Recently, I received what, in any other year, would be a pretty normal text:
Hey! I just got back in town. Wanna grab coffee?
It seemed innocent enough: just a classmate I hadn’t seen since March, wanting to reconnect. The more I thought about it, however, the more unclear it seemed. How long, exactly, had they been in the city? Did they fly here? Had they landed at JFK, immediately whipped out their phone and sent this question to everyone they knew?
I stared at the message for a good while and thought about asking those questions, but each question brought up something else. Did they have roommates? Did they check their temperature? Was it rude to ask them to get tested? This led me to the now-default phrase, “Have you been safe?”
In a time where everyone is looking out for themselves, “safety” becomes a meaningless word. We all have our own interpretations. For some, that means movie theaters, release parties and bars. For others, it means letting guests take their masks off. For the CDC, it means recusing yourself from everything until the vaccine is in your arm.
I consider myself fairly good at this. As a hermit-type, I enjoy having little to no social responsibility: no obligations, no niceties, no dates to keep. I double-mask, hand sanitize and keep my distance, but I also give myself a certain amount of leeway. Everyone has a vastly different interpretation, and we’ll bend them to suit our needs.
Back in August, when the case counts were significantly lower, I was out of weed. We’d found ourselves a black-market delivery service that, while “safe,” tacked on a hefty premium. I wanted to go in-person for the first time since March. This would’ve been fine if I lived alone, but I don’t. If I got sick, I put my partner and our roommate in danger. So we called a meeting.
Perhaps you have a similar system in your household. We all sat in the living room and I pitched my idea.
“Listen,” I said. “Yes, this is risky. But think of the savings!”
My roommate Katie, a particularly COVID-cautious person, said “No way.” My partner, Anahita, was somewhere in the middle. We came to an agreement: I could go, so long as I was in and out in 15 minutes.
Cue me, in a basement somewhere in Bushwick, surrounded by a dozen different people, all unmasked. The “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme played in my head. It was a stupid decision, and I knew there’d be some price to pay. I was shepherded into a different room where the dealer had set up a table. I took a certain glance at some product in a jar before he (the only masked one in the building) removed the lid and held it up for me to smell.
I don’t know if it was some craving for normalcy that led me to this point. It didn’t hit me that removing my mask and touching a jar to my nose was an obviously stupid move. It also didn’t hit me that this guy had probably been offering whiffs to everyone all day. I purposefully breathed in that air. Remember when I said I was good at this? I think I need to take that back now.
When I got home, product in hand, I was petrified. I tried to avoid taking off my mask as long as I could. I took mouthwash, vitamin D, Tylenol; anything to try and knock off any germs I might’ve encountered. I danced around the subject, saying,“Oh, yeah, it was quick,” knowing fully that if someone got sick, it was my fault. It was terrible, but it raised a question: If that was going through my head, what was going through everyone else’s?
Everybody has to make a compromise somewhere. Your compromises are likely much less stupid than mine. If we’d all been gifted the privilege to have our teleconferences beautified, groceries delivered and walled-off compounds cleared of any humans, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess. But what does it mean for us when these white lies can mean life or death?
I get it. It’s hard to say no to the people you love, especially after a year of separation. There are ways to buffer it: ventilation, testing, air filter setups, but none of them actually keep us 100% safe. It’s awkward to speak to someone through a mask, and what’s the point if they’re going to be in your house for long enough? The restaurant you love is open again, and it’s only 25% capacity—what’s the harm? You could meet outside, but in a New York winter, that is not a pleasant activity. For every safety measure, there is a sacrifice. For every dedicated mask-wearer, there is a stoned idiot like myself. It’s a matter of trust in a time where trust is a very fickle thing.
Belief has been a very difficult thing during the last four years. With a president who consistently peddled in mistruths, who hid the severity of this pandemic, everyone has had to pick and choose what they want to trust. Where other governments worldwide have stepped in with assistance, mass testing and lockdowns, we’ve been left to the one device Americans seem to love most: personal responsibility. In a time where trust in the system is at an all time low, we’ve been asked to trust each other more than ever. There’s hope that, with a Biden presidency, we might have some sense of normalcy. I think the damage is already done.
This is compounded by the way COVID-19 spreads. Estimates from the British Medical Journal put asymptomatic transmission at 17-20% of the COVID-bearing population. For those of us who can’t do numbers, think of it like a grocery store where one in every five apples has a razor blade inside. Sure, some of the apples might cut your throat open. But you’ll eat around it and be safe. Now imagine that apple, even if it didn’t kill you, gave you the power to slit one of every five of your own friends’ throats at random. Do you let the people in your life know? Do you cancel your plans? Do you get a test and hope for the best? It’s all about how far you and the people in your life are able to go.
As Pratt students in the city, most of us are living in areas struggling with COVID-19. This global situation will only intensify the effects of gentrification. Look no further than the empty storefronts on Myrtle Avenue or your own neighborhood. We talk a big game when it comes to community and the importance of marginalized lives, but we’re willing to gamble with them. Fun as it may be, New York City isn’t our playground. There are lives at stake, particularly for the QTBIPOC and elderly who made this city what it is, who had a hand in creating the culture you came here for and who are at the most risk of being killed by our irresponsibility. Every positive case has a ripple effect. We’re not just being asked to keep our circles safe: we are tasked with keeping our entire community safe.
It’s a lot to process, and nobody is right! We live in deeply subjective times. My solution, rash as it may be, is to wait. I never got back to that text from my friend; it’s been sitting in my messages since January. I didn’t want to have the sit-down meeting. I didn’t want to ask how safe they’d been. I didn’t want to wait in another testing line. I can make coffee at home.
It may be different for you. Life is endlessly complicated. How we navigate that is built on trust and honesty: two things that are in short supply these days. We’re human. We want to do human things, mistakes and white lies included. All we can do is keep ourselves safe...whatever that means.
Art by Dev Kamath