“We’re going to get through this because we are New York.”
It’s the message that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been stressing from the start – New York strong, New York tough. Despite the state being at the epicentre of the Coronavirus crisis, despite the strict self-distancing and almost complete lockdown, there is a resilience and strength at the heart of this place, and in particular the city, that is its spiritual vaccine.
New York suffered the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001, Hurricane Sandy (which hit 24 states in all) in 2012, and both events continue to be referenced in relation to today’s pandemic. They remind us of New York’s ability to fight back: to look defeat in the eyes and come back more glorious than before. Yes, I know it sounds melodramatic, but if there is one thing getting me through, above everything else, in this ongoing crisis, it’s a strange feeling that I am going through it with New York holding my hand. I am in New York City (the borough of Manhattan), the epicentre of the epicentre – and at the moment, there is nowhere else I would rather be.
The Governor has constantly reminded those wishing to flout the rules and ignore guidelines that “It’s not about you”. In my neighbourhood, Hell’s Kitchen, I am stunned on a daily basis by the many acts of kindness and offers of support, both to individuals and businesses struggling to stay afloat. I am awestruck by the performers, out of work overnight, continuing to share their phenomenal talents with the online audience, for no reward whatsoever; the restaurants and bars stepping up to the mark with delivery services and coming up with ever more ingenious ways to serve an increasingly desperate populace.
In a press briefing last week, Cuomo was visibly moved when talking about people who surprised him on a daily basis – in particular, an elderly man (with a sick wife) who had sent him a spare mask for a doctor or nurse who might need it. Here, there really is a feeling that we are all in this together and we will get through it. Yes, because we are New York; but also, there is just something about this place that brings out the best in people.
I’ve been living here for six years now and, while, obviously not a born and bred New Yorker, I have an affinity with it in my heart that in the past I felt only for Paris (I still have that affinity, too; my soul is a tale of two cities). I have never felt lonely here in the way I did when I lived in London or Cardiff in the UK; I was never lonely in Paris, either (well, apart from when I was with someone, but that’s a whole other story).
There are a lot of people really struggling, I know; I, too, have my off days – strangely, when I am most in contact with people and then we say goodbye online; it feels like the sun going down and a sudden chill in the air after a glorious day at the beach. But then I think how lucky I am to have such friends with whom I share so much laughter on FaceTime or Zoom; the many things I am learning from galleries opening up their wares; the opera, concerts and theatre productions I am so enjoying that, in real time, I would have to take out a bank loan to attend.
Even with all this, I know that many are desperately missing the physicality of going out and experiencing everything for real, and it’s set me pondering what makes one person able to cope more than another in these circumstances. I stress I can speak only for myself in this regard, but today I’ve been thinking that the single, most influential and incredible thing in my entire life that is getting me through this is: my parents.
My dad died over 30 years ago, my mum last year. I have one brother, Nigel, and we have always been very close. He is smart, incredibly funny, as competitive as I am (I’ve never won a chess game with him; but then I beat him on the rifle range. Just saying), and a really kind, sensitive person who married an equally wonderful woman in my dear sister-in-law, Kim.
Nigel and I had a happy, secure childhood and, while we have both endured difficulties in adult life (as everyone does), we have come through them stronger the other end.
My mother did not go to university until the age of 50, when she became a social worker and, subsequently, a play therapist. When she died, it was heartrending to receive correspondence from many whose lives she had touched, greatly improved and, in some cases, I was told, saved.
Dad gained many qualifications as a mechanical engineer but lost his business during the UK’s economic crisis and Three-Day Week of 1973-4. Both Mum and Dad worked so hard to be able to hang on to the house for which they had worked so hard. I remember tensions at home while I was trying to study, and at times I thought I would not be able to stand anymore and even thought about leaving school, getting a job and moving into a bedsit. I was 16.
But they got through it. Mum did so many things to make extra money including, at one point, selling wigs. I remember her heartache when the operation went bust and the owner did a runner because he turned out to have a history as the Kray Brothers’ “collector”, whatever that was. Mum lost £84, a small fortune in those days, but the leftover wigs kept us winning top prizes in fancy dress fêtes for years.
Both my parents had a strong work ethic, which both Nigel and I inherited; but I think we also inherited – partly through blood, partly through observation – a stoicism that is proving invaluable at present.
Nigel is a teacher and loves his job, but has got on with the business at hand, continuing to do his lessons online, and doing more cooking (he happens to be very good at it. Better than he is on the rifle range, anyway. Did I mention that?). I am lucky in that I am used to working from home, but, being a sociable creature, of course miss human contact and events. It may be a cliché to say: “It is what it is” – but is no less true for being so. I just keep hanging on to Rilke: “No feeling is final” (Hmmm. Maybe the deathbed one is, but I’ll come back to that in a couple of decades).
I think what I learned from Mum and Dad is that when something is out of your control, as this pandemic clearly is, the thing to do is focus on what you can control: one step at a time. I am looking after my health, my emotional well-being, and giving my soul some much needed cultural nourishment.
Truly, my cup runneth over.
And so, today, I give thanks for the strength that is my inheritance; and the strength of a city that, even when it is sleeping, still shines.