Finding Peace and Purpose in Panic

Sure, anyone who has seen a disaster movie has drifted into thought about what it would really be like to experience a global disaster. You know, not just a Nor’easter that has you stuck inside for 3 days, bored of repetitive TV, less-than-engaging original programming and endless bowls of cereal, all because you refused to believe the weatherperson was right this time around. For the first time in our lifetime, we are seeing something that we truly cannot compare to anything we have yet to experience. I quickly got over the hump of what is fact and what is overreaction, realizing that regardless of the (as of yet) unknown truth, the implications of what tomorrow may bring have landed us in the predicament we are in…which is history in the making. All major sports leagues canceled, the stock market crippled, domestic air travel grounded, quarantines, stay-in-place orders, major cities shut down entirely across the world; it doesn’t take a genius the likes of a social media commenter to understand that these are shaky, if not scary, times.

So what to do? With the possibility of an all-out NYC quarantine looming, I did what any street photographer would do: I loaded up my gear and hit the streets to capture what had become of arguably the greatest, most bustling city in the world. In short, it was eerie. Streets normally abuzz with car horns and sirens, sidewalks packed and bike messengers whizzing by….silent. I walked up a downtown block and heard the echo of a handful of teenagers laughing in the street with no background noise to drown it out. Whole stretches of blocks empty, or reduced to one passerby every few minutes. This isn’t the city I know, but it’s still the city I love. And it took a historic pandemic to make me realize it.

I always thought it was the people who made me love New York City. I remember the guys playing the shell games in Times Square, and jewelry hawkers opening lapels to reveal their daily offering. They are my earliest memories of my great love affair with New York back in the eighties. Even those who have no style still, oddly, have style in New York, and those dressed to the nines just shine a little bit brighter. But with the streets stripped of its characters, it was time for the city to put on a different kind of show. Maybe it was the very silence and emptiness in which the vision of beauty was born. After all, those of us who live here know it’s a rare sight to behold. Maybe the situation itself plays into some morbid lust for chaos–one that anyone who dreads boredom and opens up to their truth will admit exists–and the very thought of capturing a world seemingly on the precipice of Armageddon draws its own twisted intrigue. No matter the reason, lifting my camera to document what’s taking place was therapeutic. 

I spent one night and one afternoon just capturing what moved me. I wasn’t trying to tell any particular story. No painting a picture of my beliefs, or shifting my shots in lieu of a particular narrative. I let the city speak. I let it speak to me in a way it never has before, because, frankly, I have never experienced the city in this way. And it was beautiful. When it wasn’t arresting architecture standing regally atop barren streets, it was the simple charm of flowering trees dancing against weathered brick, the deserted fruit stands and graffitied gates ominously appealing to the artists’  awakening in darkness. I marveled at millions being forced inside, even more intrigued at those who were outside. But mostly, I reveled in the unbreakable framework of this concrete jungle. For every time Mother Nature tears down humankind’s creations, the heart of humanity comes together and builds back up. This time, Mother Nature has dealt us humans the blow, and our great city stands ever tall to remind us that it, too, will be here when we recover from this.

I found a piece of myself in this despair. I found peace within myself in this despair. Through the unknown, I found an odd sense of security. I don’t know what is going to happen 24 or 48 hours from now, but I have never felt more sure of my vision as a creative. It isn’t cohesive bodies of work, like I had once thought. It is simply immersing myself in a feeling, and being able to express that feeling to others, so that they, too, can experience a moment the way I do. I guess sometimes out of the darkest hour comes the brightest light…

Update: This piece was first written 3/15/20, when this situation was all very new. The photos below were documented over the next week, as I made the personal decision, after a week, to play my part in helping get through this crisis as fast as possible, without further complicating the jobs and endangering the lives of those who are “essential” to this city powering through this. 

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