03. Tie a Knot

March 2020

Thank you for tuning in, and I hope you’re as safe and sane as possible under these challenging new conditions. Strange days. Uncertain times. Difficult circumstances. We said these phrases to one another as this dark season began. Now they appear in promotional materials from Banana Republic and Chase Bank. “In these uncertain times, we’re here to make sure you have new pants.” Enough of that. This is the new normal; the concerns and priorities before the pandemic feel increasingly surreal.

Shortly after the reality of prolonged self-isolation took hold, some odd essays circulated through The New York Times and elsewhere that bemoaned the glut of pandemic novels and quarantine diaries that are likely being produced right now. I can’t tolerate the idea of someone—let alone a writer—telling others not to write. I often think about this line from Orfeo by Richard Powers: "Make the music that you need, for need will be over, soon enough."

And for whatever it’s worth, I want to read everybody’s quarantine diary. Send me a link. When we’re on the other side of this pandemic, let’s publish them as a series of volumes. Let’s build a monumental library for them in Central Park or maybe Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of the nation. Better yet, a far-flung island along the International Date Line. Or best of all: let’s build it in the most crowded part of the world so we can remember what it was like when we were kept apart.

Meanwhile, I’m carrying on with my daily notebook. I’ve managed to post something each night for three months straight, and this tiny routine has been surprisingly stabilizing. When I started kicking around the idea last year, I decided to call this project “Notes from the End of a World,” thinking it was a decent title for a daily inventory of political uncertainty, climate change, and my search for some kind of faith. Now this title feels far too on-the-nose. But here we are.

While putting this monthly digest together, I was struck by the rupture between my notes from the first days of March versus these last days.

From the first days of March:

There are more seats on the subway than usual this morning and the library is extra quiet. Everybody’s taking care not to sniffle or cough. These are days of sanitizing lotion and being told to sing “Happy Birthday” twice in your head while washing your hands. Singing in your head is important. Sing it out loud and you’ll look like a serial killer preparing for a hunt.

First confirmed case of coronavirus in Manhattan. We wash our hands constantly like we’ve done something wrong. We try not to touch our faces. Somebody said they might close the schools. We might be told to stay inside. Walking past the television to get a banana, I heard an expert say, “The worst is yet to come.”

From the last days of March:

They’re building a hospital in Central Park. In Nevada, they’re painting spaces in parking lots for the homeless to sleep, a grid of socially-distanced squares like a cruel board game.

Took a late-night walk to pick up some milk, spinach, and strawberries for an elderly neighbor. I set them outside her door, knocked lightly, and walked away like a prankster. So much can change in a week. I heard the undoing of a lock and her voice calling behind me. “Thank you, darling. Pray for me.”

Yesterday I passed a woman walking a tiny dog. She wore shorts and a t-shirt, and her head was covered by a bank robber mask, scuba goggles, and an insectoid breathing apparatus like she was taking an exploratory walk on a hostile planet. And I suppose she was.

Some of us stand in the street, just staring at the sky. “I need to go outside,” I heard an old man say. “Otherwise the bad juju starts bouncing off the walls.”

This is the last day of the longest month in memory.

Taking a cue from Italy, each night at seven o’clock we cheer for the nurses, doctors, grocers, and transit workers in New York City. It’s a small performance but it’s something everyone can afford to do, the non-essential cheering for the essential, a rare act of communion in these days of isolation. Hopefully this sentiment will continue long after this dark season ends and carry us into the streets to rebalance the scales and put on a more convincing show.

It’s a shared breath of life, this sudden clang and holler, the burst of animal noise from a wounded city. And there’s something unexpectedly moving about seeing my neighbors gathered at their windows at the same time, my brain finally mapping so many half-familiar faces to these buildings that I know like my name. There’s the guy I’ve always wondered about, the one across the street who leaves big chunks of bread on the fire escape for the pigeons. The one I’d thought was sad and lonely. He’s grinning and banging on a pan.

Several times each day I find myself asking, “What is the most comforting thing that I know?” Last night I remembered the Electrifying Mojo. I became a night owl thanks to this mysterious Detroit radio voice whose eclectic sets from the 1970s through the 1990s featured Parliament, Kraftwerk, Devo, and Cybotron—and set the stage for techno music.

The Electrifying Mojo is a ghost, never photographed yet his spirit runs through nearly everything we hear today. Each night the Electrifying Mojo opened his show with a question: “Will the members of the Midnight Funk Association please rise?” He is a man without biographical detail yet his fingerprints are everywhere. He is a concept that requires a definite article: The.

The Electrifying Mojo brought the city together while the Star Wars theme blared behind his voice. “I want you to show some solidarity tonight,” he’d say. “If you’re in the car, flash your lights. If you’re sitting on your porch, blink your porch light. And if you’re in bed, then dance on your back. In Technicolor.”

I remember driving down Woodward while a white Cadillac in the opposite lane flashed its headlights. I did the same in my beat-to-shit Pontiac. Two strangers responding to a lone voice on the radio, drawing the city into a brotherhood of sound and light.

And every night the Electrifying Mojo would sign off with the same message and I hope you can hear it in your head now, delivered in a slow baritone with a slight grin around the edges: “Whenever you feel like you’re nearing the end of your rope, don’t slide off. Tie a knot. Keep hanging. Keep remembering that ain’t nobody bad like you.”

Listening & Watching

  • Watching far too much CNN and I’m convinced the chipper jingle from the CDC’s coronavirus PSA will be the last thing I hear before I die.

  • After shuffling through the Netflix menu for an hour, I started watching The Platform without any knowledge or expectations. It’s a wicked and airtight fable about the predatory heart of capitalism that rings like a siren in these pandemic days.

  • Lars Blek. This new release from Axel Willner of The Field is a beautiful late-night exercise in reverberation and guitar.

  • Illusion of Time. Some plush synthetics from Daniel Avery and Alessandro Cortini. A perfect soundtrack for midnight walks through an empty city.