The Here & Now is ringing in the new year with reflections from residents. We would like to thank Robert Craig Baum, whose Wisdom 1096 project inspired this insert.
By Robert Craig Baum
Today I get to eat pizza in Manhattan. My God: yes! As I enter Penn Station from Seventh Avenue, I blast Sia’s remix of “Cheap Thrills” in my headphones. I imagine myself in an ensemble of dancers that spontaneously takes over the escalator, like Janet or Madonna or Michael or Kanye or Pink, or one of those new-fangled boy bands out of South Korea.
Then I imagine us dancing into the pizza joint I’ve gone to ever since I was a kid — same place I went when I taught at Fordham Lincoln Center in 2015. But, wait … record scratch, dancers disperse, headphones off. The place is gone. There’s been a renovation. Where’s the pizza? Then I notice how every fifth person is wearing a medical mask. Did I miss an announcement while playing out my music-video fantasy?
Something isn’t right. Something is definitely not right. But what?
You. Yes, you! Stand away with it!
The noise in my head is unbearable. The slow grip of paranoia is unlike anything I have ever experienced before. It’s not even reminiscent of growing up on Long Island during the Cold War 80s, right next to Manhattan, which might have been the target of a nuclear attack back then. The “Star Trek” red-alert siren fades in and out as I make my way through College Park, wondering if this is it. The end. Not sure about vaccination availability or viability or reliability. And now Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” has replaced my Penn Station dance-track fantasy. I spend every day, all day, worried. Me. My wife. My kids. My friends around the country and the world. My production teams. All of us. It’s just too much.
Who’s it gonna be? You? Who’s going to give me COVID-19? Who? You, with the mask under your nose at CVS? How about you, standing inches behind me in line at Whole Foods? You are all going to kill me. You. Yes, you!
This was my brain for many too many months, the slow madness of simply not knowing and, of course, worrying like everyone, about misinformation and disinformation and truly evil people attempting to exploit all of us during a time when we desperately needed more calm and less hype.
As the vaccinations were announced, my area experienced a sudden, a spontaneous, and deeply false sense of security. But when I venture out, my fear haunts me still. With one mistake, one missed droplet on the cereal box or produce or whatever I was wiping down before I trudged between my SUV and front stoop; with one sneeze into my own hand and one missed squirt-squirt-squirt-rub-rub-rub-rub-each-finger-squirt- each-palm-rub-up-up-up-up-the-arm (did I remember to say the whole Star Trek “Space, the final frontier” intro to myself while I scrubbed?) Me. Yes, me! Up against the wall. Paranoia. I caused this. I killed you. I brought it into my house. I infected my family. I killed them.
Over a million Americans, alone, may have died.
Robert Craig Baum created the Wisdom1096 project five years ago, and the College Park Arts Exchange hosted the project this winter. When not curating nonfiction for the Here & Now, Baum is immersed in an array of creative productions and entrepreneurial ventures.
Read more reflections here:
Maxine Gross: The best and the worst of it
Arun Ivatury: A delicate balance
Mary Anne Hakes: A more closely knit community