November 9, 2020 Sharing a glimpse into the city during Covid
Site: The Katz Building / Formerly Freemason
Location: 1362 50th St, Brooklyn, NY 11219
It’s November 5th. I have to make a quick visit to Boro Park’s Hasidic neighborhood to pick something up.
I decide to get it done early. My son is already in “class,” dragging around the iPad while pulling on pants. The Zoom screen is filled with a grid of turned off black boxes; turned off cameras. The English teacher is doing her regular yoga bit—instructing in her Latina accent that the students breathe in and leave enough for the exhale.
The weather is perfect for late fall. People walking dogs are all masked. Some little kids are on their way to school with parents, also masked. I take the subway. It’s much busier now, but I’m the only person without a mask. I don’t believe in this compulsory mass-masking and generally skip mine. This makes me as much an outcast as I was when I was leaving the Hasidic community. The difference is that I’m more mature and don’t give much credence to the hive mind.
When I transfer to the D train, I find that the D tracks have been taken over by a construction crew of some 30 men, all in masks worn half-heartedly. All the commuters ask each other where the D train is, and one woman tells us it’s coming on the opposite track. It takes half an hour for the train to arrive, and as we wait, I notice that a woman in her 40s in a gingham jacket keeps trying to meet my eye. I have a solid hunch that she is itching to give me the stinky eye and I don’t indulge her.
As soon as I get off the D train at 55th Street, I can see that I’m in a different world. The above-ground tracks look down to the start of 13th Avenue, the liquor store and a breakfast takeout, and I see some black hats and bearded faces without masks. Downstairs, a very old Hasidic man is crossing the street very slowly. He is not wearing a mask, but he is wearing a rain-guard over his black hat. There is nary a cloud in the sky.
I head over to 14th Avenue. A little albino kid jumps up and down on the stop while older siblings stand nearby. A few men walk by. Some hold flip-phones to their ears. A beautiful young woman with a brown wig styled in a bob and rosy pink lipstick goes by. Not wearing masks is so prevalent here that I almost don’t notice it.
There are yellow papers plastered on street lamps. There is a lot of Yiddish text on them, and my eyes catch the word “Democrats!!!” The historian’s impulse in me always gets the better of me, and I can’t resist tearing one down for myself. It’s a screed against democrats. “Eighty percent of all deaths from the virus were in democratic states,” and “Democratic governors allow the reopening of wine stores and other lowly places which can’t be discussed, but not schools and synagogues.” I feel that old, naughty curiosity for that which can’t be discussed.
Further down the avenue there is a six-story block-long public school that still says “boys” on the side entrance. It is now a Hasidic girl’s school, with big Hebrew letters on the front. Three full-size school buses are idling outside the main gate. Hordes of preschoolers spill out of the buses and run up into school. I wish I could record this, but I never would. I know how much of a violation this would be to people here, and I know it would only feed the anger of the outside world. I see it as evidence that people here are unafraid. There is no sign anywhere that non-compliance has caused people to live in terror. Lots of healthy happy kids abound!
Some older girls—probably late for school—are also rushing up and down. They wear plaid and backpacks. One girl has something in her hand. I think she might be holding a mask, but it’s a candy bar. Back in September, all the Hasidic schools made the students wear lanyards with a mask hanging from it. I wonder if that fad is over. I also see fewer signs for masks. These notices were always just hung to placate the media and inspectors. There hasn’t been much in the media about them lately. The media probably let up. The charade probably did too.
A mask-less non-Hasid in a red hoodie is sketching a building. I ask him what he’s doing. He assures me that he’s not with the zoning department. He was only hired to measure something. Alas, I say, I hoped he might be an artist.
On my way back, I notice that the scaffolding has finally been removed from the Bobov Hasidic Girl’s School. The building housed Freemasons in an earlier incarnation, and the Hasidim never removed the freemasonry logo. I’ve wanted to grab a shot of the exterior for a long time but there was always pesky green scaffolding. At last:
A man stops fiddling with his phone to watch me take the pictures. He watches me even as I start to walk off. People here never trusted a woman in pants and hair tied into a casual bun, but now I get more stinky eyes than the woman on the subway platform could ever hope to work up.
I realize then that the events of 2020 are another rift in mine and my childhood world. I might not wear a mask either, but that doesn’t mean we have a shared experience. They are moving on and returning to normal. They are over it. On to other dramas. They offer no solidarity with other groups who want the same. They have no interest in the brewing conversations and exciting energy in lockdown-critical communities. They look at me and all they see is the other.