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The Body Language Of A Pandemic

Small black spider crawling along
"What if feels like, though, is every day I kill the exact same bug."

A spider hatched babies early into my COVID self-quarantine. Tiny black dots with legs. Many of them. So many of them. Identical. Yesterday one was by the toilet paper, an early morning greeting. Today in the shower. They seem to like the bathroom. Except that time in the middle of the night when one was crawling on the inside fold of my ear. Most of the time I take the time, which I have in abundance while in self-quarantine, to scoop them up and toss them out the window. It depends very much on my mood, the level of surprise they cause, and whether my reaction to the surprise is annoyance or compassion. What it feels like, though, is every day I kill the exact same bug.

I'm connecting to nature more during quarantine. Just the other day I accidentally punted a baby bird. It wasn't intentional. Baby bugs, baby birds, it's the season. Not all baby birds make the cut and some end up on the ground. It's not my decision. It seems heartless, but what do I know about natural selection. The bird I accidentally kicked went straight into the oncoming wheels of a shopping cart. We made eye contact as this was happening and the look of annoyance on this barely feathered chickling was world weary. I was instantly endeared to its plight.

I grabbed one of those environmentally crappy poop bags from someone (I use napkins), covered my hand, and scooped up the little thing. At first there was some tussling, then through a usually deeply ignored maternal instinct I brought the bird to my belly where it settled down immediately. I peeked into my hand. It appeared the little one wasn't long for the day. After relaxing into its new faux marsupial life the baby bird seemed completely petered out and resigned to whatever fate lay ahead. A belt loop on my jeans pulled to where my dog's leash was attached and I remembered the true reason for my outing. My dog needed to be walked. So we walked. I had a bird on my belly and a dog attached to my pants. I was a wooden pushcart short of mystical.

Trying to save a baby bird.
Trying to save a baby bird.

I led my caravan to the local community garden. A beautiful and well-maintained space the width of a city block, with entrances on two streets. It's never open to the community despite its designation. Each entrance has a thick, tall, iron gate with a large, thick, silver lock on the latch. There isn't a lot of wiggle room for a welcoming misinterpretation. I approached the fencing and saw a little boy poking around and presumably his mother tending to her parcel of land. I called out a hello through my face mask made of an old tea towel by an old friend. My voice was unintentionally muffled. No response. I yelled out. The boy called back to his Mom. She took off a glove and walked a couple of steps towards the gate to get a better idea of me and what my intentions were. I tried yelling out again. The futility of speaking when voluntarily physically muting oneself. It was hard to project my voice through the thick fabric. I added waving with my free hand. I had their attention, but not their trust. Neither of them moved. Then I held up my hand with the baby bird. To better see what I was presenting, the woman walked a little more forward, or she walked closer to make sure her son didn't. She now held a hand on his little shoulder. This wasn't going well. My dog picked up on this and helped me by barking. The woman went back to her gardening. The boy to poking around. I had the desire to start cursing. I resisted this desire and flipped the scene in my head. Here's a woman or maybe a young man (there's a projected androgyny, born out of efficiency, I often forget about) outside the gate, wearing a yellow, patterned mask that looks similar to every single discarded sofa from 1981-1984, she's holding up a hand covered in a dog poop bag and pointing to it. Her dog, though small, is not friendly. I checked off a lot of boxes for "crazy".

East Harlem Public Garden
East Harlem Community Garden

I brought the bird back to my belly. Frustrated I walked around the block to the other gated entrance. There I was slightly closer to where the woman was gardening. I held up the bag and opened my hand a bit, "Baby bird, it's a baby bird." I kept repeating this as loudly as I could without it seeming like I was yelling. Even so, what got to her ears probably sounded closer to, "Bbbbeeee yerddddddd izzzz aaaaa bbbbbbeeeeee yyyyrrrdddd." In lieu of volume, I lengthened syllables. It worked. She approached. The kid toddled behind. I took notice of the sharp gardening tool in one hand, held by her side. Fair enough. I carefully reached my arm through the gate bars for the full reveal. She looked at my hand, she looked at me, she looked at my hand, she rushed over. Apologies were exchanged fast, like a sudden rain. I'm sorry you couldn't hear me. Drop, drop, drop. I'm sorry I couldn't understand what you were saying. Drop, drop, drop. She took the bird and we bowed towards one another, which felt right in the moment but isn't a salutation I normally use. Such was life during COVID. Gestures were replacing gestures. There was a whole new body language of the pandemic.

In the beginning the pandemic and self-quarantine were a big trigger party for me. I had a crappy childhood and spent many afternoons hiding out in a suburban bedroom with nowhere to go and nothing to do except dream about living in nearby New York City. Now, living in a small studio apartment in New York City, with a fear of going out and the desire to be, again, in New York City, life felt too similar to those formative fears. In reality I was well set-up with a solo living situation, social network to connect with even if not in person, and a beloved mutt to keep me out of my head and from going out of my head. But I was in conflict with myself. My nervous system didn't seem to care about my abundance of situational luck. I'd have internal arguments that I should be feeling fine, feeling grateful. But my nerves felt like they were stuck in an old groove, that panic of not being able to leave, of something outside my personal space coming to harm me. I spent the first month of shut down talking myself into the present moment, steering my body away from where it wants to go when I’m dissociating: rounded shoulders, head down, chest collapsed, inward, inside, protecting. I couldn’t write or listen to music. I couldn’t read more than a sentence and often had to read the same sentence multiple times. I’d nervously scratch at my head while staring off into space then shamefully dust the flakes off my shoulders making a promise to never do it again. I’d worry a small blemish into a teenage-grade volcano. I'd say strange things I wasn’t present enough to be fully accountable for, even though I said them.

The combination of a hiding-in-fear-childhood and years of teaching yoga has fostered in me a kind of American Idol posture judge with equal parts empathy and snark. We all communicate through our physical presence; how we hold our bodies in this world is an expression of every moment in our lives distilled. Your posture is telling me things about yourself you might not want to share, at least publicly, while walking down the street. There's the boring stuff like the way a jogger’s elbows sway out sideways as if they are wings, causing the chest to round, making it harder to breath. Bring your elbows in, buddy! Walking with feet pointed out often pushes the pelvis forward and can cause lower back pain. Shift your hips back, lady! Reading a device belly-button height flattens the neck. Keep your device at least heart level. Then there are the sexy insights like shoulders pulled back and chest forward: you're fun, you're open-hearted, we wouldn't get along. If only I could walk around the city as a posture whisperer.

Practicing yoga took my own personal spiderweb of bad postural habits and spun them into gold. What was a safety mechanism to avoid conflict, a tool for protection as a child, became a knowledge base to guide people out of pain. The pandemic created a new physical language, which changed as the rules of engagement changed. Not only has body language changed, but how much we can see to interpret the non-verbal signals. Face masks, worn correctly, have changed the ability to gauge friendliness. In the beginning of mask wearing, it took me awhile to realize people couldn't tell if I was smiling. I felt myself smiling, but then I had to override the feeling as an extension. A smile started and stopped with me and me alone. It no longer meant the same thing and that began to take away from the experience. Wearing a mask in public felt like I was in private emotionally. My mask was an aggressor by hiding my face regardless of how I felt underneath. It wasn't intentional, but I had the same feeling about other people wearing masks, and early on often found myself needlessly acting stiff around strangers.

I didn't need to feel any more agitated. The pandemic was cultivating paranoia, first from being scared of an invisible killer and second from the abundance of conflicting information. At the height of quarantine, going to the hospital was everyone’s fear: "You go, you don't come back, and no one can visit you." I'd heard this line from many sources near the frontlines. It's better suited to a B horror movie about a remote rental near a lake, except it was happening in real life. Also, if you live in an area where the term "frontlines" is used casually, things aren't going well. Conversations spurred fears of needing a dentist or having an accident. I personally made a decision, after stepping on a stool’s edge and nearly taking a bad fall, that if I broke a limb, I was going to paper mache it. Problem solved. Then I sliced my finger open while removing the pit of an avocado and told myself, "Okay, maybe you don't do knives, eat around the pit."

There was a point, a wall, I hit while trying to unsuccessfully normalize new routines and new concerns. I was washing bananas and not breathing and dissociating from the reality of why I had to clean new objects in my home. I watched myself soaping fruit and imagined the scene playing out with a knock at the door. I would put the food down, turn off the water, dry my hands, and walk over to open the door. There would be a white man, in a suit, with a perfect lego haircut, not too thick, not too thin, parted severely down the right side. He would be holding an old-school microphone. He would be smiling nervously. Behind him a cameraperson, a lighting person, and another person holding a clipboard, because you need someone holding a clipboard in a paranoid fantasy. After a beat, the man would begin to speak. He would take a deep breath and say, "You know, we've gone too far. Frankly we didn't think we could get you to stay on your block for weeks. Then we didn't think we could get you to walk six feet away from people, then someone suggested having you cover your face when outside and you did that too, but we went too far with the washing groceries. We're sorry, it was all in good fun at the beginning. You can open your mail now."

In the early stages, it felt like the rules of self-quarantine were similar to addressing a problem by appointing a task force. As in, there is a big problem in the world with socioeconomic, environmental, and health concerns, what should be done… put together a task force. Or maybe the virus was a task force, a group you’ll never know, see, or meet, and who may not ever appear on your radar. It may affect people you know, yourself, or no one in your circle. But behind the scenes the virus was working, like a task force should (I’m really not sure its purpose beyond attaching gravitas and delay to a sensitive topic that has political ramifications too partisan to deal with in the present moment). Frankly, if the people in charge really wanted the public to stay home they shouldn't have used a graph referencing a curve. Most people have been fighting curves their entire lives. Whether it's a pro or anti group, an acceptance or not group, a simple horizontal line with a high arch in the middle can be off-putting. Flattening the curve, flatten the curve, you need to flatten the curve. Go out in small portions, avoid these situations, your favorite bakery is closed. It’s like Weight Watchers wrote the guidelines.

Covering faces was one of those moving-target rules that kept changing as we learned more about how the virus spread. No, then maybe, then yes, then probably, then absolutely. All those rules doled out, eerily similar to how my eighties, pre-teen friends and I shared bad intel on how we thought a woman gets pregnant: you can get it through contact, you can get it orally, it only lasts three hours, longer on cardboard, maybe three days, you can prevent it by washing, you can prevent it with social distancing, you can’t get it if you’ve already had it, you can get it if you’ve already had it, you need protection, it has to be a certain kind of protection, protection needs to be worn correctly, well some protection is good over no protection, it’s hard to find protection, just stay home.

At the height of New York Cities pandemic, I stayed very close to home. But then I had my dog. While I judged other people for leaving their homes in what seemed like an attachment to life before "lockdown" and a disregard for the wellness of the city as a whole, I secretly enjoyed needing to take my dog out for walks. My dog’s business was essential business. From my building, I could stroll safely away from people through a park and to the East River promenade. Walking south, allowing my gaze to follow the edge line of Manhattan, where the water meets land, and the island curves downtown. It was during these walks I re-found my posture, standing up tall, listening to the water lap, feeling a great sense of space and air around me, my eyes able to focus further than three hundred square feet. As my view expanded, my thoughts expanded, my body expanded. The freedom to move was intoxicating. My thoughts stretched, my shoulders dropped down, and I could feel my psoas muscles relax, leaving my belly less tense, less distended, and my hip flexors freer. Movement. I missed movement. Normally the city moved, constantly, and I missed being a part of its flow.

The flow of New York City has one simple rule, “Don’t. Ever. Stop.” When outsiders say I could never live in New York City, it's too crowded, I think they didn't see the crowds as one movement with everyone playing their part. Technically an orchestra has too many instruments, but everyone knows their turn, when to play. That's the trick of being in New York City, or any big city, knowing your part in the flow. I can walk down a busy street, with a doorman pushing a luggage cart moving towards me from the side, crowds behind, crowds in front, dogs being walked, coffee being sipped, packages on dollies, strollers, and know it will work out. I can keep going and it will work out. We won’t all bump into one another. There won’t be a human pile-up. It’s not hope, it’s the city at its most balletic. It’s the poetry in strangers moving together, until there is an actual bump, and then things get tricky. Fast. But they always go back into the flow, because to live here is to have somewhere you need to be.

How does this work? Teeny, tiny, movements and a knowledge of the various machinations contributing to sidewalk traffic. First, the stroller will never, ever, stop. I don’t know why there isn’t a greater concern for the small passenger in front, but my experience is a pushed stroller follows the laws of inertia to its literal end. A doorman will subtly slow down or speed up, but you can generally calculate the point at which they will be in your pathway by analyzing such factors as: age, size, gait, whether or not the cart is full or empty, who they’re going to is out of the car or in the car, if it's a taxi or private car, and the weather, to name a few. Most of us seasoned, city dwellers do this in a millisecond, deciding whether we can pass in front or behind. It’s an urban form of rate multiplied by distance equals time.

The person holding coffee will walk quickly when not drinking to make up for walking slowly when taking a sip. You only need to mind the cup and its distance from the holder’s face. Is another sip coming? They will slow down. The dog, depending on its walker, will move more sideways than forwards, like a Z pattern. The dog is the wild card here. If it’s a dog walker, the pup will be on a short leash near the edge of the sidewalk. All business, very restricted movement. If it’s an owner, the dog will walk the length of its leash, following free space and smells. Dogs have neither a relationship to linear time nor linear travel. They’re also happy to be outside, while New Yorkers often find this transaction between places tiresome. None of this applies if it’s raining. When it’s raining dogs walk like humans.

Other walkers are making their own calculations. You’re on the same page with them technically, moving without stopping and without blocking. Blocking is that rare situation when both you and another New Yorker made the same quotidian decisions, over the course of a lifetime, to arrive at the unfortunate instance of the exact same place at the exact same moment, facing one another. On paper this is fascinating. Consider the odds. In real life it frustrates people to a level not warranted by a chance occurrence. It’s like grabbing the same sale item on a rack or calling for the same fly ball. No good comes of this. Since there’s some common chemistry going on, both of you will do a little mirror dance before one person overrides their desire to step left and the whole thing stops. I once chuckled while this was going on and got cursed out by the other person in a manner so vile and intense, the negative vapors lasted weeks. If you were that lady, please know that chuckling is a way to release nervous energy, and you kind of overreacted. Also, you have the mouth of a psychopath who is on a losing bowling team.

Delivery persons are going straight to an entrance and they act the opposite of strollers, which is strange, since a package can’t die or receive a life-changing head injury. A delivery person may tilt or angle their cart, but it’s in the direction of the door they are heading to. Often, they will be the first ones to stop and let you walk in front. The delivery person expends their energy putting as many packages on a cart as possible, if one falls off, it’s a professional failure, a loss of pride. An impact can cause all the packages to fall. If this were to happen, it is a greater loss of time than stopping for a second to let someone pass. Delivery persons don’t want any impacts. This is unlike cyclists who engage in a game of chicken with pedestrians who don’t want to play. Like caretakers who bring children into dog runs when kids are allowed off leash everywhere else in the city, cyclists choose the least habitual environment to insert themselves. This is done by maneuvering, while sitting, a solid metal machine with solid metal jagged moving parts, through a crowded course of unprotected humans. It’s an extremely selfish act to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk, but it happens. In the Order of Operations of navigating sidewalk traffic, the bicycle is first. You start with them, then do the other math.

All these variations of movement happen sometimes within the width of a mere 48 inches of sidewalk. Yet, it works. It works because we read one another’s body language, we make calculations, and we don’t stop. One of the first things I learned when moving to the city was to ever so slightly rotate my shoulders sideways to avoid making contact with a passerby. It happens subtly, almost without notice. But the shoulder shimmy is how you pass another person on a crowded sidewalk without touching. It’s the sexiest way not to bump into someone, while still maintaining your ground. A shimmy is the dance of a true New Yorker, those with boundary-driven friendliness.

The pandemic and its rules changed the formula. During shut down, with less people out, less business flowing, the city had a small-town feel. It wasn't entirely charming, as surgical masks and gloves really enhanced the feeling of spring cleaning in a dark, dark way. In a city where you find your moments of charm: the intricate stonework on an old building, the one person on public transit not wearing a dark palette, patches of grass growing through concrete cracks, the charm now was happening from people being inside. The charm was in our absence. The city’s life showing us we were no longer the life of the city. The rats roamed, the feral cats roamed after them, the birds landed everywhere, the rain hit the ground more than umbrellas, the flow of water went unobstructed by broken umbrellas. Our movements were replaced. In the same way a simple design aesthetic is confused with environmentalism, did we confuse our lives in the city as the city’s life?

Social distancing with a mask on has an inherent element of unfriendliness that's hard to overcome. I try making peace signs or do thumbs up while walking a large arc around people. It's not you, it could be me, but since we both don't know, it's better this way. Now that proximity can be deadly, I've broken that first fundamental rule: I stop. I stop now to let people pass. I calculate areas of pedestrian-congestion conflict and wait it out until a safe distance can be maintained. The strange part is other people are doing it too. The first time this happened I felt like I should speed up, so the other person didn't have to wait. After a couple of weeks, months, now I allow the pause to be its own moment of solidarity, of charm. I imagine if this goes on longer, we might bring back hat tipping and curtseying. Maybe speak in ol’ timey slang, “Hello, me lady, good day ye to you.” With variations for non-binary pronouns. We adapted: we washed our hands while counting to twenty; we clapped in appreciation; we stopped touching our faces; we learned to learn and teach through devices; we ate in parking spots; we cohabitated; we watched the city become cleaner without us; we heard nature; we wore the same thing over and over again and liked it; we had surges and protests; eventually fell asleep during, extremely intimate fireworks displays. We took inventory. We paused.

Eventually the city will go back to a new normal. The sidewalks will again fill with people determined to get to their destinations without pause. The polite stopping will end. The dance will restart anew. Social distancing will fade. The rush will return. This is good, because the pandemic caused New Yorkers to be patient, and it's unnerving.

Dog looking out over the East River Promenade
Buster taking in the East River Promenade.


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