The moment before

When disaster is about to strike, is it a gift not to know?

5 minute read
What would you have done if you had known the moment before the 1986 Challenger disaster? (Image courtesy of NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.)
What would you have done if you had known the moment before the 1986 Challenger disaster? (Image courtesy of NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.)

People old enough to remember November 22, 1963, know exactly where they were when news came crackling that John F. Kennedy had been shot.

My indelible moments came later: January 1986, when the Challenger space shuttle, carrying an earnest teacher from New Hampshire among the seven astronauts, burst in a funnel of smoke 73 seconds after lift-off.

Or 9/11: huddling on the bed with my partner and our 8-month-old, eyes pinned to images of planes and crumpling towers, a blue sky gummed with blackened haze.

The crashes, the assassinations, are burned into our psyches. But what about the moment just before the world goes haywire?

Last night in New York

The evening of March 12, I drove from a North Jersey school—I was teaching poetry to second-graders—to Manhattan. My mom has an apartment there; it made sense to stay and shorten my commute. The night was cloudy, not yet murmuring of spring. But I’d been indoors all day, and my body ached to move.

So I strolled uptown, tracing Broadway’s wide diagonal. Bakery windows holding black-and-white cookies big as tea plates. A corner store with buckets of Gerbera daisies, $2 a stem. Manhattan, as usual. Except…at Starbucks, the barista refused to touch my personal cup, and the condiments—sugar, wooden stir sticks—were tucked behind the counter, available only on request.

If I’d walked in the opposite direction—downtown, instead of up—I would have passed theaters where actors were belting out the closing notes of Hamilton, The Lion King, and West Side Story. Literally, the closing notes: the next day, Broadway would shut down.

The signs

Usually, we’re not aware when something happens for the final time. It’s only later that we realize, gazing backward through our loss-smeared lens: If only I’d known. If only—what? I might have paused instead of hurtling through? I might have been less indifferent, more intentional? I might have memorized the moment, cradled it—the shuttle’s aspirational whoosh, the towers’ steady presence before they buckled. The amiable buzz of upper Broadway on a mid-March night.

This time, though, there were signs.

Yes, the sidewalks streamed with kids and dogs and couples strolling arm-in-arm. A few people greeted one another with elbow bumps or jazz hands, laughing at the clumsy new routine.

Then, on the corner of 83rd and Broadway stood a woman in a mask that looked like vintage World War II—a canvas triangle occluding her entire face, with a length of ridged tubing at the mouth. A specter from another era…or perhaps, one still to come.

That night, you could count New York’s COVID-19 deaths on one hand. Wuhan was 7,500 miles away. But there were footsteps thudding in the background. If life were a movie, it was time to cue the ominous refrain.

Forgetting mortality again

I bought myself a poke bowl and presented my loyalty card: four punches left, a gesture of faith in the future. I carried my dinner back to the apartment, put on pajamas and ate with wooden chopsticks. At 10pm, still restless, I shrugged on a jacket, laced my shoes and, with plaid pajamas billowing around my legs, walked 11 blocks for an overpriced, kid-sized cup of chocolate sorbet.

"Viva. La Vie. Boheme!" The cast of the 20th-anniversary Broadway tour of ‘RENT.’ (Photo by Carol Rosegg.)
"Viva. La Vie. Boheme!" The cast of the 20th-anniversary Broadway tour of ‘RENT.’ (Photo by Carol Rosegg.)

A small indulgence. But also, an extravagance of freedom—to venture out unmasked, bare-handed. To bump against strangers. To share their air.

In Jonathan Larson’s rock musical, Rent—loosely based on La Boheme, about young, broke, idealistic artists squatting in New York’s Alphabet City at the height of the AIDS epidemic—the characters sing a bittersweet carpe diem, “No Day But Today,” a song that became instantly more poignant after Larson died of an aortic dissection on the morning of Rent’s first preview. He was 35.

That night, sans costumes, still trembling with shock and grief, the cast sang:

There is no future
There is no past
I live each moment as my last
…No other road
No other way
No day but today…

It’s a platitude with a vein of truth: any moment could be the final one. Planes crash, trains leap off the rails, a microscopic virus wafts in on someone’s breath and starts gnawing at your lungs.

We can’t live on that serrated edge of consciousness, peering into the abyss, consuming every poke bowl as if it’s the last supper, kissing our loved ones with might-not-ever-see-you-again ferocity. To endure, we must forget we’re mortal, until—whomp—disaster reminds us all over again.

What were you doing?

Maybe this corona-crisis is an opportunity to linger in that knowledge for a painful while: to see our lives as bright and fleeting, vulnerable and rare. When we lost live theater, we lost a way of remembering that evanescence because in a play, even one performed eight times a week, no moment ever clones the one before. The haunting magic of performance is the breath between “now” and “next,” when we don’t know how the story will unscroll.

Think back: what were you doing, the instant before you understood that the coronavirus would change everything? Were you driving with the radio up high? Kvetching because your sweetie had left her socks on the bathroom floor, again? Were you outside, face tipped up to inky sky, astonished by the waning moon?

Late on March 12, I walked briskly through the soon-to-be-dark theater district. I imagined actors clinging to each other as the curtains closed, audiences applauding till their fingers stung. Back in bed with my child-sized treat, I texted my partner and daughter good night. Then I turned on the 11 o’clock news and watched, every foreboding word, while I licked the last smears of sweetness from my cup.

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