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My Facebook feed is mocking me.

Every morning, when I wake the iPad up, it shows me memories--posts from a year, two years, six years ago.

This past week, most of these are photos from New York City taken during the Tribeca Film Festival. Mostly the ones that appear on my feed are ones I've taken of my wife Karen, some surreptitiously (she does not enjoy being photographed).

Here's one of Karen at the rooftop bar of the building where the film festival offices are located. Here's a picture of her at a party for documentary filmmakers in a downtown nightclub where she's being interviewed by Italian television. (She says she doesn't remember that, so I'm glad to have photographic evidence.) Here's a nice shot of her in the Battery, with the Statue of Liberty way off in the distance.

From two years ago, here's my iPhone video of Bruce Springsteen showing up as a surprise guest at Patti Smith's show at the Beacon Theater to sing "Because the Night."

We are not at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, or at least we're not in New York. We're still getting emailed invitations from filmmakers to watch their films, which were accepted into the festival but now aren't screening anywhere but online. And the festival has arranged a portal through which we might access their movies.

So we are experiencing the festival in a virtual way, the watered-down way which we will experience a lot of things in the weeks and months to come, even after we gradually begin to re-populate our streets and public places.

Things could and will change. There was a brief moment in March, after the festival was suspended, when we thought that maybe we'd go to New York anyway. Maybe, we thought back then, everything would be getting back to normal and we could still get of dose of Manhattan.

That was naive. A friend who lives in New York reports he hasn't been outside his apartment in two months. Another Brooklyn-dwelling friend had to run into his Manhattan office to retrieve some papers, and posted photos of immaculate, eerily empty downtown streets.

Some of the reports I've read about the city make New York seem like a charnel house, with the bodies of coronavirus victims being stored in refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals. I wonder about the future of high-density cities like New York and Chicago, and not only because of their potential as viral incubators. The U.S. economy has changed, and city rents are too expensive for middle-income folks.

Before the coronovirus struck, I remember hearing a National Public Radio story about how a 30-something accountant who made $80,000 a year working for a financial services company in midtown Manhattan was getting along in the America we've designed.

The answer was not too well; every day he handled the affairs of Very-High-Net-Worth-Individuals (people who own more than $5 million in liquid assets, who don't have to worry about rent), advising them on how to minimize their tax exposure and pursue their passion investments (yachts, planes, real estate, art and other objects that don't present as logical to a bean-counter's inner Vulcan).

At night he went back to a grungy 400-square-foot apartment near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. He was thinking in a few years he might be able to find a house in Queens or maybe someplace further out if he didn't buy too many cups of coffee in a week.

I love New York, but never quite understood how adults who haven't won some species of lottery could live there before the current unpleasantness. My last chance to move there came in my 30s, when I was approached about taking a job that sounded glamorous but wasn't. It would have been an emotionally expensive adventure; I had no trouble turning it down because I'd already learned that, if you can afford to, you don't take jobs just for the money.

Since then, we've spent more than a year in the city, two and three days at a time. I can't believe I won't ever go back there, but I must admit it's a possibility.

The cruelty of the place is part of the romance--when you're in your 20s and 30s you can imagine yourself a kind of underground hero, scuffling along lean and hungry, tracking your dream. And sometimes it works out that way.

I have a friend who moved to the city for an entry-level job in publishing; the first time I visited him in the early '90s he was living in a boxcar-shaped apartment in Alphabet City shared with his brother. You might have been able to squeeze a queen-sized mattress into the place, but it would have touched both walls.

A few years later, he had started up and sold a couple of websites and was having business discussions with Mick Jagger over lunch.

About a dozen Aprils ago when we bumped into him on the streets of SoHo, he mused that even though his successes had landed him comfortably in VHNWI territory, with a loft in Tribeca and a house in Connecticut, every day he walked past restaurants he couldn't afford.

New York has always been a city of steep hierarchies and great falls; recall King Kong and those Black Thursday stockbrokers leaping to their deaths. (Both legends are fictional, but instructive.) New York is the epitome of a certain kind of America, an unforgiving Darwinian ecosystem that presents to some of us as a challenge. After all, if you can make it there ...

Some of us have always perceived the advantages of living in a small city with a good airport. But part of that quality of life was knowing we could go to New York every April, and then again in November or December.

I don't know how this will play out. It's been suggested that, after we survive this, those of us who live in less crowded and kinder places might realize some benefits. Companies might see advantages in locating in places like Little Rock and Springdale. That's a little macabre--like observing that when people die, their wealth is absorbed by the living--but it could very well be true.

While we might have the tools to track these viruses, the technology to map its genome and the wherewithal to stop it, we also have disbelievers, a lack of political will, and a frightening reluctance to discomfit our comfortable classes. It's cheaper to endure a herd-thinning epidemic every few years.


Editorial on 04/26/2020


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