Last night the streets were full. For once the East Village celebrated a speech by a president. They heard that “strong American hearts and clean hands” had licked H5N1.
I loved the warning that the second wave has historically been far worse in pandemics. I doubt it will be necessary to call in the Army, but I’m grateful and impressed that the nation’s all-clear was qualified.
No one paid heed to the disclaimers. My neighbors were too busy partying, making out—all genders, styles, ages. It was as if the president had shown up on a flatbed in a toga, flashing flesh, popping corks. But our splashy Mermaid Parade doesn’t happen till June, in Coney Island.
I was impelled to go downstairs and join the throng. Of course I kept my gear on. Some of the revelers had undoubtedly just caught H5N1 and were incubating it, unaware. Probably their cases will be mild.
I’m torn about exposing myself now that the virus has lost virulence. I wonder if catching it might confer immunity on me later, in Wave Two. No one knows. Some are holding flu parties to spread “harmless” microbes. But any acquired immunity might fade fast.
To come back and kill 10% of humanity—a not impossible prospect—the RNA would keep changing as H5N1 explores our world. Then our bodies might not recognize it as that bug we celebrated surviving three months earlier. We might catch it again.
I felt lonely without Nina and silly wandering around in goggles like the Ghost of Plagues Past, so I headed into a bar famed for its happy hour. I was too late for discounts, but no one was leaving. The bartender couldn’t hear me over Ozzy, so I had to lift my mask.
It was my first naked exposure in a public space in more than eight weeks. It was intoxicating to breathe stale suds. The bar smelled like people—not so bad, really.
I fixed the mask back on and perched on a stool.
Someone tapped my shoulder, a guy in a dark sports jacket. He asked me to join his friends at a table. I started to decline, but why not?
There were three guys and a girl, all really buzzed. They each shook my glove and we shared a round of tequila and beer at their expense. I lifted my mask for sips. They ignored me till they ordered another round and then the one who’d fetched me reached woozily for my goggles.
I leaned back and shook my head and checked them out more carefully. Were they trying to pick me up or pick a fight with me? Both? New Yorkers are probably weirder than ever now.
‘Tinker Tailor’ Tequila Table
The girl was younger than the men, with long blonde hair, green eyes, and a pudgy expression I found intriguing because she looked dumb enough to fool people. There was something alluring. I wondered if this was her show. Had she made them summon me?
The man who thought he was the ringleader was a young corporate lawyer—short hair, high school athlete, probably a pothead then and now. He was flanked by a round-faced guy in glasses, who turned out to be a freshly minted anesthesiologist on a fellowship at a nearby hospital, and by a darker man with a mustache and elegant hat, a Wall Streeter.
They weren’t dangerous but they wanted to mock me. Maybe I embodied the deprivations they’d suffered. I wasn’t even quitting. I was still dressed to die.
The doctor was smug. He didn’t know much about bird flu and thought the system had performed well. He supported the others without adding anything, like a hack rent-a-witness in a courtroom. Perhaps he was exhausted from working a lot harder than his friends. Or maybe he’d lost his mental edge on a long break because there was so little surgery to support.
The lawyer asked if my gear made me feel powerful. Did I feel invisible to viruses and germs, shielded by a microbial firewall that scrambled my biological IP address? A fair question, imaginatively phrased. He’d be good before a jury, if that’s what he does.
I replied in muffled voice that I felt like a geek then and there, but that I’d felt super-secure weeks ago. There were times when I strode down a sidewalk full of frightened, confused people, feeling invulnerable. Far from invisible, though—I carried cards to give people who asked about my protective gear.
I ordered a round.
The Wall Streeter was from London, the son of Brahmins—arguably an Indian Chief to complement the Doctor and Lawyer. A human rope-jumping rhyme had sprung up to toast my first night out in months. I thought that was pretty cool. We quickly agreed that the Beggar Man would be greeting newcomers out on the sidewalk as the Thief lifted wallets at the bar.
I started to take out my cell phone to photograph them as they toasted me. It was jolly in a barbed way.
So was I the Rich Man from selling all those masks? I answered that I would be the Poor Man until Wave Two, and then I’d be in pretty good shape.
Blame the Humble Flu Messenger
When I turned to the girl to ask her if she planned to jump rope for us, she splashed her tequila in my face. “You want this to come back,” she said, adding words I can’t post, or my site will be banned as unsuitable.
One by one, they tossed their drinks at me, shots I’d painstakingly paid for. (It’s hard to count money with gloves on.) The men didn’t speak as the girl blessed each salvo with a shiny-eyed nod.
Sticky booze coated my goggles. I could hardly breathe through the soaked mask. My phone was wet. I considered flipping their table over, but what was the point? I wasn’t even drunk.
I pulled the mask aside and predicted they’d all turn black and blue from lack of oxygen. Shuddering with wrath, I cursed them. I described each of them leaking blood from every hole and I asked them to remember me when their genes pull the plug on their vital organs.
Raggedly, they lofted their empty shot glasses and gave me the finger.
I smashed a plate when I got home. That felt swell, but I resisted the impulse to keep going, to smash whatever ‘Nina’ had left intact.