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Excerpt from Feral City by Jeremiah Moss, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Feral City by Jeremiah Moss

Feral City

On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York

by Jeremiah Moss
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  • Oct 4, 2022
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At the pizza place on the corner, I am the only customer. The pizza man in his greasy apron is delighted, desperate to make contact with another human. "Hello, my friend!" he calls. "How are you? Isn't this crazy? Fucking crazy." Behind my mask, I agree, "fucking crazy," as he heats up my slice. He does not wear rubber gloves. "Buddy," he says, "if this goes on much longer, you should buy a gun. We're all gonna need guns. The crime will go up!" I'm more concerned about his bare hands on my slice. After eating this pizza, I will have to count fourteen days, corona's incubation period, to see if I have COVID. If I die for this pizza, I will feel regretful, but at least I will die a New Yorker.

Has the East Village ever been so quiet? In the silence after 9/11, I heard crickets on the street, but it didn't last. The quarantine quiet goes on and on, permitting the softer sounds that usually go unheard. The screech of a hawk. The squeaky wheel on a homeless person's cart. A sigh. A yawn. A tugboat's horn resounding from the East River. Every day, every hour, feels like Sunday morning. Sunday morning in a snowstorm, muffled and fleecy. I play Morrissey, singing of Armageddon, "Every day is like Sunday. Every day is silent and grey."

I can't sleep. My head aches. I expend a great deal of energy trying not to think about death. After spending half the day in bed, I pull on dirty jeans and walk to Tompkins Square Park. This changes everything. The New People are really gone, their absence like an atmosphere, the sky clear after a storm, and the park is sparsely populated with ordinary folks, working-class locals, and diehard East Village types—oddballs, gray-haired anarchists, junkies, hobos, young hippies, poets. An older man is performing spoken word about a goth girl breathing on him, sharing sweat and virus, so what the hell. From an open window at Vazac's Horseshoe Bar, a tattooed woman is serving drinks to go in plastic cups. She has one customer, a grizzled barfly, and me. I order a cocktail to drink in the sunshine of the park where everyone is getting drunk or high. It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine. The guy who rides his bike while blasting hip-hop is sitting on a bench, blasting hip-hop while a few hippie girls dance, their hands in blue rubber gloves. Everyone is masked, six feet apart, yet we feel more connected, more human, less alone.

Most of the neighborhood has vanished, I'm sure of it, a hunch confirmed weeks from now by the Times: "Hundreds of thousands of New York City residents, in particular those from the city's wealthiest neighborhoods, left as the coronavirus pandemic hit." The vanishing first makes itself known to the Department of Sanitation, who are collecting a third less trash from rich neighborhoods. Then the smartphone data comes in, tracking human movement as people scatter outward. By some estimates, half a million people, mostly upper-class, white Manhattanites, will skip town this spring in another white flight, and the largest exodus is from the East Village, where the population has dropped by more than half.

Throughout the plagues of history, people with means have fled cities. In Boccaccio's Decameron, the wealthy run from the Black Death to their country estates, "as though the wrath of God . . . was meant to harry only those remaining within their city walls." Pampinea, one of the storytellers, believes the plague will be less distressing in the beauty of nature. "The heavens may be scowling at us," she says, "but they still won't refuse us their glimpse of eternal beauty—and that's a great deal more beauty than we'll ever find staring at the empty buildings in the city!" I disagree. The empty buildings of the city are beautiful, and after one week of quarantine, I rush out to meet them. The governor's stay-at-home order allows us to venture out as long as we are alone. I am alone. I put on a mask and walk far, through the cold, on sunny days and rainy days, for hours. The pandemic offers a profound accidental experiment. What happens to New York when its least tenaciously attached residents are suddenly gone?

Excerpted from Feral City: On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York by Jeremiah Moss. Copyright © 2022 by Jeremiah Moss. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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