On the way home from work: a lighted third floor window of a darkened building, the warm sound of a violin. In the age before ours, I could project myself into such a room by means of the imagination: the ascent up the staircase, the light pouring out the slow crack of the door as the music grows louder, and the stranger I would meet inside were all waiting at the other end of a daydream. Things, however, have changed. Passing the window and its music, the pictures no longer came to me, and I could feel only a dull thud as my mind crashed into piece after piece of the intricate architecture of prohibition that characterizes life in the Covidian megalopolis.
I have never been one for big cities. I came of age in Huntington, West Virginia, a postindustrial piedmont town in a river valley with a few hundred thousand people and little to do. The city was largely residential, and of the few shops downtown even fewer were interesting, so I spent my teen years wandering the streets as if they were paths through a forest: the endeavor was primarily physical and aesthetic, meant for observing the world and wearing myself out. Hardly anyone walks in a city like Huntington, so wandering offered the benefit of solitude. I ruminated on inchoate teenage thoughts while hiking up hills in Ritter Park, discovered strange new neighborhoods tucked in hollers at the edge of town, and rested my legs near the banks of the Ohio River. Perhaps because there was nothing to do and nobody was watching, so much felt possible: the city felt more like a natural than a social object, and I took to it like a fisherman to the sea.
But I am told—or have maybe just picked up in books and movies—that megalopolis has long emanated a different kind of pervasive and ever-present sense of possibility, flowing from the bustle of commerce and the spirit of civic togetherness nourished by parks and squares. This sense of potential has long driven young people to leave the comfort and familiarity of their old lives behind, hurl themselves into financial and social precarity, and move to where they know not a single friendly soul, all on the whiff of a promise. I hear stories of the bustle and spirit of the Hyde Park of yore—but in the Chicago of today, lived beneath the aegis of the pandemic, it has been decidedly snuffed out. On pause, maybe. But still, there is nowhere to steal into out of the cold, no opportunities for spontaneity or following one’s curiosity, no opportunities for chance encounters with friendly strangers. The public world has been broken apart, leaving only private lives conducted in parallel. Even at work, my coworkers hover strangely far away from each other, like social workers afraid of their client’s smell. Entering a shop means strapping a lie to your face, showing heretofore sensitive information to a stranger; often it’s unlawful to enter if you haven’t made an appointment online in advance. Chicago is one of America’s many testing grounds for the absolute domination of the protocol, the total regulation of human life according to the dictates of managers. Consider the always-increasing specificity of the ubiquitous signage, from “Please wear a mask” to “Customers must wear a face covering over their nose and mouth at all times unless eating or drinking.”
But unlike the Huntington of my youth, there’s no opportunity here for genuine solitude. This city is full of people, but hardly anyone speaks to one another—the mask and the smartphone form a synergy of antisociality. It’s the biggest city I’ve ever lived in and the loneliest place I’ve ever been. Add to this the undeniable danger of South Side Chicago, where the rate of violent crime has spiked to levels unseen in decades: nearly everyone I know knows someone who has been mugged; a few, someone who’s been rendered a corpse. In the protests and riots of last summer, at the same time police were kicking people out of public parks and maintaining barricades to keep bikers and joggers off the lakefront, every single grocery store and drug store for miles around Hyde Park had been looted, making prescription medication and basic necessities impossible to obtain for weeks. But there’s also a vague, heavy feeling that it’s illegal to say any of this out loud, or to admit that for much of the past two years living here has been scary. As bodegas were being torched across the city last year, neighborhood phone and clothing stores were raided in smash-and-grabs, and entire neighborhoods were systematically plundered, my wife and I sat in our apartment and wondered: What next? When will this end? Will it?
So I looked down from the window, continued my journey home, and enjoyed the last remnants of the violin’s song as it faded in the distance. Several silhouettes passed and disappeared into the night. A man walked by smoking a cigarette and the acrid smoke was like a message from another age, bringing a sense of nostalgia and reassurance. At the end of Moby-Dick, Ishmael says of the wreckage of the Pequod sinking into the darkness of the ocean: “all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Deep in my bones I know that every day bring less chance of walking this back, that the bad parts will keep getting worse—but sometimes catastrophe is an opportunity to start again from the beginning. Until then, I guess, we’ll just have to keep rolling on.