Brooklyn Quarantine Diary

Quarantine is rooted in the Italian words quarantenara and quaranta giorni, or 40 days, the period of time the city of Venice forced ship passengers and cargo to wait before landing in the 14th and 15th centuries to try to stave off the plague.

How’s your enforced staycation going? For me, a single woman who lives alone and works from home, quarantine is very much like my regular life. I’m used to plenty of solitude and have no problem with it. What’s different now is that the pressures, external and internal, to go out and do something, anything at all, are completely and relaxingly absent.

I’ve been holed up in my garden-level brownstone apartment for eleven days, and so far, haven’t been bored for a minute. Early on, I placed delivery orders for groceries and wine, which I’d rarely ever done. The supermarket was out of half the stuff I wanted and the delivery window was four days out. It looks like I’ll have to cut my own fingernails soon and possibly my own hair, but that’s about the worst of it.

OK, I’m being flippant, and yes, I’m acutely aware of my privilege. If doing one’s own nails was the worst of it, we’d all be in great shape. People are fighting for their lives on ventilators as we speak, and nurses and doctors are working double and triple shifts without proper supplies, while my anxiety takes the form of being weirdly abstemious with such things as postage stamps, hair products and, yes, toilet paper (food and alcohol not so much).

When I landed at JFK Tuesday night, March 17, after an aborted Mexican vacation, my coronavirus worry was at a peak. I’d spent the last long day of travel first in a crowded van, then in an airport, then on a 5-hr flight and in a stuffy taxi which brought me to my Brooklyn door. To assuage my own anxiety and make sure I didn’t infect others in case I had been exposed, I committed to adopting the slightly more stringent NYC regulations in place for vulnerable over-70s, even though I’m 69 for another few days.

No problem. I didn’t really want to go food shopping or to the drugstore anyway, even with gloves, even for a few minutes, if it meant being extra-paranoid and/or guilty afterwards.

And no, quarantine is not an exact replica of my real life. Most days, under normal circumstances, I get up at an early hour, get dressed and go to the gym, and many evenings, after a day’s work at my desk, I go out for drinks and dinner with friends. Now I’m doing none of those things (except for the work part). I’ve left my building only for neighborhood walks.

This morning, it included the Farmers’ Market at Grand Army Plaza, where vendors were sparse, the produce tables — mostly root vegs and apples from last fall — cordoned off to keep customers at a distance, and people in masks and latex gloves lined up with six foot spaces between.

NYC is not as quiet as those ghost-town photos of Times Square would have you believe, or as Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio would like. Yesterday, Friday, was springlike, and Fort Greene Park was a de facto gym, with people doing every form of exercise from jump rope to crunches to stair climbing. Vehicular traffic was light but not that light. The sidewalks were emptier than usual, but hardly empty.

Our elected officials’ approach, of asking people to cooperate with the new regulations on a voluntary basis, worries me. Kids have even been playing basketball, a game in which avoiding close human contact is obviously impossible, in city parks and playgrounds the Mayor has been reluctant to padlock. With such lax enforcement, how much longer will this go on than it needs to? Maybe we can be sanguine about quarantine for a bit longer, but soon the charms of vegetating in place will pall.

My personal health panic faded after I watched (and half-believed) a YouTube video touting a best-case scenario, and passed the average incubation times for coronavirus. I’m feeling fine. Meanwhile, I self-isolate, shelter in place, lock myself down, willingly place myself under house arrest. I haven’t even made a dent on the procrastinated-on projects I call my “Winter List,” which I have already blown off several winters in a row. It includes such things as “Go through travel files” and “Go through old photos” (pre-2000, bursting out of a seven-foot wide credenza).

Directly as a result of the pandemic, I lost one of my two freelance clients to budget cuts, so I have a lot more free time than usual. I just don’t know what happens to it. I haven’t done any Pilates or yoga. I’ve cooked only a little, and haven’t cracked a book.

I have, however, raked up the back garden and cleared out under the deck stairs (my domain), throwing away stiffened hoses and broken snow shovels. My landlords are away at their country place, so I have the whole overgrown garden to myself. Early spring is its moment of glory, with forsythia and a magnificent star magnolia in bloom.

Last week, when this was new and things seemed on the verge of catastrophe, I found myself thinking of Anne Frank and her family’s 2-1/2 years in the Secret Annex, as well as my own confinement at age 14 with rheumatic fever. At first, the doctors said complete bed rest for 4 weeks, and that was bad enough. It turned out to be four whole months, from March to June 1964, before whatever it was they were measuring in my blood reached the correct level. But I made it through. The time went by and, in retrospect, it shaped me.

That experience was different, because I wasn’t contagious and could have all the visitors I wanted, but full-time bedrest throughout the entire spring of ninth grade was pretty extreme. I started a voluminous correspondence with an English penpal that remains a rock-solid friendship to this day. Our letters were masterpieces of adolescent reportage, unique sociological documents, largely about our mutual Beatles fandom. I read some memorable books (I remember two, anyway — Gone with the Wind and Of Human Bondage), and immersed myself in music, fueled by the AM radio stations I listened to on my transistor. Beatles, Stones, Motown, R&B, Dylan, Orbison — 1964 was a great year for pop music, and the hits of that season still carry a powerful emotional charge.

I know we’ll get through this as a society and live to fight at least another day (climate change has not been mentioned in weeks). Like everyone else, I’m worried about what happens next. As cozy as I am and as well-stocked, I hope this quarantine doesn’t last long enough for me to get around to sorting my CDs.

5 thoughts on “Brooklyn Quarantine Diary

  1. So true about us singletons. I’m used to being solitary but really do miss swimming at the “Y”. I do feel privileged that I’m on a fairly fixed income and don’t have to worry about losing a job or having one that puts me in contact with too many people. I worry about all these people delivering food and packages.

  2. Excellent! Up here in the HV the tonic has been spring which is about to burst forth from under the soggy leaves not picked-up from last fall. Gardens endure their own infestations and blithely ignore our human mucking about. Which I suppose is why we keep them. Keep up the reporting.

  3. Wow thanks for the good report from Brooklyn. I have been telling people to make journals in the hope that they will look inward and express and explain what it feels like to live under this odd and sudden change to daily life. I feel much like you safe in my routines but I worry for my older family members and old friends in NYC. it’s so densely populated. Let’s hope it passes quickly. That said we have to be prepared for the worst.

  4. Thanks for reading, Fred. Journaling is not a bad way to pass a time such as this. Mine takes the form of blog posts, I guess — and in that adolescent confinement, it was correspondence. But both served very much the same purpose. Good to hear from you – be well!

  5. Gardening therapy, for those who have the option, makes a huge difference. Besides tending to the neglected backyard, my five remaining houseplants are looking good. I’ve been coddling them with coffee grounds, eggshells and epsom salts in lieu of store-bought plant food.

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