Nostalgia for the Norm



Neighborhood: Greenwich Village

Observations in the Vale and Vector of the Virus

It’s late. And again, I survey the silence, inverting wakefulness and sleep. Again, in place of dreaming, I listen to the refrigerator humming. The construction site that had been growing like a giant metal bean stalk outside my window, down the block, has suspended activity, its girders rearing midair untrussed. Who knows when work will begin again? The street has fallen silent, all the foul language formerly howled has been sucked back into the absent throats of nonexistent passersby. Unaccustomed to silence – to think that I would ever miss the very things that bothered me most! 

I live in the rarefied environs of Greenwich Village. On the surface not much has changed. The birds are singing. The flowers have burst their buds. It’s spring again. Time to shed winter doldrums. But such transient seasonal distress has since been replaced by a seasonless dread. 

In the beginning, masked-and gloved-up, I regularly ventured out. Most stores have since shut down for the duration; though head shops, deemed as essential enterprises, along with pharmacies, bodegas, and supermarkets, are open for business. Go figure! Most restaurants, bars and other non-essential businesses are gated or boarded up, with printed or handwritten signs, some affecting a friendly personal tone, most perfunctory, announcing temporary closure. But how temporary is temporary? How many will ever reopen? 

At the start of it all, I witnessed a white-bearded man with a turban and biblical attire blasting on a ram’s horn, a self-appointed prophet, I suppose, proclaiming the 11th plague. A bagpiper sounding a daily dirge for the departed has more recently replaced him. For a lark, early on, two young men donned rabbit masks and hopped about, photographed by a third. “Don’t forget to hold up the sign!” the photographer cried. Whereupon the two dutifully flashed placards with the hashtag “#Come to the Doom’s Day Dinner.” This is The Village, after all, and you expect such benign eccentricities.

But dinner parties, like all other gatherings, have since become taboo. The few souls I pass nowadays on short nocturnal jaunts are either dog-walkers or aimless beggars with no place to go. After doling out dollars each time you step out, you get good at reading a shadow from afar – if it shuffles, limps or stalls, keep your distance. The faceless phantoms, like myself, walk at a steady, rapid clip. We keep as far apart as possible, and exchange fleeting looks, each viewing the other as a virtual threat, a potential carrier of infection. 

The other day an angry teenager walked up to me and butted me in the chest. It was not a friendly greeting. 

Is this the new norm?

I have stomped the same circuit of streets and exhausted novelty on my limited nightly trajectories. Upon returning home, I escape into my imaginings. Of late I have tried to envision our microscopic adversary, variously depicted on internet sites as an abstract expressionist pattern of tinted stains, or in 3-D representations as cauliflower-like globs, or else as spherical entities with extended knobs — minuscule invaders, streamlined and downsized since the advent of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, but invaders all the same. 

Despite the damage it’s caused, I cannot help but be awestruck by the dogged determination of the virus, its resilience and stubborn resolve to proliferate.

Its appellation derives from a Latin word meaning ‘slimy liquid’ or ‘poison.’ When not squatting in and freeloading on an infected cell, viruses apparently loll about as discrete particles, or virions, vagrant molecules of DNA or RNA with nothing to do but dangle. 

Microbiologists the world over are busy studying the genetic code, decoding the viral dialect. Whoever deciphers it first and manages to establish its secret fallibility will win a Nobel Prize. 

I once interviewed the late Nobel laureate Baruch Blumberg, a geneticist who shared the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering role in the discovery of the hepatitis B virus and the development of a vaccine to combat it. In the course of our interview, he decried the bellicose notion of “battling disease.” “It’s not a helpful metaphor,” he cautioned.

I imagine hordes of microscopic marauders circling the city, storming the gates of unguarded mouths, eyes and noses. The threat looms largest at night, when darkness closes in and I mull over the latest tally of casualties, hoping not to become a statistic myself. 

Like everyone else, I long for a vaccine as the valiant knight to rescue us from the scourge. But like it or not, viruses are here to stay. They will keep mutating, as all life forms do, reemerging in new, ever more virulent iterations. They are our unseen neighbors. We share the same strands of life. 

The human body hosts “good” bacteria that aid in digestion and other physiological functions. So, too, apparently, do we host so-called bacteriophages, viruses lodged in the mucus membrane lining in the digestive, respiratory and reproductive tracts that destroy invasive bacteria. Phages have been utilized to treat dysentery, sepsis, salmonella infections and skin infections, among other maladies. 

What if, I wonder, we could someday genetically reengineer malignant viruses to render them good neighbors, helpful partners cohabiting in the same organism they otherwise ravage? It’s a hopeful science fiction fantasy, no doubt, but there are worse ways to wrestle with the dread. 

Outside, meanwhile, the early birds are twittering up a storm. An entrenched city slicker, I long for the sounds I once loathed, the car horns and curses hurled at all hours, the thump of construction, the clink and clang of business as usual.


Peter Wortsman is the author, most recently, of Stimme und Atem / Out of Breath, Out of Mind, a bilingual book of stories (Palm Art Press Berlin, 20919; the second edition of his first book of short fiction, A Modern Way to Die, (Pelkinesis, Claremont, Cal., 2020); a book of doctors’ profiles, The Caring Heirs of Doctor Samuel Bard (Columbia University Press, New York, 2019); and English translations of Intimate Ties, by Robert Musil (Archipelago Books, New York, 2019) and Hinkemann, a tragedy, by Ernst Toller (Berlinica Books, Berlin and New York, 2019).


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§ 4 Responses to “Nostalgia for the Norm”

  • TSB says:

    Hey, could you please go on about the teenager who butted you in the chest, whatever that means? If he or she was looking at the phone, how did you let it happen? You wrote it as though it were an intentional gesture, which in this day and age is practically a knife attack. At the very least, you could’ve told us your response. What words were exchanged?

    And why is battling with the virus a bad metaphor.

    Otherwise, bravo.

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    Peter, terrific piece, as i’ve come to expect, my friend. i can always hear your voice when i read your work, as though we’re chatting, the flash of your trade-mark grin as you’re about to unload a particularly juicy metaphor. take good care of yourself …

  • Jason Trask says:

    Interesting observations, and great prose. My vote is that we change the author’s name to Peter Wordsmith, or if he wishes to retain the German, Wortschmied.

  • Harold Wortsman says:

    Dear brother – what a splendid piece. Perfect companion to the silence of a sleepless night.

§ Leave a Reply

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