Tuesday, April 7th, 2020
A full moon high tide. At 10:00 AM, the line at Trader Joe’s in Soho went around the block, nearly to King Street. Fifty percent of the people in line wore masks; the expectant shoppers were about eleven feet apart. At 2:00 PM, there was a fairly short line at Trader Joe’s on West 21st Street, and everyone was wearing a mask. Panic buying may be over, but with so many restaurants closed, the amount of food being purchased in grocery stores must have increased significantly.
Funeral homes and morgues are overwhelmed. There have been 2,500 deaths in New York state so far—779 today.
Unlike several people I know, I never take the same route when I go for a run. My urban route is usually determined by what the composer John Cage might call “chance operations.” He lived near me on Sixth Avenue back when it was as empty of humans at night as it is now; he would have enjoyed the current soundscape.
My chance operation routing, based on traffic and traffic lights, has been totally confounded because there is not one intersection where I need to turn right or left to avoid cars or trucks. Fate, fancy, or an idea provides the only reason to turn.
I ended up running north along the Hudson River and east on Gansevoort Street past the new Whitney Museum. Then I zig-zagged through the West Village before reentering the city’s grid at what was originally the Maritime Union’s gleaming ultra-modern 1960s building on 6th Avenue. Several incarnations later, the building has become a stand-alone emergency room—the only medical facility around since Saint Vincent’s Hospital closed a few years ago.
Last week, a white tent appeared just south of the medical facility (aka “hospital”). I noticed the trailer around the same time that I saw the tent camp hospital in Central Park. The tent was directly behind a parked tractor-trailer, and I wondered what it could be; about seven feet wide and thirty feet long, it seemed too narrow for most uses.
Today, approaching from the west on foot and in daylight, I instantly saw the tent as part of the temporary morgue. The tent is attached to the back of a tractor-trailer that has been lightly whitewashed to serve as refrigerated storage for the dead. I felt awkward to have zoomed by it so many times on my bike without even lowering my head—if not to honor, then at least to acknowledge those souls.
Later, I learned that each trailer holds about 110 bodies. The dead are stacked on shelves. Body bags are in short supply, so even torn ones are reused. The inside of the trailer likely presents a grim picture, though that grimness must be tempered by the compassion of those charged with handling the bodies. Some corpses are certainly very heavy and hard to handle. Each body remains shelved until a funeral home collects it. The small tent was erected over what must be a long ramp up to the cold storage zone. It hides the view, the details.