I teach courses about New York and often begin the semester’s conversation by asking students to share a personal anecdote that best describes their city. Invariably, the anecdotes are about encounters with strangers, often on the subway. It’s about help offered, anonymity made comforting, aloneness-yet-connection amid others.
My own favorite anecdote is in the same mode. A friend was wearing beloved red, clown-like shoes on the subway one day and she soon realized that someone sitting across from her was eyeing them. The person then looked up at her and said: “I could be friends with you.”
Strangers that could be friends—all because of a shared style in quirky shoes. That’s my vision of New York. The nearness and ubiquity of strangers is one of the qualities I love most about New York – but it is the one that makes it so vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic.
Physical distancing is hard to do here. We live crammed side-by-side in apartment buildings, subway cars, on sidewalks during rush hour, in Times Square. Our playgrounds and dog runs are shut and even our parks now face the possibility of closure given that we can’t stay out of the only open green spaces we have and stray too close to other people while in them. Central Park has been called the lungs of the city, a poignant metaphor for how fragile and belabored breathing has now become. As our green lungs shut down, so too does our everyday existence among strangers.
The very density of many unfamiliar folks nearby was part of the remedy in other moments of crisis. The eerily quiet subway rides across the Manhattan Bridge in the days after 9/11, smoke still pluming across the sky from the World Trade Center, always felt like a communal ritual of despair as well as an enveloping embrace. That car of unknown people were suddenly the only people who could possibly understand the aching wound. Similarly, Hurricane Sandy required crowds of volunteers to feed and shelter people pushed out of drowning homes and neighborhoods.
But in our crisis of the moment, we are right to be careful of offering strangers such shelter much less an embrace. Strangers have become vectors of virus contagion. I cross the street to avoid the elderly man on his daily walk around the block. I know this is a kind of caring but it goes against every New York instinct I have.
In his classic essay “Here is New York,” E.B. White estimates that eighteen inches between people is “the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants.” (Eighteen inches now sounds like marital intimacy.) This nearness affords both the “gift of privacy” and the “excitement of possibility.” As he sits writing the essay alone in a hotel room, White details all that is happening in the city nearby that he is oblivious to.
Strangers could become friends but they more likely remain unknown to one another. The city invites participation but doesn’t require it. What’s odd—and foreboding—about the current moment is that, in many cases, nothing is going on around the corner at all. The eeriness now is knowing exactly what everyone is doing: going from couch to chair to bed, panicking in their apartments. The constant cry of sirens is a bell tolling the heroism of nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, and paramedics—but also a dire warning of what could happen because we spend time with others.
Medical workers, grocery clerks, and postal workers sorting the packages we depend on are forced to spend time with others, but they are (hopefully) behind masks, wearing protective gear, near people but with layers in between. There is no comfort from these crowds, only more strain. The anxieties of nearing another become palpable even in the most benign situations such as grocery shopping. But it is in the subway, the city’s circulatory system, where the fear and inequities are most acute: essential workers packed into sparsely running subway cars, risking their own health to save that of others.
It’s no surprise, then, that our fear of strangers may be on the rise. One consequence of the tragedy of 9/11 is how many Muslims experienced a new fear and anger directed at them. Certain strangers became terrorists. The rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination now replicates that ugly and insidious strain of choosing to target whole swaths of people for a tragedy that is far beyond them.
I fear for how weeks, maybe months, of this experience will impact my city. How being with those who are familiar, known, safe from contagion will impact my view of those unknown, near me, wearing odd shoes. Will I look upon them as a possible friend? What used to be a routine habit I’m now practicing with concerted purpose. When I go for my solo walks nowadays, I seek out the eyes of those six-feet-away, wanting to connect to them in the only way possible. I see you, stranger who could be my friend. How I long to be close to you again, eighteen inches apart, enough for both separation and connection.
Julia Foulkes is Professor of History at The New School for Public Engagement.