Still from 'The Simpsons'. Ralph Wiggum sits alone on a bus, with his usual cheerfully vacant expression. A subtitle reads, '(Chuckles) I'm in danger.'I’m working on a long Fogknife post about Webmention, a technology of deep personal interest, and one in serious want of introductory documentation. I had planned to turn my attention to neglected interests like these during the spring and summer, before the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world — and, at the moment I write this, has sunk its terrible soft teeth into New York City deeper than any place else in America. My last article acknowledged the global condition as context, but it feels strange to hard-bounce from there into a long explainer about excitingly obscure website-communication protocols.

I still plan to finish and share that article soon — but in the interest of softening the transition into it, let me describe my life here in New York right now: my view out the window, so to speak, as I work on projects like this. (And if you want to read about Webmention in the meantime, Chris Aldrich coincidentally posted a link-rich thread on the topic this past week.)

I’m okay

First of all, I’m okay. We’re okay, my little family, my wife Amy and our cats and I, in our two-bedroom apartment in a big upper-Manhattan apartment tower. For the time being, I often forget that I live in a city so profoundly battered by the coronavirus, and with the worst still to come, that the whole world’s eyes have turned to New York with a sense of guttering hope against mounting dread. Over the past week, old acquaintances and elderly relatives I haven’t spoken to in years have texted and phoned me to check in and ask about our health and safety, and I every time I need to remind myself: Oh, right. I’m in danger.

So on that note, I must acknowledge how my family faces this challenge on Easy Mode: we are two healthy mid-life adults (and two healthy mid-life cats) with no dependents, strong social and financial resources, and livelihoods that we can carry on from a home office. (I normally work this way; Amy has had to adapt.) We absolutely feel the pressure of this bottle ordeal even so, and my heart bruises with empathy when I imagine the deeper challenges faced by those without such a multiply-layered and unstrained support setup. For example: anyone with young children, a group that includes many of my closest friends. When I think of the countless people who lost their jobs to the disease and can’t seek new ones, or who are forced to stay inside with dysfunctional families, my soul shrinks.

In the prelude to the lockdown, when New York still looked and felt like its usual self but perhaps with the volume tuned down a couple of notches, I posted a tweet (an amplification of an observation by Los Angeles Times correspondent Matt Pierce) that earned a certain degree of traction among people seeking a comforting message:

Two weeks later, this remains true at core, but the voluntary community spirit I described has become muted in the ensuing day-by-day increase of municipally ordered social distancing and self-isolation. I do not fault the local authorities for applying more pressure every day: the situation is plainly grim. But already the thesis of my bright-side post from only one week ago, assuring my readership as well as myself that walks remain free and legal, seems tenuous. I hear of mass-quarantine conditions elsewhere in the world, and I wonder if they will arrive in my country. If they do, I have every reason to expect they’ll visit New York first.

Gray pins

But, yes, I’m still walking, and I want to tell you about a walk I took on Friday morning in particular.

I woke up on Friday determined to go out for my morning coffee. I had not gone to the local hole-in-the-wall Dunkin Donuts in several days; my last visit had shaken me. The staff, which normally has my online order waiting for me well before I arrive, had their hands full trying to disperse the career day-drinkers quietly clumped up as usual in the small shop’s corners. They did eventually shuffle out, looking hurt and betrayed, and then I was handed my coffee. I returned home feeling quite disturbed. For the first time, I saw what looked like cracks in my daily routine, even allowing for all those voluntary changes I’d tweeted about.

But by Friday enough time had passed that my desire for familiar comfort overrode my misgivings, so I fired up the Dunkin app on my phone. It showed me an adjusted version of the usual tiny map where you pick a store: the pin representing my usual Dunkin’s had faded from its normal Day-Glo orange to a dull gray. So had many other pins on the map, with only a few orange holdouts here and there. Tapping a gray pin suggested that the store was closed, at least to online orders.

The round, cheerful graphics delivering this information brought to mind the board game Pandemic Legacy, where one uses colorful stickers to track the destructive spread of a disease across a world map, noting which cities are infected, and which have collapsed into anarchy from the plague. I did not enjoy seeing any of this. At the same time, I saw an orange pin a twenty-minute walk up Broadway, more or less along one of my usual Riverside strolling routes. I asked it for a large coffee instead and then got moving, accepting my earlier-than-usual daily walk.

After picking up the coffee without incident from a shop empty of other customers, I looked around the unfamiliar intersection. This, too, felt like something from a game, this time an immersive 3D simulation which has removed all the people but left behind interesting “environmental storytelling” artifacts to suggest where they went. Some cafes and bars had chalk signs or tacked-up flyers insisting that they were open for take-out, but midmorning I saw no sign of life in any. I turned back to the park and home.

As I approached a dog run, I saw a man having a public temper tantrum. You can’t tell me where my dog can shit! he shouted to another park visitor, who held their hands up in an appeal for calm, backing up a step every time the man advanced, careful to stay six feet away. Other dog-walkers also tried to calm him down, also keeping their distance. By the time I passed he had already vented most of his steam. I don’t need this, he said, to nobody in particular. The dogs at everyones’ feet scampered and played together.

Then I sat on a line of empty benches and sipped my coffee and ate my cold egg sandwich while a city worker silently emptied out a public trash bin, putting a fresh lining in. I thought about the man at the dog park, and how I had blown up at my oldest brother two months ago in the middle of downtown Bangor. Our nerves were both frayed from our brother Pete’s death just days before, and some small slight made me explode at him. It must have looked just like that other guy.

Getting up to leave, I crumpled up my wrapper and put it in my pocket to dispose of at home. I found that I didn’t want to open the bin with my bare hands.

Still walking

My neighborhood along the Hudson seems to be keeping it together, and so does my apartment building. I have hundreds of neighbors in this complex, and I like to think we look out for each other, staying aware and careful. If anything, we have become a little nicer to each other lately, exchanging small greetings and health-wishes as we share elevators or pass in hallways not designed for social distancing, hugging opposite walls.

And so far, I find it pretty easy to forget how I live in a dangerous place during a dangerous time. I’m okay and I probably will remain okay. But I can’t predict even broadly what will happen over the coming weeks. More cracks appear, small and large. My New York Times delivery simply didn’t show up today. If it had, I might have read about the New York subway train that burned, perhaps due to arson, killing its operator and injuring seventeen others. A horror that would have attracted national attention in normal times, but which today didn’t even merit the front page of the local paper’s online edition.

Learning this news yesterday calcified some of this miasmic dread into active fear, at last. I canceled a non-emergency doctor’s appointment that I normally would have ridden the subway to attend; it can wait a few months. None of us need any of this, and we all know it. I don’t know what I can do about it other than paying attention, and doing my best to be a good neighbor, and looking to the future.

And so I want to publish a long article about web technology next, or at least soon, because that’s me applying some control to a chaotic future: I can write that article and share it, and that therefore becomes a preciously rare event I can predict. The article itself looks ahead to a time when more people might have the free time and resources to think about growing the open web, and that helps me too.

During this strange time, I encourage you to consider the ways you can define your own future, however it best suits you and yours, and to move in that direction as best you can.

This article was also posted to the “coronavirus” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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