New York, August 30, 2020
The first case of COVID-19 in New York was confirmed on March 1, 2020. By the end of the month, the New York Metropolitan Area had become the worst-affected area in the US, the hospitals filled up, the death rate kept rising. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order closing down non-essential businesses, and soon followed with a stay-at-home advisory. We dutifully stayed put and peered out the window. The City had become a ghost town and every phantom glimpsed from afar was suspect, a virtual carrier. The air itself seemed rife with infection. The invisible peril appeared to lurk at every turn. But necessity soon enough trumped fear. Sprints to the supermarket to stock up on food and other essentials soon evolved into masked nightly reconnaissance missions, in the course of which I became aware of a new dynamic.
Street art flourished and climbed like flowering vines on the bare walls of deserted buildings. And when, in the wake of repeated reports of police killings of unarmed black men, demonstrators took to the streets, followed by scattered cases of looting, show windows were promptly boarded up.
The clapboard shutters, in turn, sprouted art, some primitive, some a bit more sophisticated, some downright astonishing. Practically overnight, new paintings burgeoned like wild mushrooms, as they had on the western side of the Berlin Wall. Downtown New York turned into a virtual outdoor art gallery. I’m quite sure the same phenomenon happened in cities and towns around the world.
But life is an ever-evolving work in progress. Beauty is as fleeting as fear. Nothing lasts for long. As fall approaches and trees begin to shed their leaves, shops reopen for business and shed their shutters. I sincerely hope that someone is collecting the precious detritus.
I make no pretense of skill as a photographer, but I have eyes and an iPhone. What began as a distraction from dread soon evolved into a determination to record and preserve an eloquent and powerful psychic “antibody” of work. While art offers neither treatment for nor immunity to the microbe, it is a pleasure to behold, and also incidentally a powerful palliative response to distress. Street artists took the City’s vitals, as it were, and transformed the grief, suffering, anger, fear and confusion into a resplendent SOS.
I herewith stuff these images along with this note into a virtual bottle and cast it adrift in the currents of cyberspace, hoping it may wash up and find welcome on your computer screen.
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, 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.