Threshold memories

I’m hearing more stories of what people were doing just before the New York Pause, i.e. the lockdown. On March 11 the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, marking a threshold. The more we adjust to pandemic life, the more everything that preceded shimmers as a kind of otherworld.

Now, “Where were you, and what were you doing when the pandemic was declared?” can take its place alongside “Where were you on 9/11?” and “Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?”

At the precise moment of pandemic declaration, I was teaching a songwriting class and preparing to perform my one-man show Redheaded Friend at the Colony in Woodstock, release my first album in 17 years, and then spend the month of April on the road with the Mammals in Australia, with California dates in May and June.


When people would say at that time about Australia, “Wow! Aren’t you excited?” I would reply, “Yeah, but for some reason it doesn’t seem quite real.”

Lockdown wasn’t an immediate transition. Although the declaration came on March 11, the pre-and-post- demarcation line is not precise. Yet, the weeks leading up to governor Andrew Cuomo’s shutting down much of New York seem ever more compressed.

This is because of the stories. In becoming lore, our stories, even painful ones, are offering shape to our experiences, and links to one another. That’s what stories do. They do not necessarily adhere to accurate time-and-space representation.

I’d rather not call it a silver lining, but the fact that the pandemic has happened to such a massive collective, bringing so many into a singular experience, has brought us a strange sense of connection, one we feel even as we can’t actually touch each other, or even comfortably breathe the same air. It is the sharpest irony of our time, and frankly, not always pleasant.

For me, standout memories of that pre-pandemic period involved Trailways, Port Authority, the New York City subways, a funny play in a black-box theater off Times Square, a visit to a midtown bar, indulging in things I usually eschew, shaking hands and rubbing shoulders with new people in a crowded place, sleeping in a strange bed, breakfasting alone in a Brooklyn coffee shop, deeply enjoying dark roast served in a ceramic cup, and being surrounded, again, by strangers, and visiting one of my oldest friends, actor-director-playwright Peter McCabe at his Brooklyn brownstone.

I ran Redheaded Friend in Pete’s basement, and he gave me suggestions. We laughed a lot. Then I headed back to the Catskills on grimy, fetid, but functional public transportation. I was enriched by all of it, sickened by none of it.

It was six months before most of that activity became dangerous. With the inevitable distortions of memory, that period of time looms large, an important part of the Time Before, a simple Shangri La of ordinariness that I hold onto as a clear example of what I wish for in the Time After.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.

There is one comment

  1. Tom Fraser

    Hey Robert….sorry you didn’t make it to Australia but when the Mammals reschedule the tour put in a plug for them to do New Zealand as well. It’s such a long flight to Australia that popping over to NZ would be a breeze.

    You could take in Richard O’Brien’s statue in Hamilton and see if he’s around….lives in Tauranga I think.

    Great reads thanks.

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