Writing to the younger Brian about what it’s like to be city cyclist and photographer/artist in New York compared to 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Early one morning about 10 or 12 years ago in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, I rose with the calm of an early autumn morning and rode my bike slowly down Broadway toward City Hall. From there I made my way to the Brooklyn Bridge en route to my room above a hardware store in Crown Heights — it had a window overlooking a yard through blue curtains, guarded by Angry Squirrel, who lived on the fire escape. While a decade of haze has obscured additional contextual details, I recall clearly the freedom and joy I felt that morning. This wasn’t an isolated case then, no, it was a good day in a long series of good days.
You may be wondering why I was in Morningside on a bright, calm (weekend?) morning. A week or two before this morning I met a Swiss girl named Anne Buser, who was a Swiss university student living in New York a student visa. We met in Union Square one evening in late summer amid a cacophonous sea of musicians, performers, photographers and everyone else — this is when I met Dave Raphael also, but that’s a totally different story. Anne was a graphic designer working as a paid intern at Infinia, an advertising agency. I know, right? A Swiss graphic designer and American photographer who met in New York. It was perfect.
She was staying in a rooming house of some kind, while looking for a more permanent place, and I had spent the night with her. I’m not sure why, exactly, I had leave early in the morning, but it wasn’t something like sneaking out a bathroom window while Anne made a distraction.
At the time I was still under contract with McCann-Erickson for work for the Nikon ad campaign and had some residual income from CoStar Group from my earlier freelance contract. My day job as a bike messenger didn’t pay much, but I was able to scratch out a basic living, sort of, and still had my optimism. Anne soon moved to Astoria, Queens, and our lives began to entangle in the best of ways. I would meet her in Union Square at the end of the day or in Washington Square or other places. We went on bike rides all over Manhattan and Brooklyn, exploring Fort Tilden, Central Park, Prospect Park. We took day trips to Connecticut and made future plans.
Today was a pleasant day, weather wise. I ventured outside, carefully, to get some snacks. The store on the building’s ground floor started price-gouging toilet paper for some damned reason, so I went a little farther to the Plaid Pantry a couple of blocks away, near Lovejoy Fountain Park here in Portland. To leave the house I don a face mask of some sort — the ones I bought from Blaq Bags fit too small, but the ones coming from Walz the bike hat company should be better, and Lacey, someone I know from Burning Man, is making me some masks out of retired blue oxford shirts. Yes, that’s still thing with me. Leaving the apartment, I don a mask and some gloves, opting for full finger, non-padded mountain bike gloves. I generally take the stairs instead of the elevator, unless I have a bike with me, which now has the added benefit of avoiding people.
I went to a nearby store to get some snacks. I made sure to wear the cloves and off-brand Buff I need to go outside. A face mask would be better but they’re in short supply, although it’s not like I can actually go anywhere in Portland, or anywhere else in Oregon or most of the world, for that matter.
That freedom I felt in those good days in New York, that early morning bike rode down Broadway, the rides to Fort Tilden, all that time in Union Square in the crowds of people, the daily interactions at Psyop, Weiden + Kennedy (side note: they’re now based in Portland), Tommy Boy and other places when I was a bike messenger; none of that is possible now. Maybe the bike rides, but not the accompanying social interaction. We have to be vigilant to keep contagion to a minimum, especially since a cure, or even a treatment or testing, is a pipe dream.
We’re in the midst of a Covid-19 pandemic, caused by a coronavirus similar to influenza or what causes cold symptoms. It’s similar but dissimilar enough that known treatments for other viral infections don’t work, medical professionals and researchers are still figuring out exactly how it spreads, who is affected and how to treat it. The president — using that term loosely — is pushing for an ineffective and potentially dangerous drug, against the wisdom of the entire medical community, in which he has a financial stake. Medical researchers have theories about causes and treatments of the illness the virus causes and are pretty certain about viral transmission and like influenza, the disease is much worse for older people and those with underlying conditions. However, a few healthy younger people and several front-line workers have succumbed to the disease, the lethality of which is partially determined by dosage.
Officials from the state of Oregon and city of Portland have issued guidance and orders for people to limit movement, stay inside and avoid social contact — some municipalities call it sheltering-in-place. For the most part these orders close parks, schools and nonessential businesses while imposing other restrictions. We can go outside for essential errands like doctor visits and groceries, but social engagements are verboten. For the most part it is acceptable to be out for exercise and fresh air, just nothing social, nothing that doesn’t maintain at least 6 feet between people.
So why am I using all the effort to reminisce about what is your current state? Because it’s not accurate, my recollection is distorted through the lens of history, both intentionally and unintentionally. I mean, I have the luxury of the 20/20 clarity — no pun intended — afforded me through the razor-sharp lens of hindsight, compared to present-tense blindness.
During the process of writing this we face greater restrictions on movement, guidance from the CDC to wear cloth masks in addition to keeping at least 6 feet apart from each other, if we must interact at all. We have no federal oversight, no leadership, which makes the disastrous effect of the government’s delays, denial and bullshit all the more difficult. On that note, I don’t have it in me to tell you who the president is and the scope of his failures and how blatant Russian interference in elections and foreign policy made that happen. If it’s anything, the current president lost the popular vote by several million, was impeached (sketchy senate GOP let him off), is facing state and federal investigations and is the laughingstock of the entire world. He’s nearing the end of his first term and has had so many scandals, so much of his cabinet sent to prison, so many people resigned in disgrace; he fired many good people and gutted important agencies, the effect of which reverberates in the avoidable pain of this pandemic.
My point here is not to pepper you with the darkest scenario of doom, but to remind you to not take the good things for granted, to cherish them. As you’re learning, it’s those moments when everything is awash in the unburdened bliss of joy, when Anne is laughing and you’re enjoying each other (and maybe working out the graphic story The Donkey and the Dragonfly) or maybe when the weather is perfect or when you find a good ground score (did you find the $40 yet?) that you need to deeply feel the joy. Ignore that you know the fun won’t last forever, just let it be. I know it’s not really necessary to remind you, but I’m doing it anyway.
You had some tough times the first 30 years of your life, but it got better for a while in NYC, then picked up again in Portland, OR a few years later. You’ll finally get to Burning Man (thank Dave Raphael in Union Square for planting that seed) where you’ll embed yourself in the communication department and other places in the organization. You’ll return to university and graduate (so close to honors, so close — no, really, the professors will like you and your ideas), you’ll get married, but not to Anne. Let’s not talk about her anymore — she’s OK, just OK in Zurich, and a big reason why you left NYC, against the advice of Irene, who ends up living a few blocks away. She was right in her assessment that I would regret leaving NYC, but that’s in my past.
Those struggles will help you cope with the social isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic that grips us now. All of those times when you felt isolated, alone and worthless will help you cope. This pandemic will pass and leave a different world in its wake, but we all will emerge stronger. Hopefully. Different, certainly, but hopefully better.