Tuesday, March 24th, 2020
Belgium has made it illegal to go outside, while Italy has outlawed outdoor activities including jogging and biking. Iran, which so far has been hit the hardest of the Middle Eastern countries, has turned down American aid, saying the virus was manufactured by the USA.
The 9/11 Memorial was closed when I passed in the late morning. One lone security guard stood inside the expansive area. A cheap white plastic chain sloped between black plastic posts placed thirty feet apart, creating a fence of sorts. Anyone aware of the thoughtful design work on the other side of this barrier would shudder at the sight of these materials. What is the benefit of this closure? Wouldn’t it be a good time to visit a lost loved one or gaze into the subterranean pools?
Not many people were out as I rode downtown. The emptiness of the streets seemed to heighten everyone’s awareness of each other. Nevertheless, there was a noticeable paucity of human eye contact. There were opportunities for it, but… nothing happened. I have noticed this trend for days, each time I dismissed it, thinking it was me, or that people were in a rush, or that they had other reasons not to connect.
The huge white Calatrava “Oculus” bearing a resemblance to a giant dinosaur skeleton was bathed in low-angled early spring sunlight. I turned west to follow its flank. It comforted me to be near a structure that is so totally unlike any other in the city or the country; it is more akin to the arch in St. Louis than to anything else I can think of in the US, though one could never confuse the two.
Many more people were out near the river. I used my return trip to try and connect with another human—anyone. I could not. I simply could not make eye contact with anyone, nor did anyone even glance at me. It was as though I, and everyone else, were invisible. Everyone looked straight ahead. Clearly, they were aware of their surroundings as they fluently navigated the waterfront promenade while maintaining significant distance between themselves and others. If they turned their heads, it was to look at something, not someone. Most people gazed straight ahead.
The collective energy did not feel like the post-9/11 fear that gripped the city. At that time, there was a feeling that something else was going to happen—a lingering threat. No one knew if it was over or if we had just seen the first act. Today, in the slight chill of late March, amidst flowering trees, crocuses, and snowdrops, people seemed mostly at ease as they walked their dogs – maybe the only reason they were outside.
This new way of looking without seeing or connecting haunts me; is this evolution? The lack of even the possibility of eye contact is not something I’ve experienced in the United States. Eye contact is a favorite medium of mine and the highlight of some of my days. The opportunity for a genuine encounter with a stranger in a fraction of a second is gone, fallen away as a side effect of the invisible enemy.
My suspicion came into sharp focus; I could no longer dismiss it. It was as though everyone—nannies, police sitting in their cars, runners, standing guards, and moms—believed that the disease could be communicated with a glance. Is curiosity no longer safe, or has it become inappropriate?