Tuesday March 24, 2020
As I headed downtown my attention was drawn to the paucity of human eye contact again. Not many people were out. The emptiness seemed to heighten everyone’s awareness of each other. There were several opportunities for the usual eye contact, but… nothing. I have been noticing this trend for days, but each time I dismissed it, thinking it was me, or that people were in a rush, or there was some other reason not to connect.
The enormous white Calatrava skeleton (a.k.a., the World Trade Center Transportation Hub) was washed in low-angled spring sunlight. I turned west to follow its arcing flank. As usual, it felt comforting to be near a structure that is so totally unlike any other. Its scale and open form make it more akin to the arch in St. Louis than any other large structure in an American city though they have no direct visual similarities.
The 9/11 Memorial is closed. One lone security guard stood inside the expansive open space. Hundreds of feet of cheap white plastic “chain” sloped between crude black plastic posts placed thirty feet apart. This coupling served as a fence although it was hardly protective beyond the visual cue it provided. Anyone involved or simply aware of the design work on the other side of this low-budget barrier would shudder at these materials and methods. I wondered about the possible benefit of this closure. Wouldn’t it be a good time to visit a lost loved one? Or to gaze into the memorial pools? Surely there would not be a crowd.
Along the Hudson River, many more people were out, so I used my trip back north to try and connect with another human—anyone. But I could not. I could not make eye contact with anyone, nor did anyone even glance at me; it was as though I, and every other human, was invisible. Everyone looked straight ahead.
Clearly, the dozens of people I was passing were looking. They were fully aware of their surroundings; they noted who was where and fluently navigated the wide river’s edge esplanade assuring adequate distance from others. If they turned their heads, it was to look at something, not someone. The standard gaze was straight ahead, like car headlights.
The collective energy did not feel like the fear after 9/11. At that time, there was a feeling that something else was going to happen; there was 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, crocus, and snowdrops, people seemed mostly at ease as they walked their dogs.
This new way of looking haunted me. The lack of even the possibility of human eye contact is not something I have experienced in the United States, and certainly not in New York City. Eye contact has long been a favorite medium of mine and the highlight of some outings. Even the possibility of a genuine encounter with a stranger (lasting only a fraction of a second) is gone, fallen away as a side effect of the invisible enemy.
It was as though disease could be communicated with a glance. Everyone had taken on the same affect — nannies, police people sitting in their cars, joggers, security guards, moms — it was universal. It felt to me like civilization, at least locally, had transformed. Curiosity was no longer safe or appropriate.