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OPINION | ALEX KINGSBURY: Finally, days a bit brighter

by Alex Kingsbury New York Times News Service | March 21, 2021 at 10:14 a.m.

It's spring, when a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of life without a killer virus.

I caught a glimpse of that life last week. A glint, really. Along the edge of Central Park, as the temperature stretched mightily toward 70, the sunlight reflected off a twirling bit of stainless steel flying through the air.

Down on the lawn, a man in workout clothes was juggling cocktail shakers.

Up. Down. Balanced on an elbow. Dropped on the grass. Tossed skyward again, like an outtake from "Cocktail," if Tom Cruise wore an N95 mask and everyone had to stand 6 feet apart.

This spring, a return to normal life is envisionable. It hangs in the air like a tossed shaker. With every jab of the needle and push of the plunger, it becomes a little more real.

This week, 80% of adults in New York state are eligible to be vaccinated. There are still lines for testing, even as a quarter of all New Yorkers have gotten at least one shot.

A year ago, I started a diary. Now it's more than 17,000 words. It didn't take many entries for them to turn dark.

Last March, New York's mayor and governor were at each other's throats over whether to keep the public schools open. Tom Brady left the New England Patriots. Brexit talks got underway. One in five Americans lost their jobs or saw their hours cut. My friend deployed to Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump threatened to unilaterally quarantine New York and New Jersey and parts of Connecticut. The New York Police Department began escorting early-morning deliveries of toilet paper into the Duane Reade across the street from me. Michael Bloomberg suspended his presidential campaign. Remote work began for the fortunate. Our day care went out of business.

The virus took the lives of more than 30,000 people in New York City in a single year. Untallied more will suffer aftereffects for months, if not years, to come.

The virus knows its back is to the wall. It's mutating. It's preying on the fools who burn their masks as a mark of tribal loyalty, along with everyone they spread it to.

We have more than a dozen cloth masks in the house. Also some sealed packages of N95 masks, which we use more sparingly: for trips to the grocery store; on the tram to Roosevelt Island; in public bathrooms. A half-dozen boxes of the ubiquitous disposable blue masks sit in the closet.

I bought the first box of those on Amazon this time last year. Last March, a box of 30 masks cost me $39. They took a month to arrive. By then, in New York, masks were more common, but not ubiquitous.

Masks changed how the city sees you. It's impossible to read the facial expressions of strangers. It's hard to see a smile through a person's eyes.

A year without facial cues, smiles and grimaces. Lots of tears, though.

I nodded along recently at the notion that there's a reason the 1918 flu epidemic wasn't a hot topic for 1920s art and literature. Who wants to remember all this?

Many years from now, when prop masters try to authentically recreate love in the time of covid-19, they'll probably search for boxes of vintage blue masks. They'll be found stuffed into the closets of elderly relatives, the way the boomers stumbled onto World War II-era ration books.

But even method actors will struggle with the daily indignities of life masked. The slight calluses behind the ears. How first taking off mask or glasses inevitably pulls off the other. Punching in the code of an iPhone when the device doesn't recognize its owner's face.

Landfills full of masks won't be the only legacy of these, the worst of times. QR codes for restaurant menus should stick around. Remote work isn't all bad. I wouldn't mind keeping the distance we've grown accustomed to when waiting in lines. Generous unemployment payments should outlive covid.

A more equitable health care system would be the greatest and most appropriate monument the country could construct in memory of the victims. Another pandemic is only a matter of when.

The residual anxiety of the past 12 months will take a long time to dissipate, no matter how many crocuses bloom in the coming weeks.

For those who survived, this city is forever changed. One-third of its small businesses may be gone forever. Bars and restaurants were particularly hard hit by a virus exquisitely evolved to prey on human socialization.

After a year of living remotely, the pent-up demand for human contact is almost unbearable. "Host is escorting a couple out of a SoHo restaurant for bathroom shenanigans. They met outside an hour ago," read a dispatch from Twitter last week.

Pfizer and Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are poised to do with the city what spring does with the cherry trees. No wonder the barman in the park is practicing his flair.

Alex Kingsbury writes for The New York Times News Service.

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