April 13, 2020
Brooklyn, New York
The strangest small thing about these enormously strange times is the sound from outside. My spouse and I are in the beginning of our fifth week at home, so we’ve passed into spring while in quarantine. All the windows in our one-bedroom apartment are open. This is the seasonal routine—we keep them shut during the winter and put in air conditioners in the summer, but during this mild time of year, we throw up temporary screens to let in the fresh air. We’re lucky to be pretty high up, on the fifth floor of a six-story building. We get decent light. Only our neighbors in the upper stories across the street can see into our unit. But despite our elevation off the ground, it’s loud, usually; the block is lined with sixty-unit apartment buildings that bounce noise back and forth. Spring brings the sounds of cars, delivery trucks, honks and shouts at vehicles double-parked, movers unloading furniture, men arguing in groups in open courtyards, people laughing, glass shattering, the occasional firework going off.
These days it is quiet. It is eerie. Birds chirp. Hardly any traffic goes by. The city stopped street cleaning at the end of March, so all the motion that came with that—cars shuffling places, doors slamming, radios on, the rush of the street sweeper, parking enforcement issuing tickets along the block—has ended. Life looks frozen in place. Every so often, people’s voices rise from the sidewalk, but they’re not gathering in groups anymore. You overhear a word or two, that’s all. One side of a passing phone call. The only real noise now is sirens.
While writing this letter, I counted out what I could hear: eight sirens an hour, or one emergency passing every few minutes. Three weeks ago, New York City’s emergency dispatchers took more calls than they have in any one day since Sept. 11, 2001. That one-day record was then broken three times in the week that followed. The coronavirus pandemic is demanding that emergency medical workers respond to up to seven thousand calls a day; EMTs here estimate that every one of them have been exposed to the virus, and nearly a quarter of these workers are currently out on sick leave. At least three are in critical condition. As of this afternoon, there are more than one hundred thousand confirmed coronavirus cases in the city and 7,154 deaths. The silence, the sirens, are because people are sick. They’re dying.
That’s all we’re listening to in quarantine. The sounds of people’s lives on the line. That, and the birds, the spring birds, singing from the trees and bushes. There’s an ambulance going by now as I type this. At seven o’clock, the people in the apartments around us will lean out their windows, bang pots, blow horns, and clap for essential workers—it’s the only big noise to be made all day, the only communal happiness to hear. After a few minutes, the applause will fade, and another siren will answer. This is a strange springtime. These are unsettling days. I hope every one of us will enter into a season where we can be loud on the street again. In our homes, we are quiet, waiting.
Wishing you health and safety,
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Phillips’s contribution will be directed to Crime Victims Treatment Center.