It's 2020 and reader, I've become a newsletter guy. That's right. I love emails now. Maybe it's my favorite writers having been laid off from websites I used to visit. For those who haven't been laid off, there's a good chance they're writing for websites covered in revenue-driving gunk. Gunk sucks. We have enough gunk in our offline lives. Maybe that's why I love emails now. Google figured out how to monetize us without gunk – at least in our inboxes.
Luke O'Neil's Welcome to Hell World is a newsletter you probably subscribe to if you've also become a newsletter guy in 2020. It's full of honest interviews, essays, and reporting – mostly about things that can feel hopeless. You would assume that reading about things that can feel hopeless would feel bad. It does feel bad. But Luke writes so personally that it's reassuring in a way. If other people are as mad about things that feel hopeless as I am, maybe there's a way we can come together and claw our way out of this.
For the last few weeks, Luke has dedicated the newsletter to a series called The Last Normal Day. The series is what it sounds like - guests have contributed essays on their last normal day – however they define normal – in late February or March. Kim Kelly wrote about an innocuous mistake made by a server at a bar. Chris A. Smith wrote about visiting his mother in a not-yet-locked-down assisted living home. Zaron Burnett III wrote about wearing a mask through dubious airport security before flying to vote for Bernie. Remember Bernie? And The Strokes concert? And Nevada? We really thought things might be okay. Maybe normalcy was about having something to look forward to.
It's a great series in part because the topic is so familiar. I'm old enough to have had a thousand conversations about where I was on 9/11 (in social studies). More recently those were replaced with stories about depressing 2016 election parties (in my living room). Now we talk about where we were on our collective “this virus might be bad” moment. Maybe you were at a bar, a show, or enjoying a night in – by choice! The reason we love sharing these stories about the leadup to our Covid lockdown is a nostalgia for something normal.
For me, that normal day was March 11th - my last visit to a restaurant before the NBA season was postponed, Tom Hanks contracted the virus, and we all started to take this seriously. Thanks to LaRina – one of the few restaurants who's managed to survive the last 236 days – for the pre-pandemic ravioli, by the way. Great ravioli! The burrata was fine, I think, but it's hard to say. It was 236 days ago. Since then they've started selling takeout negronis, stacked tables on the sidewalk, and implemented those now-familiar QR code menus. I could easily revisit that burrata, but risking my health, as well as the health of my server, to cram into makeshift curbside seating while cars speed by feet away from my table isn't so appealing.
So now we have nothing to talk about. We're banally navigating relationships, mental health, and food supplies. We've all learned to bake sourdough or make candles. We've all grown to loathe Zoom happy hours. We all learned, and thankfully un-learned, who Carole Baskin is. We had the largest collective protest in American history, but even that ended with an uninspiring thud as it became clear nothing was going to change. We've been deprived of the dates, trips, and spontaneous moments with strangers that made for good conversation. As mundane as they were, at least they were uniquely ours. We weren't all watching the same debates or Netflix releases, formulating the same takeaways that echo back and forth over Twitter or in group chats.
When we do have the occasional social experience, stories are painstakingly prefaced with reassurances about how friends were seated a physician-approved distance from one another. No hugs or handshakes were exchanged. Pretzels were shared in small, pre-packed bags. I miss harmlessly putting my hands in a communal pretzel bowl, is what I'm saying. Now I'm stuck with these massive bowls that no single man can use in good faith. And with no end to the pandemic in sight, do I move the bowls out of reach? Do I even keep the bowls as a reminder of how things used to be?
In 2020, friends and strangers' hands are poisonous. A hand could give me respiratory symptoms for who-knows-how-long. A hand could kill me. The world has become the least fun game of the floor is lava because everything is lava. So I'm suspicious of the people around me – something impossible to navigate in New York. I used to be so blasé about introductions that I invented games to trick my brain into believing it was important enough to remember a stranger's name. There were so many introductions! Now each introduction is like narrowly dodging a car driving through a crosswalk.
The best way to remember someone's name, before you ask, is to imagine the stranger in a fistfight with another person who shares their name. Maybe you'll get to try it some day when strangers stop being lava.
What do you do when there's nothing to do but wait? I've eaten my way through a vegetable garden. I've brushed up on my neglected design toolkit after spending four years creating mockups and managing. I've learned how to stream on Twitch, which helps me focus on something other than everything while I'm broadcasting. But even while I'm reading, learning, or making something, I can't help but feel like I'm waiting for something indefinite and intangible. I'm in my mid-30s! My best years! But all I can do is wait in my isolated box six stories above the streets of New York.
People develop dumb pride about living in New York – pride that's annoying to the rest of the country. You grow numb to cockroaches scurrying across your floor. You buy mule-sized bags to drag your subway-soiled clothes six blocks to the nearest laundromat. You forget what stars look like. But at least we had access to a New York-sized spectrum of culture, food, music, drinks, and most importantly, people. There's something special about New York's ability to make everyone look like a local regardless of their skin tone, what they're wearing, or how old they are. But at a time when New Yorkers should be coming together to demand better wages, better healthcare, and better policing, each stranger has become a potential ticket to physical and financial ruin. If I were a tinfoil hat guy rather than a newsletter guy, I'd think there was a reason we still haven't overcome Covid. It has divided us.
The “Why I Left New York” essay was already played out before the pandemic. McSweeney's made fun of it four years ago. People have been fleeing dense, expensive cities for as long as cities have been cities. But the essay has seen a renaissance this year – enough so that I refuse to let this become one. We have enough of those. They usually end with the writer being wrecked on Twitter. I'm too sensitive to be wrecked on Twitter. But if this isn't a “Why I Left New York” essay, I'm not sure what this essay is. Maybe it's a time capsule for when things do return to normal – whatever normal is. One day I'll be maskless, eating burrata inches from the couple next to me, and I'll unearth this essay to remember how depressed I was at the onset of winter in 2020. My dinner partner will ask why I'm on my phone at dinner and with the biggest, dumbest grin imaginable, I'll exclaim “I wrote this!”
Daylight savings time is here and the sun has ceased to exist. Every hour is midnight. We're a few weeks from frigid weather and with it comes everything we've been dreading since loosening our first quarantine. Maybe we'll have an unproven vaccine next summer and I'll spend 2021 throwing money at dive bar picklebacks and cab rides. But warm weather and outdoor socializing is six excruciating months away. I'm afraid of what the fear, boredom, and studio apartment solitude will do to us. All I can hope is that we make it to next March without being overcome with isolated lunacy – even if we have to learn to care for each other again when we emerge on the other side.