Down and Out in NYC: Movements, Pavements and Pandemics

Well, it ain’t over ‘til the proverbial — and stereotypically plus-sized — diva, binary or otherwise, puts down her lozenges to launch a final attack on the lorgnette-clutching, socially-distanced crowds. In as plain a variety of English as I can bring myself to adopt: we haven’t heard the last of COVID-19. Done as we might think we are with the pandemic the US President declared over, the virus continues to catch us unawares and mess with our lives.

It sure is messing with mine right now, in a number of ways. Almost immediately on arriving in New York City two weeks ago, I caught some resilient variant of the bug I had managed to steer clear of for so long. And it caught up with me despite all vaccinations and boosters, having taken advantage of the first opportunity to have my last antiviral top-up just two days before my departure.

Imperative mood

This is my first return visit to my old Manhattan neighborhood in three years … but clearly things did not go at all as planned or hoped for. What makes matters worse is that I had intended to be of some use to an old friend and former domestic partner, who, just days prior to my arrival, suffered a massive heart attack and has been in intensive care ever since. Here I am, stuck in his apartment, just a 20-minute walk away from the hospital that is now off limits. No doubt, millions of New Yorkers felt like that during lockdown — when everything and everyone close by was suddenly out of reach.

Walk-in clinics operate all over the city and mobile testing units are deployed on street corners, a reminder, if visual clues were needed, of the lasting effect of the pandemic on the life of the metropolis eager to move on yet unable to leave behind what may yet lie ahead. Most of those sites offer free testing and medication to US citizens, whereas visitors without US healthcare will be asked to pay for anywhere from $50 to $129 for a test.  Public libraries still dispense home testing kits free of charge.  Mine now come out negative — but the hospital requires a negative PCR test. 

So, I have been chasing the testing vans all over the island. The locations keep changing, and where I expected the last van to be, on the Upper East side, I encountered a food vendor instead. Can I have that hotdog up my nostril, please? I had flashbacks of North by Northwest (1959), of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant’s character) trying to convince others and his mother that what he knew he had experienced just hours before was actual, and of Mirage (1965), in which David Stillwell (played by Gregory Peck) fails to match the physical space he navigates with the imprint it left on his memory.

Anyway, yesterday I tracked one van down in Chelsea — outside the Chelsea Express where young men stood in line for their Monkeypox vaccines — or, for all I know, got treated for chlamydia, gonorrhea, or syphilis — and where, decades ago, I got the rubella shot without which I would not have been allowed to commence my college studies here in New York. The latest PCR result came back this morning, and, contrary to the temporarily reassuring single red line at which I was staring in the relief that turned to disbelief, it is still positive.

Meanwhile, walking around town, I am tentatively continuing my Asphalt Expressionism project, a photography series that originated in 2019 but was immediately shelved for obvious reasons.  Out-and-downcast as I am, I struggled at first to experience the wonderment and joys of not looking forward, of seeing the creative ‘potential’ — a term I loathe — in the cracks, spillages and detritus of and on the sidewalks.

A spray-painted message caught my eye. “Make Art!” Whether or not ‘art’ is the word for it, Asphalt Expressionism — the experience, documentation, narration and conceptual framing with an art historical frame of mine of found visuals and materials on New York City’s street corners and far from fabled gold-paved curb sides — makes me look appreciatively, inquisitively and with a modicum of spirit at a reality that I inhabit while I wait for things to look up …

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