Requiem for the Pandemic: Stella Blue
My memories of the early pandemic are fading quickly now. This is what I have been able to hang onto.
My memories of living through the pandemic are sliding into emotional amnesia. Those early days are fading into thin wisps of recollection and chance nostalgia. 2020 has joined the forgettable procession of years. It's become a 2014 or a 1996 or a 1988 or a 2007 or all the rest of the years I can't find on an emotional map.
I'm thinking of the lost early days here in New York City, long before the promise of vaccines, before that first season of sidewalk shelters and December heat lamps, before the white collar exodus from the city, and plummeting rents in Manhattan, before the NFL stadium seat cutouts, and the motorcycle rally in the Dakotas, and the doctors in front of Walter Reed, and the feverish President on the balcony. Before the pointless inertia of hand sanitizing and fruitless contact tracing, before the lumbering, bureaucratic WHO, the slumbering CDC, before the parade of forgotten Greek letters, the second-guessing, the bad blood, the knee-jerk acrimony. Before the long-COVID victims began to suffer their bad luck out-of-sight, each with a personal flavor of misery, depriving them of even the camaraderie of shared symptoms.
I'm thinking of the interval before the first 100,000 filling the cover of the New York Times, and then blowing past the high-water target of 250,000, and then 500,000 and now the numb, wartime exhaustion of counting the trailing dead.
I'm thinking of a season of facts that, for a moment, we almost agreed on: the early limbo of the stranded cruise ships and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson returning from Australia, the March 15th stay at home order out of Albany, the vertiginous odds by age, the biblical sparing of the young, the cemetery ditches of nameless corpses in the Bronx, the seismic collapse of hospitals in Bergamo, Italy. I'm thinking how, as a nation, we imagined the vaporous song of the Seattle church choir.
Speeding up now, speeding up:
Daily checking of positivity rates in the New York Times by zip code, military hospital ships sailing up from Norfolk, cots laid out in the Jacob Javits Center like headstones, first cases coming out of Westchester County, the dandelion spread of infection blowing down through the Bronx into Manhattan, deserted subway stations, hapless, dutiful conductors, bitterly laughable social distancing stickers on the platforms, the fatherly governor on our televisions in the evenings, defenseless immigrants crowded twenty to an apartment, overrun and underfunded hospitals in Queens, diseased minimum wage medical assistants shuttling through nursing homes. Jesus Christ, the forsaken convicts.
The overcrowding in hospital ward hallways. The victims gasping on the industrial carpeting of emergency rooms. The 3% death rate in NYC hospitals. The runaway nurses. The suicidal doctors. The sliding bed curtains. The Plexiglas face shields. The intubated, disheveled, hollow-eyed patients hearing their families say goodbye over cell phone screens.
I'm thinking of the horror of those early days.
Maybe, as I do, you feel embarrassment hearing it named so directly now - "horror" - after so much time. And that is what I'm getting at. That's what I've lost. Until I can get my head around what happened back there, I still need my scars to shine.
I had to do research on Wikipedia to find everything I've itemized above.
I made up a game of solitaire.
I take some period of time or event and then decide what memory I would hold on to last if I had to strip away all of the other memories around it one by one. I whittle them down and chip them into the fire. All, but one. That’s the game.
Yesterday, for example, my wife and I had a Sunday brunch in a restaurant in Hudson, NY. I remember the hostess leading us up a steep wooden staircase to our table. The restaurant was converted from an old home. There was a confusion over where to put the plates when the food arrived. The waitress moved to Hudson from near Towson, Maryland. The zip code there is 21212. She's also lived in Bushwick briefly. I remember my wife's coffee, an oversized side of bacon, and the strange, organic, but artificial yellow of my omelette. We told the waitress our plans to hike to a nearby waterfall, and she’d been herself, and she assured us several times it was an easy hike. She gave us instructions on how to get there.
Then, as we were leaving, we returned down the steep stairwell. I was thinking how dangerous the stairs were a moment before it happened. I remember the angle of where I was on the staircase looking down when my wife slipped and fell. At first, I thought she'd caught herself. Later, there was the trip to the emergency room.
So, here I start by getting rid of the easy stuff.
I don't need the omelette color or the directions for the waterfall or all the rest of that. But it gets difficult from the moment she starts to slip. There is a rush of contenders.
There was a strange moment of watching her begin to fall down the stairs where nothing made sense. I couldn't process what was happening, an abstract, pre-comprehension when something bad hasn't registered yet, like a picture where you don't know what you're looking at and then you do and then you can’t unsee it. I was jolted when she struck the floor at the base of the stairs. She fell towards the right, somehow around the end of the banister.
Speeding up now, speeding up...
There was the first flash where I was afraid. There was a moment where I saw the radiator near her head and tried to guess if she might have hit it. When she didn't respond to my are you okay several times, I thought "is she conscious," and then my fear spiked. Then relief when she did answer, but then she was still too quiet. And then, when I was at her side, she didn't recover as quickly as I hoped. So, I knew we were in it. Then I had a moment of I don't want to feel this fear I'm feeling. I don't want this. Later, in the emergency room, there was the sitting around and looking for the car keys and all of that. I won't be keeping any of that.
In this round, I'll keep the moment when I realized she was no longer slipping, but truly falling, when out of nowhere something wild and hard lashed out and struck the scales.
I have taken the early days of the pandemic, the memories that I hang onto without Wikipedia, and I have whittled them down and chipped them into the fire one by one.
I said goodbye to the evening cadence of 7pm celebrations for essential workers, the yelling and pots and pans banging from the neighborhood windows, the four of us cracking our own windows and racing to find our baking sheets and sauce pans so we could rattle and bang, too. Immediately after, a long line of police cars always drove by silently with their red and blue lights flashing. I remember the feeling of deep community, the earnest camaraderie, the decency, and the generosity. The simple goodness in those early days was a balm and a surprise.
Goodbye and into the fire.
And goodbye to the walk through lower Manhattan later that spring, in the 20s somewhere on the West Side, with my wife and daughter, and seeing the scourge of restaurants shuttered and a wasteland of failed businesses.
Goodbye to the parade across Brooklyn Bridge during the George Floyd protests and the rain pouring down and my feet soaking wet and surrendering to it. Then my daughter and wife returned home, but I trailed along with the bullhorns and the signage to the fizzled end. On the way home, I bought a margarita from a storefront bartender and walked through Chinatown and up and over the Manhattan Bridge. Gone and goodbye.
Getting much harder now:
There was a Sunday family safari park ride in my son’s car up an eerie, deserted 5th Avenue by the Plaza. It was surreal and grand and end-of-the-world. In the car, we took turns with the playlist. For one of my turns, I picked Billy Joel and Summer, Highland Falls. Then up to East Harlem, over on 110th Street, down, down, down through Columbus Circle. As we entered the magnificent ghost city of Times Square we played Miami 2017.
“I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway. I saw the Empire State laid low.”
This, too. Fire.
Towards the end now.
Our family is together and safe on the couch in the early, early days, March probably, piña coladas for the underaged, and laughter, and someone made bread, and I remember my son cooking for everyone. He was charming and his mood sets the mood of the whole family. It was the last dance chance reprise of our nuclear family, and we all valued that. And Tiger King, of course, and Netflix and the prescient omens of Contagion. We wiped down groceries as a team and stripped off clothes at the door.
Three memories left, so two must go.
Goodbye to the day on a deserted beach out on Long Island with the family. A cirrus sky. It was early in the pandemic. I searched, but there were no airplanes that day and no boats on the water. We'd snuck out during the stay-at-home curfew. On the BQE, we saw an old man driving alone in his car wearing a mask. As we walked down a long path to the beach, a couple passed us on the path coming up. They must have heard the playful bickering and the laughter and known we were a happy family. I loved that day. I know we all did.
Two left. One to go.
Listening to crying from my daughter's bedroom over the loss of spring term and proms and dressing up and proud graduation walks and the paid-off delight of everything she worked hard for, a deep pain she kept to herself, a door closed to her father - and that brought its own sharp pain.
I have a winner.
There should be a word for songs and albums that become portals to different time periods in your life. There must be a German word for the near mystical translation of a time in one's life into music-tinged nostalgia. The Germans are clever in that way.
Radiohead's In Rainbows takes me to a top-down convertible summer in my forties. Reckoner and Nude became the wormhole soundtrack of my midlife crisis that year. Stairway to Heaven is a slow dance in 7th grade. Achtung Baby, the fall when I met my wife. Sting singing Come Down in Time the night I kissed her and drove back to Santa Monica with the windows open in my red Honda Civic. The summer in France driving with the children crowded in the back will forever be DaSilva and Francis Cabrel and Oxmo Puccino. Diamonds Are Forever is waking from an afternoon nap as a child, my mother playing records. Portals, all of them.
Stella Blue is my portal to the early pandemic. It is where I hold the treasure box of my last memory. It was my escape room that season: always playing in the background, with my eyes open and my eyes closed, still and in motion, at work and at play. I played The Grateful Dead - they have never been "The Dead" to me - endlessly during those early months.
You know, they will never hurt you, the Grateful Dead. They are trustworthy in that way, safe. They are weak, but pure. That must have been what I needed. So, I retreated into headphone privacy with Stella Blue and Wake of the Flood, its album. And without trying, Stella Blue became my time vessel, a capsule, a single tablet that I can now swallow and wait for the fear and the joy of the era to leech back into me.
Do this for me.
Play Stella Blue as you read the rest, and I will share my last memory, the one I did not whittle into the Fire, the one I chose to keep.
I'm in the bedroom on the bed after dinner. My family is in the living room. My son is laughing. My fingers are laced behind my head. The first single bar of descending quarter note harmonies settle me like a hard autumn maple leaf into a slow river. The near-wheeze of Garcia's voice whispers me downstream, fragile, tender, puffing. He guides me forward, away from the bank. He leans under an overhang of trees, the bass pushing against the river bed like a puntman's pole...
We are driving my wife to work. My family is in my son's Volkswagen. It is morning. I'm looking out the rear passenger window. We speed over the Brooklyn Bridge, circle out and around to the FDR, past the vacant tennis courts and the deserted bike lane. My wife is a nurse. A week earlier she was transferred from her downtown outpatient clinic to the main hospital. There are daffodils by the roadside...
The bass swivels our boat around its lazy, long pole. A deeper current carries us now, but still slowly, gently, gently. We glide through lily pad percussion. There is all the time in the world. The puntman lifts his pole from the water, dripping piano, and looks at the night sky...
32nd Street. Commotion. The ambulances are lined up at the emergency room entrance unloading the motionless victims, the stretchers lurching from the vehicles and onto the street. I strain to see their faces. My wife is getting out of the car. She's late for her shift. Our car is blocking someone. She leans back into the car window and says goodbye. We tell her to be safe. She heads in, quick-walking towards the entrance. She is in her scrubs, not a wife and mother now, but a professional, dutiful, threading through the crush. She is at the entrance and then she is inside...
I close my eyes and see the firefly ceiling choir, the blue light midnight organ, the shooting stars from the pedal steel...
And then, my last memory. It's only a flash from the FDR on-ramp before my son yields into traffic.
My memory is behind the hospital, on the right, briefly visible. You couldn't see it from the commotion of the surface streets, but now, from this angle looking down, it can't be hidden.
In a parking lot behind the hospital there are rows and rows of white refrigerator tractor trailers. That first time I didn't know what I was looking at, but then I did, and since then, it has haunted me. To save anything else from the pandemic would be a dishonor to them.
But the Dead do let go, gently, gently. They keep letting go a little more every time I play it, and I am sliding, the water is sliding, my memories are sliding, and then they are released into smooth pearled water, down and down and down into the wake of the flood.
Let Robert Hunter's words be the coda. I never heard them at the time. Now they give me chills.
All the years combine
They melt into a dream
A broken angel sings from a guitar...
It all rolls into one
And nothing comes for free
There's nothing you can hold
For very long
And when you hear that song
Come crying like the wind
It seems like all this life
Was just a dream