The Downward Spiral: Manhattan
DEAN KISSICK writes from New York and the heart of the global pandemic. Nothing Dean or any of his friends say is medical advice.
Today I go to Ikea in Red Hook, as I’ll be spending a lot more time in my apartment, and see a Billie Eilish kind of girl in torn jeans and yellow hat sitting cross-legged on an empty shelf in the lighting department, looking glumly at the floor.
I go to my reading group in Tompkins Square Park but bring a disguise (a hat) in case somebody tries to photograph and shame us. I don’t really want to go but I’ve made the decision to honour my prior commitments. Today we’ll be discussing Sweet Days of Discipline, loudly, sat a long way apart on the lawn.
In the evening I wonder if I should fly home. I worry that my parents are going to die and I’m never going to see them again and won’t be allowed to attend their funerals, that I should rush home before the borders close. But if I go home I might inadvertently kill them. Maybe I’ll die myself? Much to think about. I live on a separate continent from my mother, who lives on a separate continent from her mother, who has just gone into a care home in Yokohama, Japan.
Raku, the udon place opposite my window, which usually has people waiting outside, is closing down. The chef crouches outside in a face mask beside a mountain of ingredients. Izakaya, the Japanese restaurant further down the street, is turning into a takeout place. Some of Manhattan’s high-end, exclusive restaurants are turning into takeouts as well.
I go for a run around East River Park and there are so many fit, hot, prosperous young people working out there, more than I’ve ever seen before, jogging by the river, doing pullups on the outdoor bars and yoga on the playing field, it looks like the central panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights.
Mom texts me, “Do you know about The Crocodile Who Dies in 100 Days? 百日後に死ぬワニ?” No I don’t. “It was four-frame cartoons, started last year, one every day on Twitter. He died ......”
He was, apparently, a humble crocodile who worked an office job, and liked to go for noodles with his friends, and today was the hundredth day of his story and he died. The cause of his death is unknown, but the closing frame is filled with pink flowers from the cherry-blossom wave which sweeps up through Japan’s islands every spring.
In Washington Square Park today, the white and pink blossoms are so beautiful I could burst into flames.
A box of powder-blue nitrite gloves arrive in the mail. Now that I have them I join Citi Bike and ride my shared bicycle Uptown, and run 10 kilometres around Central Park in less than 40 minutes, which is something I’ve been trying to do for more than three years. Having a heightened state of anxiety makes you run much faster. Riding my bike back down 5th Avenue, drifting from lane to empty lane feels like a video game. A friend walks down the middle of Varick Street and doesn’t see a single car on the road. “The city has become somewhere quite different,” he says, “a place it won’t be again.”
Various acquaintances have said to me, about the art world, during this crisis, that they hope the whole thing just burns down, that the many rotten parts of its edifice collapse so that something better might take their place.
At home I watch a fantastic new video from Meriem Bennani and it makes my heart swell. It’s online art but about the real world, and filled with joie de vivre, and the desire to go outside and feel some raw emotion and experience some beauty.
Various acquaintances have said to me, about the art world, during this crisis, that they hope the whole thing just burns down, that the many rotten parts of its edifice collapse so that something better might take their place. They hope for a “rewilding and reweirding” of art. Perhaps this lockdown could be a sort of golden age of isolation for some of the weirdos. Many of the people I’m closest to, if we’re honest about it, are enjoying this uncanny moment, and the feeling that change might be possible. “I’m weirdly thriving,” says one. “My appetite for chaos finally fulfilled.”
I go to the Union Square farmers’ market and buy sweet garlic kimchi and apples while listening to this Urbanomic plaguecast in which a gang of accelerationists from around the world speak about their experiences of the crisis for three hours, which is very good. After a prolonged argument about the nature of the “tragic”, the Nietzschean question of how to become worthy of the event of coronavirus, and so forth, Reza Negarestani concludes, “At this point we should really just ... take care of one another.” Later he pipes up, “As I said, ‘Keep the spirits high’.” Negarestani really is very amusing, and uplifting, and one of the great comic creations of contemporary theory.
No sign of a rent strike in my building, but today I meet up with my old landlord, who still owes me my deposit from 17 months ago, and collect some Chinatown Xanax as partial payment. Having avoided me for so long, I’m not sure why he suddenly wants to meet up now, but life is a mystery. We go for a walk around Tompkins Square Park and afterwards I buy four bottles of wine. It’s Thursday. For the rest of the weekend I drink red wine and pop Xanax every night and for the most part feel pretty relaxed.
Today I fantasize about how to crawl to the nearest hospital.
I help Mom install Skype on her laptop. She’s working from home and wants to connect with a coworker who’s also a Tai Chi teacher, and usually gives classes during their lunchbreak, and will now do so online.
At noon I speak to some good friends in Europe. I tell one that when this great storm is over, maybe I won’t be able to stay here in New York, maybe there won’t be any work for me, and I’ll have to move back into Mom’s house and reassess what the hell I’m doing with my life, and he says, “Again.” He’s living in an abandoned gallery and tells us how he has cold showers from a hosepipe while standing in his weed-growing tray. Our other friend recommends a blackmarket Russian pharmacy where I can buy some illicit medicines. I’m blessed with great friends.
Afterwards I go for a walk and pass a fantastic display of drawings by the kids from Beginnings Nursery School by Stuyvesant Square Park. Alongside colourful abstractions and encouragements not to worry, there’s a row of headless children pinned up on a clothesline with a wall text explaining, “We made paper people of ourselves so we can remember each other as little kids and we can be together no matter what. Peace!”
Above Swiss Institute, Mathis Altmann’s psychedelic light show shines over Saint Marks Place from a repurposed LED pharmacy cross, and I stand there watching it for a while. I stay out too late filming things and get caught in the rain. From this day onwards I don't go outside. A massive hospital ship has sailed into the bay, and the Empire State Building’s lights have been reprogrammed as a nightmarish siren.
A couple years ago my friend sectioned herself in Mount Sinai Uptown. She was locked up with her head shaved and had given away all her possessions except a couple books by Antonin Artaud and Georges Bataille. I asked if she needed anything and she said yes, a copy of Spike, which I brought, but really I meant if she needed anything of more consequence? She asked for a can of Diet Coke and I brought that too, but had to pour it into a cup when I went onto the ward in case she tore the can apart and cut her wrists with it. The staff were trying to get me to take custody of her because she was from abroad and didn’t have insurance. After visiting hours were over I walked back down through Central Park and thanked God I had my sanity and felt so fucking lucky. Now a 68-bed field hospital has opened in the park to treat overflow coronavirus patients from Mount Sinai.
In February many people I listen to were saying how much they hated Boomers, and how they wanted to guillotine certain of them in Central Park. Now an evangelical fundamentalist group has built a tent in the park for the old to die in, but nobody’s happy.
I’ve never completely understood why my generation blames our parents, the Boomers, for everything. From my own very limited experience, I know my parents did so much for me and are far less selfish than I am. And sometimes I wonder what it might have been like for my parents and their friends, and where the differences might have lain between them doing what they thought would be best for their children, and what we wanted, and the systems, the overarching, global systems outside of their control tearing down reality around them as they worked, and cared, and dreamt and presumably worried also about how they might solve their own problems, and what they might do about their own feelings and desires, and I wonder if it was really my parents’ generation that spoiled the world, and whether their intentions were good.
Mom writes to say her university work account has been hacked so she can’t receive emails or anything.
Living in Manhattan NOW feels, at times, like living in a citadel that’s under siege.
Around this time I’m spiralling. I try to hide from the news and social media, but every day somebody I love will send me an alarming story about New York saying something like, “Those poor people that have to be put in a cold trailer, and died not being able to see family and vice versa.” Living in Manhattan now feels, at times, like living in a citadel that’s under siege.
After midnight I finish reading the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and feel a tingling joy. Then I go online and pay in Bitcoin for two boxes of the controversial anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin from a blackmarket Russian pharmacy in Yekaterinburg, which I look up, and it has a gorgeous orthodox church with gleaming golden domes, which reminds me of the Ukrainian Orthodox churches right here in the East Village. The newspapers I read are saying not to take these drugs, but I’ll take my chances if I have to.
I also buy some really strong doses of vitamin C and zinc and some cheap facemasks from elsewhere.
Mom’s work account is restored by IT support.
My Japanese Grandma has been hospitalized with pneumonia, although not with coronavirus apparently. This was on Tuesday but Mom’s emails were down so we only just found out today, Friday. There’s no way for us to talk to her yet.
A few years ago I travelled to Yokohama for my Grandpa’s 100-Day Ceremony (my Grandpa is buried in a sort of robotic graveyard. Shortly before this remembrance ceremony, my Grandma started talking to me, and so, after all this lost time, I had a solitary, unexpected chance to connect with her, and to my family’s heritage and tradition, but allowed it to slip past me because we don’t speak a common language.
“It’s too bad that we can’t talk to one another”, she said in Japanese afterward, once my Mom had returned from the washroom and could translate the words Grandma was whispering in her crumbling, Madeira cake voice: something about how in Europe, strangers were always walking over your grave – she was thinking, probably, of those tombstones laid into the floors of European cathedrals, in Florence, and Paris, and calmly worn away over hundreds of years until the statues’ faces went completely blank and their names vanished – and how she wouldn’t like that very much, no, not very much at all.
In the evening there are bursts of fireworks over the East Village, which are lovely.
Lately I’ve been watching a seven-hour Norwegian train journey from Bergen to Oslo while listening to ambient music. When the train enters a tunnel the screen goes black and I watch for the track at the end of the sofa, and listen to the shimmer, and when the light finally appears in the darkness feel a sense of ascending.
Friends have been going on Tinder dates where they just stroll around at a distance, and they say it’s very romantic and slow, a more courtly form of love, like in a 19th-century English society novel.
A recent acquaintance, a dashing cultural critic from London, whom I bump into at a Zoom birthday party, tells the room that he’s been offering himself for blowjobs on Grindr. Apparently it’s safe to give or receive blowjobs, he says, but not to kiss, have anal sex or eat ass. But most of the men on the app are just telling everybody to stay home.
“Have you noticed,” a friend texts from nearby, from Chinatown, “that most of the girls on Tinder are more than 2,000 miles away?” They’re using the teleport function, he suggests, to cruise New York's small, cramped apartments Downtown.
Maybe now that the city is the heart of a global pandemic, New Yorkers have become the forbidden fruit romantics crave? And maybe this commingling of sex and death is part of the erotic appeal, as it returns some danger and some stakes to this age of casual hookups, no protection and polyamory? There’s nowhere to spend the Accursed Share now. But someday these lockdowns will be relaxed and the dating apps will absolutely explode, in Bataillean plumes of chaotic unbridled desire, and we won’t have experienced anything like it before, and perhaps we really will have our Paris-in-the-Twenties moment of decadence.
It’s springtime and there are house sparrows everywhere. They sing outside my window every morning and afternoon, a soft rolling warbling on the fire escapes. You don’t hear much now except the birds, and sometimes the howl of sirens; and when I think back on this moment in time, I’ll forever associate these days with the sparrows.
When I lean out of my window it’s warm and it’s sunny. New York feels somewhere between heaven and hell. The morgues are almost full so they’re going to start burying the dead in the parks. Japan is in emergency mode so we can’t get Grandma on the phone. The nurse thinks she’ll be okay. I don’t think this crisis is going to relent on Easter Sunday, as was once hoped, however I’m planning on treating myself to a slice of pie then, and I think it will be a good time to reflect on thoughts of resurrection and what we’ll do with our lives if we make it through.
For so much of my life I have just been waiting around for something to happen, and maybe this crisis is it, the grand historical event we’ve been waiting for, the cracked mirror that will reveal to us how empty so many of our lives have grown, how completely swept up we are by meaningless trivia.
I nearly died once and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I spent four nights in the hospital and when I came out I cooked a chili for my roommates to thank them for saving my life, and for everything, and also because I’d just developed this profound urge to cook a chili from scratch. A strange desire that: I’d never cooked a chili before, and haven’t since, but for those couple days returning to life it was all I could think of.
For so much of my life I have just been waiting around for something to happen, and maybe this crisis is it, the grand historical event we’ve been waiting for, the cracked mirror that will reveal to us how empty so many of our lives have grown, how completely swept up we are by meaningless trivia. You know we’ve been wasting our lives, making fun of strangers online, gloating at others’ misfortunes, partaking in public shamings, lost in our phones, divided, hypnotized by a neverending news cycle, going along with shows of tired old, black-hole vacant art – none of these things have any value or meaning. None of these things matter. And we’re lucky for, if nothing else, a chance to begin again.
I long for the world outside, the sinking world that’s drowning under its own representations, and for a chance to return to the real, and the wonder of the city, and the beauty of nature, and people you can reach out and touch. The lives we were promised feel so distant now. And when this is over, I hope we can throw more caution to the wind, and be more adventurous (or whatever else one finds important), and find different ways of living, and go out and take a hold of the world in all its glory before it’s too late. I want to feel more of life. Tomorrow I’ll go to the grocery store, which reminds me of a line from Ella Plevin, who used to have a column here alongside me, who used to write tweets, and once described how, “Sometimes your heart just splits open in a Dutch supermarket and you’re crying with gratitude for every breath you’ll ever take.”
DEAN KISSICK is Spike’s New York Editor. The Downward Spiral is published online every second Wednesday a month. Last time he wrote about "Countryside, The Future" at the Guggenheim, NY.