In Isolation

by Jesse Alvior


As I write this, the US has just surpassed China as having more cases of COVID-19 than any other country in the world. The epicenter is right here in New York City. I’ve lived here in the Lower East Side for 17 years, and I’ve seen the neighborhood transform and gentrify. Galleries and shops replaced bargain clothing stores. Hotels and condominiums sprung up alongside tenements with rent-controlled apartments. Bars and clubs made it a rowdy night spot. Equinox and Soho House spelled the end of what was once a gritty neighborhood where drugs were openly peddled at night.

During the day it’s become busy in a subdued, downtown kind of way, but this morning, when I went to the supermarket, all the shops had their gates rolled down. The streets are virtually empty, and there’s nothing but bad graffiti in the cold light of day. The intersection of Broome and Orchard, normally buzzing with activity, is deserted. The popular café at the corner is closed, and on this beautiful, sunny spring weekday, it’s surreal to see chairs turned over the tables. I’ve seen the neighborhood through calamities like the 2003 blackout and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but I’ve never seen anything like this.

I love walking around the neighborhood, and while we’re still allowed to run or take short walks as long as we keep our distance from each other, doing so only contributes to my growing paranoia. So much about the disease is unknown. Who has the virus? Is six feet enough? Why isn’t everyone wearing a mask? It’s deeply frightening, but it’s even more dismaying to see some people openly defying the guidelines.

Three friends enjoy an unusually warm spring evening. It’s the largest group I’ve seen so far. I’m pretty sure they, too, marvel at the city’s silence – save for the sound of sirens.

  1. This is the roof of a big tenement building on Orchard. There’s a variety of people I see there every now and then, but of all the activities I’ve seen on that roof this is perhaps the most emblematic of our time – a haircut. Hair salons are not considered essential businesses, but we must get a haircut at some point.
  2. I do wonder how many of those cigarette butts are from the time shelter in place began.
  3. The iconic water towers are a distinctly New York feature. This one’s my favorite, but I’ve never seen anyone on top of it until recently. There was a couple who spent about an hour enjoying the view, and later, this man set up a picnic blanket right at the foot of it. He spent the rest of the afternoon up there reading, and when the sun began to set, stood to have a drink. 
  4. This young musician lives in the attic right below where he stands. On sunny days he comes out of that window to sit on top of the dormer. Most of the time he simply faces the sun and closes his eyes. On the second day of shelter in place, he spent the entire afternoon perched on the dormer, and at one point came out to play his guitar.

As the number of cases surge, I deem it safer to simply never leave our apartment. Luckily, we have access to the roof of our building, a common space for everyone who lives here. Up there I exercise, catch the sun, or get some fresh air. Since the shelter-in-place order took effect, most of the residents fled to their Long Island homes, and more often than not I have it to myself. However, I’m not alone. All around me I see New Yorkers also taking refuge on their roofs. Most of them are solitary.

This is by no means a new phenomenon, but with recent events there seems to be a different color to these scenes. Whether they’re trying to do some work or taking a breather from the confines of their apartments, from a distance I seem to observe a common thread with all of them. They tend to be more pensive than before, and rather melancholic, as if reluctantly having made peace with the new normal. In these series of photos I try to capture this mood in this strange time we’re in, the myriad feelings of distance, isolation, and uncertainty. Even in the most mundane of activities, like walking a pet or even getting a haircut—things I’ve never witnessed on a roof—I get the sense of longing to connect.

  1. The area above Delancey is famous for its night time commotions. Dubbed “Hell’s Square,” it has the highest concentration of liquor licenses in the country. For years the neighborhood has been at odds with many of the bars and clubs for disturbing the peace, but has been largely unsuccessful in reducing unruly noise and behavior throughout the night. Now the area is virtually dead. Who would have thought a pandemic would bring it down to its knees?
  2. Broome between Ludlow and Allen is a busy section of the Lower East Side during the day. On an otherwise normal Tuesday, it’s eerie to see no one but a UPS delivery guy on the block.
  3. We live in front of a big old school, and since the stay-at-home order we no longer hear the cacophony of teenagers in the afternoon when school’s out. Nowadays we only see a smattering of pedestrians walking on the wide pavement in front of it, mostly wearing masks and gloves. Should there be more than one person at a time, they distance themselves from each other – even pet owners whose dogs want to greet each other.

On a particular sunny afternoon while on the roof, I catch up on the phone with a friend who lives only two doors down. She lives by herself and finds shelter in place especially tough. Not too long ago she walked everyday to Tribeca, went for a run every night, and ran errands whenever she wanted. She now works from home and the loneliness is inescapable. I tell her it would do her good to connect.

“I don’t even want to video chat with anyone because I’ll be doing it in the same room I’ve been in the whole day,”

she says.

But I tell her it’s not just her. That’s pretty much everyone unless you’re an essential worker. Everyone has just been at home and when they call someone they will be calling from the same place where they’ve been at the whole day. It’s almost trite, but it’s been a common thing to say we’re in this together, and never is it more true than in isolation. This is what I clearly see on the roof. It’s that strange and fascinating dynamic: isolated and apart from each other but not truly alone. 

We’re still weeks from the peak of the curve, and the worst is yet to come. We’re at least a year away from a possible vaccine. When we come out of this, our world will surely have changed. Whatever lessons we learn, whether we make better use of social media, or treasure physical contact with loved ones, or place importance on the quality and sincerity of our connection to others, it all begins in the simplest and most fundamental way – our relationship with ourselves.

Jesse Alvior