The End Times seem like any other day. I’m looking out at South Brooklyn from my balcony on the 28th floor. The reds and browns of the buildings are broken only by black steeples and fir-green patches of park. Nothing is amiss. The Verrazzano Bridge stretches to Staten Island in the fog. No four horsemen yet.
I’m looking south, down the eastern spine of America. 800 miles away is my parents’ farm in Georgia where I’ll soon be escaping. They’re doctors and they believe my chances of getting a ventilator, should I get very sick, are better there than in New York City.
I want to say sorry for neglecting this blog, especially to those who’ve sent questions, which are in my inbox. I will answer them as soon as I can. A pandemic is, among other things, really bad writer’s block, and this isn’t helped by everyone saying, “At least you have plenty of time to write now!”
For the love of god, please stop. No one writes when it’s convenient to do so. Writing cuts into your life like a ghost that only comes out when you already made plans. It visits late at night when you should be asleep. In fact, my best creative bursts come between 10:30 and 11:30 pm after I leave the gym.
I miss my gym. Several times a week, I push weight around in a subterranean pit in Hell’s Kitchen, two blocks from Times Square. It’s an old-school powerlifting gym with one claim to fame: Schwarzenegger lifted there back in the ‘80s. Its owners make sure we know this and cover the walls with black-and-white photos of him at his youthful, chiseled peak.
The place is filled with New York guys in their fifties, men with greased-back hair, big arms, and big bellies. They work out in the same yellowish, sweat-soaked undershirts day after day doing 400-pound deadlifts and squats. Being underground, there are no windows and only one clock, so it’s easy to lose track of time. Countless times I’ve checked my phone and realized I’ve been down there for three hours.
My walks from the gym to the train are my greatest moments of happiness. I’m sore, sweaty, raw, elated. I go up the steps into the sounds of traffic on 42nd Street. The gym entrance smells like cigarette smoke. The building has been covered in scaffolding since I moved here and people go there to smoke and get out of the weather.
As far as gentrified Manhattan goes, it’s a sketchy stretch of sidewalk. I’ve seen everything from the entranceway: drug hand-offs, people pissing and shitting in broad daylight, overdosing homeless people surrounded by paramedics, countless addicts crouching around growling obscenities at everyone, several fights and almost-fights. I turn left, walk past the convenience store playing classical music on a speaker outside, pass the Holy Cross Church, pass the Greek Trattoria, pass the Army surplus store.
Ahead, shining in its horrible glory, is Times Square. This isn’t Times Square proper — the true pit of Hell is around the corner. This is the beginning, the borderland where the city gives way to ad space, where the crowds start to gather. I skirt most of it, but as I step into the train station, I look down 7th Avenue at the swarming multitude, a sea of people choked together between walls of video ads rising into the sky like electric teeth. I pass Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Madame Tussauds across the street. Pass the Lyric Theater, home to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Everywhere you look are hapless tourists. You have to step around them; they’re planted, mouths agape in laughter and horror, transfixed by the splendor of Applebee’s and M&Ms and Netflix ads.
In that dizzying corridor, celebrity faces look down at us benevolently selling shoes or toothbrushes or pet food or some new reality TV show. In the station, someone is playing the saxophone or a child is singing pop anthems into a microphone. I go deeper — it’s a monstrous station, a labyrinth of narrow corridors and stairways and elevators where millions of people cough and sneeze on each other each day — and wait for the N train to Brooklyn. If I’m lucky, the girl I love is playing her violin, achingly, breaking the noise with sounds of mourning. I always want to tip her, but she’s on the uptown platform.
This three-block walk makes me write. I go home, make tea, sit at my computer, and put something down. If I have an article or something due, this is when it happens. This magic hour starts at midnight and sometimes goes till three or four o’clock.
Losing this ritual has been hard. I would give anything to get on a train, just to pretend I was coming home from the gym, but public transit (along with, of course, gyms) are out of the question.
In New York, you can get anywhere by train. The trains take you to more trains or to the airport. It’s alarming how effortlessly one can travel from Pretoria to the Bronx. We’re now ruing this deadly accessibility as we shelter in place in the red-hot epicenter of contagion. I don’t know today’s numbers, but I know more people are dying every day, every hour. We’re the big red viral dot on the map. The U.S. leads the world in new infections and New York is Number One.
You’d think we’d be ready for something like this, but that hope seems a little silly now. While corporate bailouts save the paychecks of billionaires and Trump plays golf somewhere, I am here, unable to find words for it all. Here are some words by William Wordsworth:
The world is too much with us; late and soon.
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers
Nihilists and environmentalists know we need lessening. Already we’re seeing nature improve slightly from social shutdown: cleaner skies, better air. Will this be a lesson? Probably not, because we don’t stop. We are like the addicts clinging to life outside my gym, the ones I still give money to because I’ve been there in that ragged place at 2 am, hungry for more. Because the only universal human feeling is craving. We scrape everything out of the world, all for life.
Readers, I have encouraged you to reject ideologies of fear and own your freedoms — freedom to play and explore and do what you want — since the beginning of this blog. Here’s why: if god exists, he’s a murderer and a tyrant, and we’re not free. To assert our claim to life, we must choose freedom through hedonism and defy god by defining existence according to our own subjective rules, pleasures, and principles. That belief has not changed.
But now I must share this: I’ve been struggling, not with my reasons for living, but with my means for living — means which have largely eroded in this pandemic. I’ve been doing some introspection (what else have I to do?) in quarantine and realized my values need rethinking. I’ve stopped exploring sexually with the passion and curiosity I once had. I’ve stopped valuing my work and my abilities. I’ve lost my confidence.
And here’s why. For two years, my income has been shaky and unstable, and as I’ve struggled, I’ve continuously compared myself to others — to my friends, to my partner — and this has led to feelings of bitterness and resentment. My self-image has crumbled.
This is, I think, the reason I’m not pitching and publishing articles as much as I once was, why my sex life has slumped, and maybe even why this blog has not been adequately maintained. I had early success as a writer some years ago and believed the work was finished. I thought the assignments would keep coming and I would just climb. I stopped adapting.
When you stop adapting, you flounder, and I’ve been floundering for a bit. Media changed — indeed, it was changing long before I got in it — and writing is no longer a viable primary income source, at least not for most of us. It’s a side hustle, and I think it’s probably been a side hustle for some time. Maybe if you’re a war reporter for The New York Times, you have a full-time job. But I’m not a war reporter for the Times, nor am I qualified or experienced enough to be anywhere near that level of journalism. And the frustrating part is, I’m not sure how to get there or even if I want to get there. I am not, after all, much of a reporter. I’ve been grinding my wheels trying to figure out what I’m doing and somewhere in the last year, I realized it’s time to find a new career, which likely means going back to school.
To that end, I’ve prioritized job-hunting and résumé building over writing. Maddeningly, I still have no job. Trying to find a new career now, as the global economy nosedives, is such an absurd place to be in that I’m shocked into something like apathy: I’m doing pushups all day and staring at myself in the mirror. These feelings are why we invented nihilism.
But something’s been helping: I’ve been reading about the minimalism movement. At first, I was skeptical. I bristle at anything that looks cultish or like an internet fad. But minimalism is neither because it’s not a spirituality (and it’s not, as far as I can tell, widely practiced). It’s essentially the teachings of Christ and the Buddha without the spiritualism: focus less on things and more on people. Ideologically, it’s a critical response to unsustainable consumerism, which has skyrocketed over the last 100 years, and the environmental ruin it has caused. It’s a reaction to advertising invading all aspects of our lives and the social and psychological ramifications of living as round-the-clock consumers.
Most meaningful to me, it offers an alternative to the narrative that success is measured by wealth. Such an obvious message should seem simple, and should hardly amount to a movement: I’m sure there are dozens of beachscapes with inspirational text on Pinterest that more-or-less say the same thing: “Life is measured by the moments that take your breath away!”
But in practice, a life not measured by capitalist myths of success is radical. New York City can be seen as a working model of indescribable income equality played out. This city is an altar to capitalism. Being poor here is to be reminded every moment that billionaires live in the same quarter-mile radius as countless homeless people who suffer from treatable mental illness and lack any medical or psychological support. Gay culture — particularly the bit I’m privy to (white, cisgender, affluent gay culture) — only supports this system. We celebrate enhanced bodies, elegant living spaces, expensive parties, and luxurious international travel. It’s hard to be the gay man at brunch who can’t afford his part of the bill, and I’ve internalized the shame and embarrassment of that experience as a measure of my worth. My time in quarantine has made me realize that a big part of my misery comes from tying my value to dollars. I’m not a fuck-up and I’m not ugly, and if I keep thinking that the next decent paycheck will bring my life together, I will never be happy.
I’m going to try minimalism. For now, this means getting rid of stuff I don’t need and that isn’t adding value to my life. I’m not sure how far I’ll take it — I’m not sure how far I can take it in New York — but it’ll be an experiment. I want to more fully appreciate the riches of the life I have, because daily stress, shame, and embarrassment for being poor and not knowing my next career move are keeping me in limbo. I’m not getting anywhere.
This doesn’t mean I’ll stop looking for work, of course. It simply means I’m trying to change my perspective of happiness. This may be a bizarre time to do this, but I think many people might benefit from refocusing like this, particularly since millions of us are now facing joblessness for the first time in years.
Even with everything going on, I’m glad to call this city my home. That hardscrabble, “We’re tough, we’re all in this together”-ness of New Yorkers is emerging now when we need it, and I feel guilty for leaving. I’m not excited about the idea of abandoning ship, but two medical professionals are telling me to go, so I’m going. I comfort myself (and Brent) by saying I’ll at least be one less person taking up an ICU bed in a city that is running out of them; I’ll be one less potentially asymptomatic carrier (although, as an HIV-positive man, I doubt this will be an asymptomatic experience for me).
When I need fresh air, I run to the bridge. The closer I get to it, the more in awe I become. The Verrazzano Narrows is the longest suspension bridge in the Western hemisphere. On every block I run, something interesting appears, something I would not have seen if the gym was an option. I now have a list of bakeries I want to visit and nearby parks I want to explore. When I moved to Brooklyn, I complained about being so far from “everything interesting” in Manhattan, which now seems so childish. There is so much to see and do anywhere you are.
Some words from my favorite poem, “Slow Dance” by Matthew Dickman:
This is the almond grove
in the dark slow dance.
It is what we should be doing right now. Scraping
As I write this, night is falling over Brooklyn. The lights on the bridge are just twinkling on in the elegant blue dusk. It would be dangerous for you to be here, but I really wish you could see it.
Above Image: Stolen from The New York Times. I’m sorry.