Saturday, April 11th, 2020
It was cold and overcast when I walked out the front door toward my bike yesterday afternoon. One barely needs to look both ways before crossing these days, but it’s a good habit to keep. No cars were coming and there were fewer parked cars than last week.
Stepping off the curb, I noticed a cigarette butt. Hardly a noteworthy sight, even if increasingly rare — almost no one smokes in New York anymore. That change in our society, the diminishment of smoking, is not so different from what has come over us now. But these recent changes happened in days, while changes to people’s smoking habits occurred over decades – five of them. The fully flattened butt had an almost elegant oblique angle between the white paper and the orange-yellow filter.
The butt reminded me of a significant collection of butts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seemingly generations of them spread out over the upper surface of possibly the largest piece in the museum’s vast holdings, the early 16th Century “Spanish Ceiling.” It was like a planting field for cigarette butts as though they were squash seeds in the spring or a 1970s minimal art installation. Each one had landed on very old, very dry raw wood, but by luck or care (in carefully extinguishing each one before they were tossed), they had caused no harm and were cleaned up by the Objects Conservation Department before we lowered the large heavy pieces of the mudéjar style Moorish ceiling to the ground. Years later we lifted them back up, but not as high as before, the space above had become too valuable to reproduce the original installation.
An entire world above the skylit galleries of the MET and other early 20th Century museums is invisible to the public. At the south end of the building there was a seemingly endless network of suspended steel catwalks over the galleries, below acres of McKim Mead and White skylights – a magical place which survived several years into this century. By anyone’s measure a cool place to be and certainly a perfect place to get away and have a peaceful smoke.
Back downtown in April 2020, seconds after I stepped over the butt, a man with laser focus appeared and picked it up with clear intention to smoke it. No disinfecting wipe needed. He had a lighter, and somehow got at least three or four drags from the less than half-an-inch-long discard.
I have been wondering about the word “hero” recently. After 9/11, it was ubiquitous, really too much, overused like the ever-present American flags of those days. Now we have people with baggy uniforms, no epaulets, creases, buttons or badges, some of them who have traveled significant distances to get to this city to risk their lives one long shift after another. As we struggle with the often relatively minor difficulties of our own lives under quarantine, these people step directly into the line of fire, risking and giving their own lives to care for others who need help. So far they are just called healthcare workers, sometimes doctors, not heroes.