You Can’t Go Home Again

We didn’t know we were entering a new era until it arrived. We can never go back.

Tents are seen in an emergency field hospital to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic in Central Park on March 30, 2020 in New York City. Stephanie Keith / Getty

My father calls me and says, “two weeks.” He’s a respiratory therapist, and that’s how long until he suspects the Pittsburgh hospital system may start to get overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases. He’s worried about me, in New York City. I nix his plan to try to rent me a room in mill-town-turned-hip-locale Millvale, just outside Pittsburgh, explaining that fleeing New York is antisocial behavior. He insists on mailing me some gloves to wear when I go to the grocery store.

He tells me about a gunshot-wound victim in his hospital unit. “Not a coronavirus case!” he jokes, in the typically dark fashion of someone who has worked in the ER for years. I ask him if he’s heard that John Prine has coronavirus. He has — he was never much of a Prine fan, he says, but he once read a Rolling Stone story about Prine in the 1970s that mentioned the songwriter’s days as a mail carrier, and that he’d occasionally take shelter from the snow in the mail room’s relay box to write songs, a tale that delighted my working-class artist father.

Being in New York during the coronavirus crisis is concerning. They’re building field hospitals in Central Park and in a stadium in Queens; they’ve turned the Empire State Building into a flashing red siren. People are dying while they’re trying to get into hospitals, dying in hospitals, attempting suicide because their cancer treatments have been delayed to clear room for coronavirus patients. If you get sick, the hospital no longer seems to be an option.

The state’s governor holds press conferences where he says he won’t entertain a bill proposed by the state senate to suspend rent — today is the first of the month, and the New York Times estimates that 40 percent of New Yorkers may be unable to pay rent. Two days ago, as I was sitting on my stoop, a little girl walked up to me, an umbrella shielding her from the early morning drizzle. “Do you have any money for sandwiches?” she asked. “My mom is out of work, and me and my sisters are going hungry.” I handed her the money I had on me and weakly wished her good health.

Doctors say hundreds of the city’s inmates have coronavirus now. The jails are completely unprepared, and the authorities are taking their time releasing people (they are, however, offering prisoners $6 an hour to dig mass graves). Because I dabble in journalism, construction workers text me several times a day about how filthy their job sites are — the governor finally shut down “nonessential” construction sites this week, but (would you believe it?) “essential” is being somewhat nebulously defined. The city’s shelter system awaits an all-but-inevitable disaster. A reporter tweets that while 332 people died of coronavirus yesterday in New York, the rate of increase has been steady, rather than rising, for the past couple days. (I try to feel relieved.)

I walk to CVS to pick up medication. There’s a line of six or seven people, mostly older, all with masks, standing on the sidewalk, waiting to enter the store. Social distancing means an establishment can only let in a handful of people at a time. I walk to the back of the line and cover my face with a keffiyeh — I have no idea where people are getting masks.

We hold a staff meeting, via Zoom, a video-conferencing app. Coworkers are scattered around the world, calling in from Istanbul, London, Dublin, Berlin, Toronto. Several of us live in buildings that are going on rent strike today. A lot of people don’t have the savings to cover a month of New York City rent, so regardless of what the governor or landlords say, people simply are not going to pay. I think about my laid-off roommate, a bartender, and how everyone in my apartment has agreed not to pay rent. I take notes for a coworker who is quarantining in Australia and thus asleep at the meeting’s scheduled time. As my coworkers discuss the financial state of our publication and Tiger King, I stare at a photo strip I’d picked up on the floor of a Manhattan karaoke bar last year that has now freed itself from a pile of papers near my desk. Two strangers look back at me, making silly faces, cocktails in hand.

I take a break from work to force myself to read an essay I’ve had open on my laptop for a while. In it, the author reflects on his failed efforts to evade commodification as a young writer. He writes: “I realize now that I was trying to undo by writing what could only be undone by action, not alone but with others — and through connections that incantation alone would not conjure.” I’ve been wondering why writing feels so meaningless during this pandemic, even emptier than usual, but it’s because action, right now, is so hard to come by. The emergent wave of walkouts and sickouts by essential workers at Amazon, General Electric, Whole Foods, and more — not to mention the tenant organizing — are the actions needed to force the hands of the rich and powerful, who are busy attending to their own problems. Writing isn’t totally useless, of course; the future is open, now more than ever, even if the forces of left and right that seek to shape it are nowhere close to being on a level playing field. But when the system is so hostile to reform, much less radical change, no amount of correct phrasing or clever proposals can shape history.

In an essay on “not going home,” critic James Wood writes of a sort of secular homelessness (in contrast to Georg Lukács’s “transcendental homelessness”), “in which the ties that might bind one to Home have been loosened, perhaps happily, perhaps unhappily, perhaps permanently, perhaps only temporarily.” This is the type of leaving home that is voluntarily chosen but nonetheless inflected with an “afterwardness,” a term he borrows from Freud. As he writes,

To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done.

“Afterwardness” saturates the present. We didn’t know we were entering a new era until it arrived. What was once unthinkable — 30 percent unemployment — is now “projected.” Much of what came before feels irrevocably distant, or distorted; hazy. The past had a fog, and we didn’t even know it. Only now, amid the pandemic, is the fragility of our way of living blindingly obvious. We face the facts, and in doing so, we transform what came before. We can never go back.

My father calls again. He’s considering renting the room in Millvale himself, in case he needs to isolate away from my mom. He spent one night in a hotel last week, after a coworker suspected they’d been exposed to the virus (it turned out to be an unnecessary precaution; the coworker tested negative for COVID-19), and he doesn’t want to rely on the hospital for housing next time. I tell him I wish he could stay home, and to have a safe rest of his shift.