who I am. The virus helped me see that.