Editor’s Note: Paul Smart, who lives in Albany, does not have corona virus.
This started as a story about fashion. It’s become a tale of illness and, hopefully, recovery.
When you’re taking photos on vacation, you tend not to focus on the people wearing face masks. It’s only later, when you’ve flown in from Milan only to find a pile of texts and emails asking if you’re okay given that the coronavirus broke out around the city you’ve just been in, that you wish you’d expanded your vision of images a bit. In vain, you study group shots for signs of medical distress.
I’ve got a flurry of shots from the Milan Fashion Week Emerging Talents Runway Show where my wife, son and I had front-row seats. Even though we spotted a few face masks while having an afternoon coffee before the event itself, on February 22 none showed up around the fashion shows. Leopard-skin lederhosen, flowing furs, high-end street chic, and countless other looks instead.
The following morning a whole family in masks sat beside us as we waited for and then took our flight the following morning. But there was nothing to indicate a city, region or nation about to be shut down for a modern plague, as would happen during the time we were flying from Milan to Madrid.
“Who are you three with?” the woman at the door had asked, checking her notebook as we approached the Palazzo Visconti. “Woodstock Times,” answered my 14-year-old son, adorned with Yeezies and a custom rapper-designed tie-die tee shirt.
“Ah, we’ve been awaiting you. Milan loves Woodstock,” noted the woman. She was wearing what looked like a Malificent ball gown.
They whisked us into the palazzo’s grand ballroom, to front-row seats where our feet could touch the white felt runway. Milo sat on its edge, snapping occasional shots of the crowd as he searched out celebrities we, his parents, wouldn’t recognize. Fawn spoke with a woman from St. Petersburg who compared her city and Milan, noting how the Russians felt indebted to the Milanese for the elegance of their imperial city.
I recorded the sound of a man who crawled along the runway pulling up a plastic covering. The sotto-voce quieting of everyone’s anticipatory talk came from a crowd partly made up of family and friends of the new designers in from Romania, Estonia, rural Italy, Serbia and Indonesia. Well-known models and designers buzzed past what the up-and-comers might be presenting. Fashionistas established and wannabes (like ourselves) were happy to have scored a runway show in such an elegant setting.
It all ran fast, with no discernible hitches beyond the taffeta ballgown one model found got stuck within a sixteenth-century doorway. About five minutes was spent in dead-eyed strutting as everyone snapped pictures and took notes, some of them drawn old-style for each of the designers. A few more minutes were spent watching the designers follow their creations around the room.
We’d gotten in based on a simple ruse. As a journalist I wanted my readers to “see” what was emerging through the eyes of my son. What did his eyes see? He was impressed by different things than my wife and me were: The hang of a top, hoodie-like despite the embroidered frou-frou in which all these designers delighted. The way designs sat upon designs, embellishment upon embellishment. And the general attitude with which everything was worn.
It was all a world of difference from the thousand-dollar sneaker wear and ultra-puffer-jacket takes on U.S. urban chic we’d seen in the windows of the top designer stores along Via Monte Napoleone and nearby streets. And oh-so-different from the varieties of face masks we noticed our Madrid-bound fellow travelers wearing the next day, which in style were closer to the quasi-Hazmat suits the immigration doctors had been wearing when we’d first arrived in Madrid a week earlier. These folks had asked to look in our eyes as they took our temperature with a forehead thermometer.
Despite the international news carrying word that the Venice Carnivale was canceling its final days, and Milan’s Fashion Week was quieter than in the past, Italy looked busy as usual as we left it Sunday morning. Madrid seemed to have not a care in the world, with crowds everywhere and not a mask in sight. Ditto the airport the next day as we flew off back to JFK, where again we didn’t see masks or medical protocols as we re-entered the United States.
Not only had the few masks we’d seen become something of an aberration, concurrent with the growing flurry of news about coronavirus showing up on our phones’ news feeds, but all thoughts of the emerging fashions we’d seen dispersed like dry ice in a wind.
Son Milo had had a cough our entire trip. He vomited at school the morning after we flew in and took two days off, with wife Fawn staying home to nurse him as well as her own symptoms. I charged back into work, including the running of a Caribbean Carnival at the library where I work.
I collapsed the evening of Wednesday, February 26, with aches, pains, a headache and complete exhaustion. By the next day, it was all I could do to get out of bed. My breathing was labored. My throat was so sore I couldn’t speak.
A couple of days later, Fawn called my doctor to discuss my symptoms. I told him about our travel to Milan. He said we’d have to go to the Albany emergency room immediately. The whole family.
Before we could explain anything there, they had a mask on me and had moved me into a quarantine room. They also asked about the fashion shows.
My wife was asked to take Milo back home. She could come back for me in a few hours, they said.
I was put on a gurney and wrapped in sheets. Protocol, I was told. Everyone around me had masks on. They assured me I probably just had the flu.
Over the next three hours, reading on my phone of more and more coronavirus news from Italy as well as around the U.S., I had swabs stuck up each nostril, down my throat. Eyes and ears checked. A chest x-ray. Various doctors told me it was good I’d gotten a flu shot that year, but given the changing nature of flu strains these years such things were hit or miss.
A doctor seeing me commented about how I’d be out of there in no time, and then added how bad it would be if I did test positive for coronavirus. “They’d have to quarantine your whole family, including the cats and dog,” he said. “I don’t mean to get political, but it’s sad how the media trumps everything getting their stories on something like this, spreading fear.”
I didn’t mention my journalism angle on the fashion shows.
“Call me the Corona Angel,” said one of the nurses wheeling me to different testing stations, showing off her new “Coronavirus Protocol Wear” with a flourish. My doctor had told me my case had pushed the ER and entire hospital into overdrive to test the new protocols.
I have not been quite sure, in the growing number of days since that hospital visit, as I battled my worsening flu symptoms, whether it would have been more expedient to me to have said nothing and waited out my symptoms, whatever they were.
Fashion and illness. Human vulnerability has a specious beauty about it that we carry with us through all our experiences.