Each city has its own unique cast of characters, New York City however, stands head and shoulders above them all. It harbors its own species of special people. This morning for example, while I was walking my dog Stewie, an elderly jogger ran past me while juggling some balls in the air. “God bless!” I cried out to him.
My day had hardly begun and here was a New York moment that I would later share with my friends and family.
In our tenth week of lockdown in New York City, I’m observing more and more of these characters not just on the streets of my beloved city but on television as well.
Many shops are boarded up and emptied of merchandise. Ironically, the one shop that has remained untouched is Elie Saab, with three beautiful evening dresses prominent in the display window. Are theLebanese resilient and refusing to conform or are they not aware of COVID-19?
The governor of New York state – Andrew Cuomo – has emerged as an unlikely but much-needed hero. “Cuomo for King” some are saying, in a country that detests kings yet has a president aspiring to be one. Cuomo holds a daily news conference and gives us an honest take about the virus situation- almost a vaccine to the Trump presser that will take place later in the day. His is the voice of reason. His input is honest and unvarnished. He shoots straight and talks about community, asking us to adhere to the new rules of civility.
My city in places resembles a dystopian landscape. Many shops are boarded up and emptied of merchandise. Ironically, the one shop that has remained untouched is Elie Saab, with three beautiful evening dresses prominent in the display window. Perhaps the store manager didn’t get the memo and knows something that the rest of us are not privy to? Or maybe it is because the Lebanese are resilient and refuse to conform. Some department stores have disappeared never to return, a testament to the travails of the retail industry. All hotels are closed except those that have been turned into (very upscale) dormitories for essential health workers, by order of our beloved governor. Only supermarkets and pharmacies remain open, and with shortened hours. There are more delivery people than ever, gloved, masked and braving the elements, in this case an invisible virus. One such delivery man had fashioned a trailer in order to carry more goods and hooked it up to his bicycle. Necessity is the mother of invention.
While New York City has created heroes and even calls to make Governor Cuomo a King, the Arab world has not seen any stars rising from COVID-19. What can the Arab world produce other than music and dance?
A dear friend who lives in a brownstone with a terrace on the sixth floor asked me to come and share the sunshine whenever the weather permits. I walk the two blocks over with determination. I climb the stairs as I am afraid to take the old-fashioned small elevator. What if I get stuck? I was never afraid of elevators. In fact, I always loved riding in them. Growing up in Beirut, I remember the thrill I felt the first time I rode an escalator. We lived near Spinneys (the first major department store in Beirut) in a city that was thriving in the early 70s. Upon entering the store, an escalator that seemed to cascade from the sky invited me to ride it up to the toy section. After buying a book or a toy, I knew that more excitement awaited as I would ride the escalator down. Those golden days in Beirut were magical. The cinemas, restaurants, amusement parks are still etched in my memory. Life was beautiful. My parents were always out for dinner or at a night club dancing. They were carefree and seemed oblivious to what loomed ahead.
This week I read Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of The Sea, a novel that begins in Spain during their Civil War. The main protagonists are displaced, fleeing to France and eventually settling in Chile. As the years pass and the political cycle turns, revolution recurs. I was struck by one of the main protagonists’ mother saying that toilet paper was scarce as it was being hoarded. The same thing happened here in America at the beginning of the lockdown. Carmen (the mother in the story) makes it a point to say that as long as she has her cigarettes, she doesn’t care about toilet paper, as she can use old newspaper instead. She too is a special character.
Pandemics, like wars, are powerful and indiscriminate. They create uncertainty, chaos, fear and paranoia. The civil war in Lebanon came and went. This virus may continue to grow, or may one day die out completely, or it may just appear that way.
Conflict bubbled in the background during those halcyon days, but then war finally arrived in Lebanon in 1975, uprooting us and so many others. The coronavirus began hinting at its objective as early as last December and became clear a couple of months later, eventually unleashed its full horror on the world, still with no apparent end in sight. Pandemics like war, are powerful and indiscriminate. They create uncertainty, chaos, fear and paranoia. The civil war in Lebanon came and went. This virus may continue to grow, or may one day die out completely, or it may just appear that way. Eventually they will discover a vaccine to immunize us all, from this particular virus at least. I dream of that day. I pray for that day; a day when I can ride a small elevator and not worry about getting stuck, and if I do get stuck, help will be on the way. I have no doubt that the elevator repairman will be a New York character. He too will be juggling, and I will say to him: “God bless”.