New York City, May 2020

Observations in the Vale and Vector of the Virus

It’s late yet again. And again, I survey the silence, inverting wakefulness and sleep. Again, in place of dreaming, I listen to the refrigerator humming. The construction site that had been growing like a giant metal bean stalk outside my window, down the block, has suspended activity, its girders rearing midair untrussed. Who knows when work will begin again? The street has fallen silent, all the foul language formerly howled has been sucked back into the absent throats of nonexistent passersby. Unaccustomed to silence – to think that I would ever miss the very things that bothered me most!

All NYC street photos by Peter Wortsman

New Yorkers like to tout our town as the center of the universe. We would gladly have passed on the privilege of being the epicenter this time around.

I live in the rarefied environs of Greenwich Village. On the surface not much has changed. The birds are singing. The flowers have burst their buds. It’s spring again. Time to shed winter doldrums. But such transient seasonal distress has since been replaced by a seasonless dread.

In the beginning, masked and gloved-up, I regularly ventured out. Most stores have since shut down for the duration; though deemed essential enterprises, along with the pharmacies, bodegas, and supermarkets, the head shops are open for business – go figure! All restaurants, bars and other non-essential businesses are gated or boarded up, with printed or handwritten signs, some affecting a friendly personal tone, most perfunctory, announcing temporary closure. But how temporary is temporary? How many will ever reopen?

Wildlife in the time of the plague

At the start of it all, I witnessed a white-bearded man with a turban in Biblical attire blasting on a ram’s horn, a self-appointed prophet, I suppose, proclaiming the 11th plague. (He has more recently been replaced by a bagpiper sounding a daily dirge for the departed.) For a lark, early on, two young men donned rabbit masks and hopped about, photographed by a third. “Don’t forget to hold up the sign!” the photographer cried. Whereupon the two dutifully flashed placards with hashtags “#Come to the Doom’s Day Dinner.” This is The Village, after all, and you expect such benign eccentricities.

When it reigns I’m poor

But dinners, like all other gatherings, have since become taboo. The few souls I pass nowadays on short nocturnal jaunts are either dog-walkers or aimless beggars with no place to go. After doling out dollars each time you step out, you get good at reading a shadow from afar – if it shuffles, limps or stalls, you keep your distance. The faceless phantoms, like myself, walk at a steady, rapid clip. We keep as far as possible apart, and exchange fleeting looks, each viewing the other as a virtual threat, a potential carrier of infection.

The other day an angry teenager walked up to me and butted me in the chest. It was not a friendly greeting.

Is this the new norm?

The virus – now you see it, now you don’t

I have stomped the same circuit of streets and exhausted novelty on my limited nightly trajectories. Upon returning home I escape into my imaginings. Of late I have tried to envision our microscopic adversary, variously depicted on internet sites either as an abstract expressionist pattern of tinted stains, or in 3-D representations as cauliflower-like globs, or else as spherical entities with extended knobs, minuscule invaders, streamlined and downsized since the advent of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, but invaders all the same.

Despite all, I cannot help but be awestruck by the dogged determination of the virus, its resilience and stubborn resolve to proliferate.

Its appellation derives from a Latin word meaning ‘slimy liquid’ or ‘poison.’ When not squatting in and freeloading on an infected cell, viruses apparently loll about as discrete particles, or virions, vagrant molecules of DNA or RNA with nothing to do but dangle.

Microbiologists the world over are busy studying the genetic code, decoding the viral dialect. Whoever deciphers it first and manages to establish its secret fallibility will win a Nobel Prize.

I once interviewed the late Nobel laureate Baruch Blumberg, a geneticist who shared the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering role in the discovery of the hepatitis B virus and the development of a vaccine to combat it. In the course of our interview, he decried the bellicose notion of “battling disease.” “It’s not a helpful metaphor,” he cautioned.

I imagine hordes of microscopic marauders circling the city, storming the gates of unguarded mouths, eyes and noses. The threat looms largest at night, when darkness closes in and I mull over the latest tally of casualties, hoping not become a statistic myself.

Street collage – in the time of the virus

Like everyone else, I too long for the vaccine as a valiant knight to rescue us from the scourge. But like it or not, viruses are here to stay. They will keep mutating, as all life forms do, reemerging in new, ever more virulent iterations. They are our unseen neighbors. We share the same strands of life.

The human body hosts “good” bacteria that aid in digestion and other physiological functions. So, too, apparently, do we host so-called bacteriophages, viruses lodged in the mucus membrane lining in the digestive, respiratory and reproductive tracts that destroy invasive bacteria. Phages have been utilized to treat dysentery, sepsis, salmonella infections and skin infections, among other maladies.

What if, I wonder, we could someday genetically reengineer malignant viruses to render them good neighbors, helpful partners cohabiting the same organism they otherwise ravage? It’s a hopeful science fiction phantasy, no doubt, but there are worse ways to wrestle with the dread.

Man on wall

Outside, meanwhile, the early birds are twittering up a storm. An entrenched city slicker, I long for the sounds I once loathed, the car horns and curses hurled at all hours, the thump of construction, the clink and clang of business as usual.

previously published on the blog, Mr Beller’s Neighborhood


Voice and breath: a conversation with Peter Wortsman and & Tess Lewis – Festival Neue Literatur, July 2020



Photo credit Ricky Owens

Dubbed a ’20th-century Brother Grimm’ (Bloomsbury Review) and ‘a delinquent Hans Christian Andersen’ (by playwright Mark O’Donnell), Peter Wortsman is the author of works of fiction and nonfiction, stage plays and poetry. He is also a translator from the German and a travel writer. His publications include, most recently, of Stimme und Atem / Out of Breath, Out of Mind, a bilingual, German-English book of stories (Palm Art Press, Berlin, 2019), the second edition of his first book of short fiction, A Modern Way to Die (Pelekinesis, Claremont, Cal., 2020), a book of doctors’ profiles, The Caring Heirs of Doctor Samuel Bard (Columbia University Press, New York, 2019) and English translations of Intimate Ties, by Robert Musil (Archipelago Books, New York, 2019), and Hinkemann, a tragedy, by Ernst Toller (Berlinica Books, Berlin and New York, 2019). A former Fellow of the Fulbright (1973) and Thomas J. Watson (1974) Foundations, he was the Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in Spring 2010. His travel writing was selected five years in a row, 2008-2012, and again in 2016, for inclusion in Travelers’ Tales’ The Best Travel Writing. His travel memoir Ghost Dance in Berlin, A Rhapsody in Gray was short-listed for a 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award and won a 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY). His novel Cold Earth Wanderers was a finalist in Foreword Reviews’ 2015 INDIEFAB Best Fantasy/Science Fiction Book Competition. He lives in New York City. More here.