Together Apart? How About Totally Losing It?

Sometimes the arguments take place on the street. More often, they appear to occur in a supermarket.

One New Yorker, seemingly blasé about social distancing, gets too close. The other flashes a look of opprobrium or makes a snide comment. The situation escalates from there.

That was how it happened for the novelist and essayist Sloane Crosley, 41, at 8 a.m. a few weeks back at Sam’s Deli, a bodega in the West Village.

Three guys paid for their stuff, then lurked by the cash register, just hanging out, Ms. Crosley recalled.

Unable to face cooking yet another meal at home and doing yet another set of dishes, Ms. Crosley approached to order a breakfast sandwich. She was wearing a mask. The guys weren’t.

“I thought, What are you, conscientious objectors?” Ms. Crosley said in an interview.

Nevertheless, she figured that the men, finished with their transaction, would exit or at least move to the side. When they didn’t, she flashed a look, walked out the door and waited for them to leave. As they did, one turned to her and asked if she had anything to say to his face.

“The cliché of life is that you rarely say the things you mean to say when you mean to say it,” Ms. Crosley said. “This time, it just rolled right off the tongue.”

First, she remembers calling him a vulgarism for female genitalia. Then she told him that anyone this inconsiderate in a bodega must be terrible in bed.

Jennifer Glaisek Ferguson, 50, a communications strategist in Manhattan, had her war of the words outside a Trader Joe’s on West 93rd Street, while picking up groceries with her 5-year-old daughter, Coco.

Ms. Glaisek Ferguson was done shopping and was loading groceries into her car. A woman approached, asking if she was done with the cart Coco was holding onto.

“Yes, just give me a minute,” Ms. Glaisek Ferguson remembered saying.

But a minute didn’t come soon enough.

Soon, Ms. Glaisek Ferguson said, the woman was cutting the line of people, half a block long, actually waiting their turns for a cart. A security guard admonished the woman, Ms. Glaisek Ferguson said.

“She started screaming that she had an autoimmune disease,” Ms. Glaisek Ferguson recalled. “Coco was holding onto the cart, and the woman tried to grab it out of her hands.”

So Ms. Glaisek Ferguson expressed her frustration. The woman hurled yet another epithet for female genitalia (why these are so popular is a conversation for another day). Ms. Glaisek Ferguson hurled it right back.

Ms. Glaisek Ferguson felt slightly ashamed of having used the word then and there, but Coco had on her face the look of a child who arrives at pre-pandemic Disneyland and finds out she’s finally tall enough to ride Space Mountain. “Mommy,” she said, “you always protect me.”

Until a few weeks ago, New Yorkers living through the coronavirus crisis seemed largely to be embracing the maxim of “together apart.” But as sirens blare on, no end in sight (even with a flattening curve), many have entered a more frustrating phase of pandemic living.

The short arguments in the supermarket are followed by longer ones at home, where not transferring viral droplets is less of a concern.

It can also be a referendum of sorts.

“This is the perfect test of whether marriage is viable or not,” said T. Byram Karasu, a distinguished professor emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine with a private psychiatry practice in Manhattan. “Couples either become more intimate or they become bored and irritate each other.”

Sometimes, tension in a twosome is also about paranoia overtaking rational fear, said Dr. Karasu, who went on to tell the story of a wealthy Park Avenue couple he knows.

“Their marriage couldn’t survive two weeks of this,” he said. “The husband is somewhat hypochondriacal. He ordered a ventilator and announced he was moving to the West Coast. His wife told him she wasn’t coming.”

Dr. Karasu doesn’t believe this was the reason the marriage broke up, but it was the precipitating event that allowed her to say “no more.”

For some parents, the joy of having breakfast with one’s kids in the morning has been replaced with “how on earth did their teachers ever put up with them eight hours a day?”

That was what prompted Ms. Glaisek Ferguson three weeks ago to post a screen shot of her online activity to Instagram, a joking Google search: “How do I sell my children?” (Besides Coco, there is Phoebe, age 20 months).

Objectively, Ms. Glaisek Ferguson knows she is lucky that she has a job that she can do from home without risking her health, and a pair of children who are healthy and usually happy. Days later, she was back to posting catalog-ready shots of them to her feed.

Still, it’s hard for her to romanticize the state of things now, when she can’t get through a Zoom meeting without giving Coco and Phoebe an iPad, hoping they’ll fall into self-hypnosis. “I don’t even want to know what they’re doing with it,” Ms. Glaisek Ferguson said.

The rebound of the stock market has served as a painful reminder that for the rich, the crisis is yet another shopping opportunity, a chance to buy things on sale. But its wild oscillations from one day to another—and even one hour to the next—also mirror our collective, pent-up emotionality and uncertainty. It is volatile, and so are we.

“They’re a public company!” Mr. McCurdy said, going on to distinguish the difference between Shake Shack (which has hundreds of locations) and his (which has two). “I’m paying my taxes and doing things on the up-and-up in an industry that usually runs like drug dealing at a bar. When hospitals said they needed more protective gear, we sent them all the masks and gloves we had. When they asked for more, we got them from our supplier.” Once again, Mr. McCurdy added, it’s the wealthiest who get bailouts.

He can’t figure out why liquor stores, coffee shops and ice cream parlors are being allowed to remain open as essential businesses. His rage extends to New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, and New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio.

“We paint rainbows on our windows and clap for hospital workers, but shouldn’t we also be screaming at our leaders here as well as in Washington?” Mr. McCurdy said. “I want to have this tingly feeling, I like Governor Cuomo, but enough with the bromance with Chris. I watch the daily briefings, and I’ve barely heard anything new about what we’re really going to do to reopen or what his plans are for actual small businesses. Everything feels like ‘wait and see.’ Well, my landlord’s not waiting to see. My mental health is suffering like everybody else’s.”

“That guy’s jogging next to me four days a week and when I see him again, you can damn bet I’m going to let him have it,” Mr. McCurdy said.

Bevy Smith, 53, who hosted the late night show “Fashion Queens” on Bravo, and has a daily radio show on Sirius XM, got the virus in March.

Weeks later, her father, who was living in a nursing home, died from Covid-19.

Ms. Smith’s home is in Harlem, where the relentless sounds of sirens still haven’t kept the streets from filling with people who don’t observe social distancing guidelines. “It’s not just here,” she said. “It’s everywhere.”

“I try not to go to anger as my first thing, because a lot of the time it’s just sadness masquerading as something else,” she said. “My dad was 95 years old. But I was sad we were robbed of the time he had left. When people are saying Covid-19 is not real, when people are having friends over and behaving cavalierly, that enrages me.”

Earlier this month, Ms. Smith went back into therapy, but no easy fix exists for the prevailing feeling of powerlessness.

Her family had an in-person funeral for her father. “My mother had to wear a painter’s suit and we had to be 10 feet away from her, because we didn’t want her to get sick. She was married to my dad 55 years. Do you think that’s fair?”

Ms. Smith has been staying off Amazon, after learning that its founder, the world’s richest man, was giving his workers a mere $2 an hour extra as hazard pay. Along with donating to the fund of Chris Smalls, a worker who was fired after speaking out against conditions in the company’s Staten Island warehouse, she went on the air and urged listeners to make their voices heard by not ordering from the coronavirus season’s biggest winner. (Amazon has said that Mr. Smalls was fired for violating social distancing rules.)

Going to the supermarket remains a challenge. On a recent afternoon, Ms. Smith walked down one of the aisles and watched two men stocking the shelves gesture to her that she should just pass by. Back at her apartment building, she politely declined to get on an elevator with a neighbor.

“Then I passed him in the lobby and he said, ‘Is this enough space for you?’ I can’t recall what I said back.”


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