From my apartment window I see the blind spot on the corner. Over the course of eight years, I witnessed countless close calls and a handful of accidents. On one occasion during early lockdown, I heard the not-uncommon sound of screeching tires. Peering down at the street, I saw two men jump out of their souped-up sports cars. In their shock, trembling, shaking clenched fists, they yelled unintelligible threats at one another. Circling like two rabid dogs waiting to pounce, they snarled and foamed. From my perch, I could see the veins in their necks throbbing. Neither advanced and eventually they both drove off indignantly, perhaps both realizing they could have killed themselves. And yet unwilling to take responsibility, unwilling to yield.
Lockdown turned me into a street-corner voyeur, peeping through my window at the clash of cultures, the contention, the constructed absurdities, and the mean-spirited, often-brutal narratives that are woven into the world. While I tiptoed around the shadows of my apartment trying to observe the goings-on of the world outside without being seen, I realized over a year had gone by and I had tiptoed around myself and everyone else, avoiding being at all.
I woke up one morning during the pandemic spring to the sound of James Brown blasting down the block. I went to the window to see what was going on when I noticed a white guy who lives across the street stomping back up the block away from the source of the music. A few doors down, a black guy turned and walked towards him, just as a cop car was pulling away. He glared down the block at the white guy, pointing his finger and yelling: “I see you! You fucking racist! Call the cops on me? We supposed to be neighbours. You are a racist! I see you now!”
The white guy stopped in his tracks in front of a white woman with a Black Lives Matter poster hanging in her window, who had come out on her porch next door to check on the commotion. He asked: “Did he call me a racist?” Then he turned around and took a few steps towards the black guy, who had turned the music up a notch by now.
“I’m not a racist! You’re the racist!” he yelled, pointing back at the black guy who waved him off as he walked back to his yard. The white guy turned towards the white woman and threw his hands up. “Can you believe that?” he exclaimed incredulously. Shaking her head in what looked like a mixture of confusion and disgust, she replied: “Unbelievable. Of course not, I don’t think you’re a racist.” He thanked her, glaring back down the block, his naturally pink skin now turned red. By this time, the music had been turned down and within a half hour completely died out.
A few months later during the pandemic summer, I heard a skittish caw coming from the sidewalk below. In my irritation, I peeked out and saw a woman pushing a shopping cart stacked with boxes and bags park in front of the hydrant downstairs. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but it sounded like she was having a heated argument with someone who had wronged her. She proceeded to unpack the contents of the shopping cart, which may have constituted all of her worldly possessions, and organize them on the sidewalk. What began as a meticulous exercise quickly turned haphazard, anxious, chaotic. She paused and looked around—a 270 degree scan, as if to make sure no one was watching—then tossed a box on the cart, which quickly fell off, spilling the contents across the sidewalk. Perhaps sensing my lurking presence, she hastily stuffed the rest of her belongings in the cart and pushed off down the block and around the corner, stopping every few feet to reorganize her collapsing life.
For the last eight years, I have lived above a young couple with three kids and have been a witness to their trials and tribulations, struggling to survive in NYC. I’ve heard the screaming matches and tantrums and felt the feet stomping in and out, doors banging open and shut. During the pandemic fall the husband was still furloughed from his hotel job, the kids were out of school, and the mother was constantly ranting; the whole lot were clearly going stir crazy. When I took out the trash, I would find brown paper bags full of empty whiskey bottles, and once, while I was talking to the father, a bag of coke flew out of his wallet and landed at my feet, just out of eyeshot of his kids.
Things got worse from there, and before the ambulances and cops were called to his house a third time I heard him bellowing and threatening to kill himself. He was taken away and returned some hours later, looking run down. A few days later the wife and kids moved out. I haven’t seen them since. Over the months of lockdown, his face bloated and his eyes became permanently bloodshot. He would ask to borrow money, starting with $100, bargaining down to $50, and finally accepting 20 bucks as consolation. He wasn’t a bad guy, and I empathized to the degree that I could, but eventually I started avoiding him. When I returned from a trip in March, I discovered that he had moved home to Bangladesh. The apartment downstairs has been empty ever since.
Going “back to normal” is not a sentiment I relate to. I did not like the way things were, any more than I like the way things are now. Was it better then than it is now? I think many people—here and elsewhere—would agree that while the pandemic’s impact on social, political, and economic structures has been unprecedented, the uncertainty, tension, and collapse that people face on a daily basis is not.
The story of my neighbour, like any of these incidences, did not begin with COVID. COVID is not doing this to us; this is being done to us by us. It is us who leave the devastation of our parasitic existence and its brutal impact on one another and the planet, to fate, and God, and all our best intentions. Triage is all we know how to do now, oblivious or fully aware, that the wound is far too deep to recover. The only thing left to blame is our lack of imagination. The only certainty is that no matter how obvious the blind spots, at any moment now we’re most certainly going to crash.