The virus hit New York City in March of 2020. Many became ill, many died. The city was all but shuttered. Both Mom and Abba had to cancel their April vacation plans. The economy was headed for shambles. It was called the ‘worst health crisis in 100 years’. An announcement was made that Fountain House would be closing its doors until further notice. Earlier that winter, I had started playing my three-quarter frame, acoustic guitar that Mother bought me as a birthday present and she insisted I have, with a vocalist, Robert Courage. Rob had to be in his mid to late-50s. He used to go to events in the city and make balloon-figures for the children. He had written a play, Homeless Joe’s Last Dance, which had been picked up for a one-time performance at an off-off-Broadway theater. He was friendly to all and all but chain-smoked Newports. We both sang in the Fountain House chorus which met early on Friday mornings in the Silver Center—the building of Fountain House’s greater complex reserved for members 55-years-old and up. He announced that he would be singing a song on his own at the upcoming chorus concert but just needed a musician to accompany him. He was singing ‘Tangled up in Blue’ by Bob Dylan from the album, Blood on the Tracks (1975).
‘I know that song on guitar. I’ll play with you,’ I volunteered.
‘Great, we’ll do it after the regular chorus rehearsal next week.’
When we met the following week, we counted the song off, ‘one-two-three-four’, I launched into the introduction: one bar of ‘A’ chord, one bar of ‘A’ suspended, another ‘A’, another ‘A’ suspended chord; he began singing Dylan’s famous lyrics: ‘Early one mornin’ the sun was shining/ I was laying in bed/ I wondered if she’d changed that much/ If her hair was still red…’ And I knew just what to do. I had all the chord changes memorized; they were easy. In one take, performing for the rest of the chorus group, we played ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ without any mistakes. Then, Robert told me:
‘I want to play a short acoustic set at the theater before my play’s performance. Do you think you would be willing and able?’
‘Sure thing!’ I said, excited, and we began to rehearse in the Fountain House music room on a regular basis.
We added more songs to our repertoire. ‘Wild World’ by Cat Stevens, ‘Help’ by the Beatles, ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution’ by Tracy Chapman and ‘Another Day in Paradise’ by Phil Collins, were all his suggestions. He asked me to come up with some songs. I came up with ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver, ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ by Neil Young and ‘Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard’ by Paul Simon, just recently sans Garfunkel.
When they shut down Fountain House, we had no place to rehearse. Whether the play would still go on—it was planned for the first week in May—was up in the air. There were no gatherings permitted of more than fifty people in a single space at first, then, the regulations became even tighter and therefore the nightlife had been shuttered. At first, the city was not hit that hard by the coronavirus (COVID-19), not compared to China, Italy and Spain and considering that it had started on the West Coast in the United States. On the East Coast, most of the cases were in Westchester County, but not much in Manhattan, at first, even less in Brooklyn. ‘Patient Zero’ in New York State (New Rochelle to be exact) had come from, according to much of the media, the ‘Jewish community’. I didn’t see how that was possible. What, a whole community? ‘Are they blaming Jews?’ I wondered. Somebody was infected, and they just happened to be Jewish. But the media had my people pushed up against a wall. Wouldn’t have been said about the African-American or Latino community. But by the third week of the month of March, the cases were growing exponentially, yes, in the city, in Manhattan, in Brooklyn. In time, Brooklyn had more cases than Manhattan, a see-saw. The Mayor was threatening a ‘shelter-in-place’ order for all of New York City (they were already under this order in Seattle and San Francisco). One day I got a text message from Robert:
‘Let’s go to Times Square tomorrow, Rich will film us.’
I ignored the message, hoping he had entered the text in the wrong box, sent it to the wrong person, because I really didn’t know what he was talking about. Later the phone rang. It was Rob. He explained himself:
‘Tomorrow I want to go to Times Square. I want to play a couple of songs and get it filmed. Put it up on YouTube. Times Square will be empty, so it will be a surreal place to play and shoot a video.’
‘I…I—I’m not really sure…I’m not really sure whether I am down for this but I will get back to you.’
I called Mother. I told her ‘Robert Courage, the playwright, singer who I told you about’ wanted me to come with him ‘to the middle of deserted Times Square in midtown and shoot a music video’.
‘Don’t do it,’ she said. ‘What, is he out of his mind? I don’t even think you should go out at all. I really don’t want you to be riding that subway. Be nice about it, but tell him you can’t.’
‘Right. Okay, I will. Thanks Mom, love you.’
I didn’t call Robert to cancel. It was Tuesday. I had an appointment with my psychiatrist that day. Mother—during our phone conversation that I just painted for you, (recreated rather laconically)—had insisted I ask the doctor for extra medications, as it was unclear whether I’d be able to travel again to the clinic which was also in midtown Manhattan. I got the extra medication. My psychotropic pills that I have earlier listed for you with their dosage level, as well as Trazadone, my sleep aid, and my recent addition to the cocktail, which I had to advocate for myself to get, again, I was prescribed Adderall, this time I didn’t abuse it. I got 60 pills, extra of everything, enough ‘to last through May’. While I was in the pharmacy back in Brooklyn, waiting for them to fill my prescription so I could get home, my phone rang and it was Rob; again. I didn’t tell you this, but earlier, when we were still rehearsing at Fountain House, he would send me texts in the middle of the night; ideas: ‘let’s add this song to the set, let’s drop that song from the set’. He was mercurial; fun, but a little pushy. Now here he was, calling me again in the middle of the day, when earlier I had specifically told him, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ I can’t remember what he said to me this time but I said:
‘You know what? I think I’m going to go ahead and say no.’
‘Okay,’ disappointed sounding.
‘It’s not that I fear catching the virus and dying. I know the symptoms aren’t necessarily very severe in each and every case. But my fear is getting exposed and then having to be in quarantine. That just sounds like it would be hell.’
‘Yeah, I hear ya.’
About three hours passed. I was a little frightened like the rest of the world, but I was in unexpectedly and unusually high spirits. I got Rob on the phone and asked him:
‘What time are you thinking about meeting if we do this?’
‘I don’t know, two-thirty, three…’
‘Okay, I’m in.’
‘That’s great, man! Thanks a lot!’
Next morning, I couldn’t sleep. I had my eyes closed and the blanket pulled over my head, twisting and turning, rolling over every few minutes, desperately trying to get into a sleep position; my last chance at slumber before the soon-to-rise sun started filling up my bedroom windows with unwelcomed brightness. The TV had been on all night. I was listening to its ambiance in the background; the before-six a.m.-news speaking softly in the room to a black, sleeping screen that said: ‘Touch any button to return to picture’. And it was all the bad news about the virus. How it was showing no signs of slowing down. How New York was headed for a shelter-in-place order; how famous celebrity actors and athletes, government officials, business executives, people of all walks of life, here and abroad, were testing positive. I was nervous. But I had committed. ‘Let this be for rock ‘n roll; let this be for art!’ I thought. I wasn’t even thinking about the act. Not anymore. The act was the show that I would be putting on for online viewers later that day. Something positive, damn it! A year ago, I would have been thinking about the act. Now, I was back on the side of light. It was constructive, not destructive, deconstructive, maybe (and that’s healthy). I was changing. The original camera man, the drummer himself, backed out at the last minute; but our friend, Rene, a visual artist, said he’d shoot the footage for us. Rene was there when I showed up outside Fountain House where we were meeting. Rich was late, but he got there. We walked to Times Square and sat down on a barrier somewhere in the middle there between 42nd Street and 47th Street where Fountain House was. We played two songs. First, ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ and Rich changed the lyrics to make them humorous. He talked about the virus, about the chaotic state of the supermarkets, about the ‘clown’ in the Oval Office. Then we played ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. Here Rich stuck to the original lyrics. He had all the verses to this song memorized. I wore a camouflaged winter hat and a plaid scarf wrapped around my face for protection. We posted the footage online on the ‘Fountain House community’ Facebook page and got a large response. Everyone appreciated the musicians bringing forth their healing powers. As we played our very loudest in Times Square, two men walked by with microphones, and Bibles, and a loudspeaker, preaching about the apocalypse. It drowned out the music. All the attention in Times Square always belongs to the loudest, always has, always will.
I thought about breaking down and telling Mother what I had done that day, that I had gone against her advice, perhaps for the sake of art, had gone against common sense. But I changed my mind. ‘It would only upset her’. It felt more unethical to break down and tell her, than to just maintain my little lie, for peace in her mind and soul. In retrospect, it really wasn’t a very smart thing to do. Not very smart; but not so stupid, that I should be ashamed. I spoke to Father on the phone early that morning, before playtime. I asked him if he was playing golf. He said he was. So there you have it, a 72-going-on-73-year-old man smoking cigars outside on the golf course, in the middle of a deadly pandemic that attacks the victim’s respiratory system, no less. (And here I’ll add, at the risk of being digressive, that Abba sometimes reminds me that I should be working-out and not smoking). I was crazy that day. But so was he. Just like when I drove fast in high school, I didn’t always wear a seat belt. I was taking risks, engaging in risky behavior, but not concerned with the act. This behavior was not out of despair, it was fun. I was happy.
I wanted plans for the future. I wanted to travel to Israel with Sebastian, but that fell through. Abba had mentioned in an aside of an email he sent to me concerning the prospect of my returning to the old job search, that my plans to take a ‘vacation didn’t land well with’ him. Sebastian was iffy about whether his parents were ready to permit him to take such an adventure, too. Then the virus hit and made it impossible. So the trip to Israel was off, hopefully only until our 40th birthdays. Israel, early in March, was forcing all visitors from out of the country to engage in a two-week mandatory quarantine. Then, after about a week, their government called a shelter-in-place order. It was a scary time for the whole world.
I thought I was being risky going to Times Square on that Wednesday afternoon to play music. I waited till Saturday (the numbers of cases and deaths, even locally, was still growing exponentially every couple of days) to sign up to volunteer to go to a bakery in Union Square, pick-up and deliver the day’s unsold bread to the Bowery Mission, a homeless shelter. (New York had quickly become the hardest-hit area in the country, this was little to no surprise, as it is the most densely populated city). Usually we meet at the bakery fifteen minutes after its closing, which happens at eight in the evening. I got a text from the group leader telling me that, due to the pandemic, the bakery would be closing early. She said to meet at seven. At five-thirty, I sat down in my chair to watch television for a few minutes before I was to leave. I must have dozed off. I awoke at a quarter past seven and there were several messages on my cell phone from the group leader, asking me where I was, and informing me that she was ‘now leaving the bakery’. I texted her, apologizing profusely. I found it hard to forgive myself for this mistake. I knew it was dangerous to be riding the subway and walking around Manhattan—the virus being able to survive in the air without a host for a couple of hours at a time. The government’s only advice: ‘stay home’. But I wanted so badly to help out. I hadn’t volunteered with this organization in months. I wanted to show up during the crisis, when volunteers were in need. I had been homeless. I had taken enough meals in homeless shelters. I had begged and been homeless long enough to be able to appreciate the love of concerned strangers. I felt that I owed the homeless some of this love. And I had a lot of it to give. Those days, I had a lot of time on my hands, to boot. I was forgiven for my mistake by the project’s organizer. They either understood how it happened, or simply didn’t mind at all.
By the time the coronavirus came rolling to something of a halt, I had lost two in my family. The first was my Mother’s cousin, who had years earlier, suffered a stroke, and was consequently partially paralyzed and was living in a nursing home where her husband came to visit her every day. She contracted the virus and died. Then, hitting even closer to home for me, my Mother’s brother’s ex-wife, Fran Rosen (may she rest in peace), contracted the virus at the nursing home where she was living, and within a week’s time, succumbed. Lastly, I lost a friend, much younger than the other two deceased family members, who was an immigrant from Central America, and I knew from Fountain House.