Springtime in New York

Passing each other on the sidewalk, we hold our breaths like children in a graveyard. The numbers have shifted from the coherent to the numbing. Over 200,000 infections in America tonight, nearly five thousand dead. People close to me are falling ill.

The playgrounds have closed. More and more it’s hitting home: I grew up during a uniquely lucky and stable time. Waiting in line at the supermarket checkout, I watch a woman spin around and shriek at the man standing four or five feet behind her. “Six feet apart. What don’t you understand about that? Six. Feet. Apart.” Her voice is like a wild creature behind her surgical mask, a boxed-in hysteria more unsettling than any exponential curve.

Our president gave a press conference with a man who runs a pillow company. He encouraged us to use these solitary days to read our Bibles. Our president was chosen by God, the pillow man said. And there’s an Old Testament logic to this idea: a plague visited upon a nation that chose a cruel game show host as its leader.

Meanwhile spring continues to bloom like a taunt, conjuring visions of crowded cafés, street corners, and parks. This pandemic season reminds me of the logic of grief: the constant loop of forgetting followed by painfully remembering that everything has changed.

Daniel Avery & Alessandro Cortini – Illusion of Time

From Illusion of Time | Phantasy, 2020 | Bandcamp

My favorite record of the year so far, a grainy blend of the haunted and hopeful that captures the current mood.

This is the last day of the longest month many of us have ever known. I stood in a Soviet line outside a Walgreens, waiting for somebody to exit so I could enter. I paid for my cans of food by pecking a Q-tip on a touchscreen. Mayonnaise is sold out everywhere for self-care reasons. Don’t shake out your dirty laundry, the television says. You might release a viral cloud. Tonight a nightly news anchor broadcasted from his basement because he’s infected now.

Andy Stott – We Stay Together

From We Stay Together | Modern Love, 2011 | More

A slow-motion chug for these long days.

Taking a cue from Italy, each night at seven o’clock we cheer for the nurses, doctors, grocers, and transit workers in New York City. It’s a small performance but it’s something everyone can afford to do, the non-essential cheering for the essential, a rare act of communion in these days of isolation. Hopefully this sentiment will continue long after this dark season ends and carry us into the streets to rebalance the scales and put on a more convincing show.

It’s a shared breath of life, this sudden clang and holler, the burst of animal noise from a wounded city. And there’s something unexpectedly moving about seeing my neighbors gathered at their windows at the same time, my brain finally mapping so many half-familiar faces to these buildings that I know like my name. There’s the guy I’ve always wondered about, the one across the street who leaves big chunks of bread on the fire escape for the pigeons. The one I’d thought was sad and lonely. He’s grinning and banging on a pan.

A Number of Names – Shari Vari

Capriccio Records, 1981 | Lyrics

Another landmark track in the Electrifying Mojo’s rotation. Created by a group of Detroit teenagers in 1981 to promote a party, this is the dot between Kraftwerk and techno.

First Avenue

Another blank grey day when nature is still figuring out how to get to spring. We live among scenes unthinkable. In Nevada, they’re painting spaces in parking lots for the homeless to sleep, a grid of socially distanced squares like a demented board game. While picking up the laundry for my neighbor, I passed a woman walking a tiny dog. She wore shorts and a t-shirt and her head was covered by a bank robber mask, scuba goggles, and an insectoid breathing apparatus like she was taking an exploratory walk on a hostile planet. And I guess she was.

Seems like more people are smoking these days, although maybe I just want a cigarette. They puff on stoops and exhale in doorways, their faces defiant to these days of dangerous respiration. Meanwhile, I’m reverting to the diet of a five-year-old. All I want to eat are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Two phrases collided in my head today: Hans Arp’s century-old complaint that “today’s representative of man is only a tiny button on a giant senseless machine,” followed by John Berger’s description of “a smile that comes after the tragic has been assimilated.” That smile feels a long way off.

Lexington Avenue

Each morning we check the death tally like the weather report, the mind doing everything possible to comprehend numbers that started in the tens followed by hundreds and now we’re reaching thousands. Rhode Island is hunting down New Yorkers, sending the National Guard to conduct door-to-door searches. The president spent the afternoon loudly mulling over a quarantine of New York City.

Each headline is more disorienting than the last, and these pandemic days are breeding baroque conspiracies. Some say the virus is a political hoax invented by the Democrats and Chinese. They say the director of the National Institute of Health leads of a shadowy cabal determined to overthrow the president. Each time he touches his forehead on national television, he’s communing with satanic energies. Strange how the knee-jerk anti-authoritarianism of the conspiracy theorist leads to blind faith in imaginary forces: the Illuminati, a wicked godhead.

Vatican Shadow – Voices Came Crackling Across a Motorola Hand-Held Radio

From Ghosts of Chechnya | Hospital Productions, 2012 | Bandcamp

A shifty loop from an outfit dedicated to conspiratorial tones.

A message somewhere in the night

Hunting for reassurance in this long season of isolation, infection, and grisly math. Several times each day I find myself asking, “What is the most comforting thing that I know?” Tonight I remembered the Electrifying Mojo.

I became a night owl thanks to this mysterious Detroit radio voice whose eclectic sets from the 1970s through the 1990s featured Parliament, Kraftwerk, Devo, and Cybotron—and set the stage for techno music. The Electrifying Mojo is a ghost, never photographed yet his spirit runs through nearly everything we hear today.

Each night the Electrifying Mojo opened his show with a question: “Will the members of the Midnight Funk Association please rise?” He is a man without biographical detail yet his fingerprints are everywhere. He is a concept that requires a definite article: The.

The Electrifying Mojo brought the city together while the theme from Star Wars blared behind his voice. “I want you to show some solidarity tonight,” he’d say. “If you’re in the car, flash your lights. If you’re sitting on your porch, blink your porch light. And if you’re in bed, then dance on your back. In Technicolor.”

I remember driving down Woodward while a white Cadillac in the opposite lane flashed its headlights. I did the same in my beat-to-shit Pontiac. Two strangers responding to a lone voice on the radio, drawing the city into a brotherhood of sound and light.

He was one of the first deejays to put Prince on the air. He interrupted songs with social commentary from “the mental machine.” He rocked a twenty-minute version of “Flashlight.” I stayed awake into the small hours, hunched over my cassette player and riding the pause/record button to make mixtapes culled from his show. The 120-minute Maxell cassettes were the best for this.

But here’s the point. Every night the Electrifying Mojo would sign off with the same message and I want us to hear it in our heads now, delivered in a slow baritone with a grin around the edges: “Whenever you feel like you’re nearing the end of your rope, don’t slide off. Tie a knot. Keep hanging. Keep remembering that ain’t nobody bad like you.”

Cybotron – Alleys of Your Mind

Fantasy Records, 1981 | More

One of the most formative songs that the Electrifying Mojo played. You can see the steam rising from the street grates where people blow smoke and wonder what will happen next. And it’s nearly forty years old. Read more about Mojo here and you can hear some clips of his voice here.

Midnight from my window

Each day is a copy of the last. Make coffee. Make phone calls to make sure nobody has a fever. Watch the governor’s briefing about personal protective equipment and ventilators. The numbers are scary. Refresh the news. The numbers are scarier. Spikes and hot spots. Today America became number one: more infections than China even though we have a third of the population. Our political dysfunction has degraded into negligent homicide.

People stand in the street, just staring at the sky.

A woman in Pennsylvania walked into a grocery store and intentionally coughed on the produce, meat, and bakery items. The store had to throw away $35,000 worth of food and she was referred for a psychiatric evaluation. Meanwhile, a man in Missouri filmed himself licking the merchandise at a Walmart while asking, “Who’s afraid of the coronavirus?” He was arrested and charged with making a second-degree terrorist threat.

We stand in the street because there’s no place for many of us to go. We go outside simply to go outside. The optics feel wrong, more like a simulation than reality; it’s eerie to see New Yorkers so evenly spaced apart.

A neighbor asks if I can take a letter to the post office because she can’t leave her apartment. I am profoundly nonessential in this crisis but at least I can do this. And I’m grateful for the clarity of walking from Point A to Point B.

Bremen – Vanishing Point

From Enter Silence | Blackest Ever Black, 2019 | Bandcamp
East River, New York City

A late-night walk through the city to pick up some supplies and leave them outside my elderly neighbor’s door. I knock lightly and walk away like a prankster. So much can change in a week. I hear the undoing of a lock and her voice calling behind me. “Thank you, darling. Pray for me.”

The twenty-four-hour Walgreens on the corner is closed. Like a tragic bird, I smash into its sliding doors, expecting them to slide open. New York’s babble and hum have been muted. No more honking, laughter, or drifting music. You can hear your footsteps. And sirens.

Tonight I’m gripped by a wild urge to kneel in a church even though I have no religion or semblance of otherworldly faith. I think about the padded bar that flips down to cushion your knees, if it has a liturgical name or whether some denominations consider this a form of cheating. I think about the origins of the word knee, short and stabby.

I once heard a street preacher holler that we must drop to our knees and atone because kneel comes from the Latin for to know. Or that Leonardo da Vinci believed compressing the nerves in the knee generated spiritual thoughts. I don’t think any of this is true, this garbled information that came from god knows where. But these days kneeling before a neighbor’s door—or next to my bed while mumbling a makeshift prayer—is beginning to make some kind of sense.

Mojave 3 – Prayer for the Paranoid

from Excuses for Travellers | 4AD, 2000 | Spotify
East River, New York City

A deeper hush fills the city, a sense of bracing for an unseen blow. We know things will get worse. We watch the governor’s briefing each morning and listen to him beg for ventilators. The New York Times provides infection maps that quickly turn blood red if you scroll too far into the future. Some politicians suggest letting the elderly and vulnerable die so we can keep the economy humming. America deserves a plague, but not its people.

I need to buy bread. There’s a line at the corner bodega. We stand six feet apart as instructed. The woman in front of me wears pajamas and cradles six cans of tomato soup like a child. I do my best to maintain the six-foot distance, repeating this phrase in my head until I realize I’m half-mumbling six feet under. Maybe there’s a connection between distance and depth. Fear of disease from the dead as well as the living. Graves dug deep enough that people couldn’t climb out. I used to know the reason.

“When I get the blues, I need to go outside,” I hear an old man say. “Otherwise the bad juju starts bouncing off the walls.”

Fumbling with my telephone to check the news, I accidentally press play on an old audiobook. A leathery British voice says, “He had a controversy with an Irish bishop who believed there are other worlds than ours, but was nevertheless canonized.” I spend the rest of the day returning to this sentence as needed, clinging to its mystery and meaninglessness like a koan.

Lars Blek – 2.0

From Lars Blek | 2020 | Bandcamp

These new tracks from Axel Willner of The Field have been looping all evening and they’re remarkably stabilizing.

Somewhere past midnight

This is dedicated to the nighthawks and graveyard shifters, you beautiful enemies of sleep. My schedule has drifted into the late-night hours during this season of sheltering in place. After several miserable experiments with eating yogurt and saying hello to the sunrise, I’m no longer kidding myself. Accepting that I’m nocturnal in my bones brings the same relief as walking away from a bad party.

Strange, how staying awake past midnight feels like rejecting the premise of wholesome citizenship. “Thought leaders” and self-improvers love to crow about waking up at six o’clock in the morning; nobody brags about waking up at ten. There’s a moral dimension here that must be destroyed. I’m proud that I wait until deep into the night before I go outside to look at the sky or run through empty streets. This is social distancing.

Recent sleep studies suggest that our circadian rhythms are deeply ingrained, that the “night owl gene” plays a critical role in the survival of animals that live in groups. These species fare better when some members watch over the others at night, protecting them from predators, a trait that has persisted from the ice and stone ages through these days of neon and sodium lights.

The “sentinel hypothesis” is a love poem to the long-haul truckers and security guards, the swing shift nurses and factory workers, the insomniac writers and music-makers. We are proud descendants of the honorable night watchman.

From Within – A Million Miles to Earth

Pete Namlook and Richie Hawtin | Fax, 1994

One of the most beautiful night songs I know. A good soundtrack for reading about the sentinel hypothesis.

Each new headline reads like something from a schlocky dystopian thriller. A senator who hates the government has tested positive for the virus. So has a famous opera singer. The chancellor of Germany is in self-quarantine. Fiction feels like the only workable reference point these days.

I spent the morning scrolling through images of empty highways and blank parking lots that look like a new form of land art or maybe a message to the gods.

Meanwhile in New York City, a lone fruit stand on First Avenue plays The Bee Gees at high volume. “How Deep Is Your Love” fills the empty street, echoing across the shuttered storefronts while I get a bit misty-eyed.

Graffiti in Athens, 2017

Like the stages of grief, denial leads to anger. For two months our government denied what was happening before our eyes. We watched the infections bloom across the map. We knew the virus was coming to America yet the White House did not do a thing. They shook each other’s hands at press conferences and encouraged us to do the same. Keep shopping, they said. Keep traveling and gathering for meetings, concerts, and political rallies. At least two senators dumped their stocks just before the pandemic began.

Now we stay home and watch the death toll climb while doctors beg for medical supplies. We listen to health experts on television deliver bizarre advice like, “Always do your best to wipe everything down.” We watch wealthy senators squabble over cash injections to corporations even though it’s clear who is truly essential to society: the doctors and nurses, the truck drivers and grocers, the cooks and delivery workers.

Once this is over and we’re allowed to gather outside again, I hope we take to the streets for all kinds of reasons.

The Field – No. No…

From Cupid’s Head | Kompakt, 2013 | Bandcamp

An off-kilter slab of elegant aggression.

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