Matthew Goodman

Life in the Bunker: A New York City Coronavirus Diary, March 12–June 19, 2020

Day 1:

Greetings from the bunker.

Life in the bunker, day 3:

An introvert’s conversation:

Me: We’re lucky that we can stay at home.

Wife: I know. We’re really privileged in that way.

Me: No, I don’t think you understand. We’re lucky that we can STAY AT HOME.

Life in the bunker, day 8:

Last night we watched Little Women again with our 14-year-old daughter. (It’s her favorite movie; she watches it over and over.) I love the movie as well, but watching it this time I was struck by how I reflexively flinched at the violations of social distancing: strangers holding hands while dancing, hugging, sitting beside each other on trains, etc.

We’ll all be permanently marked by this crisis, the way our grandparents were by the Great Depression.

Life in the bunker, day 13:

Taking a late-afternoon stroll with my wife just now, walking in the middle of the street to maintain distance from someone approaching on the sidewalk, I suddenly flashed back to a memory I hadn’t thought of in years: how in the 1970s, at night on deserted NYC side streets, we used to walk in the middle of the street to avoid muggers who might leap out from doorways.

Fears calling to each other from across the decades.

Life in the bunker, day 22:

Remember when we used to complain about 2019?

Life in the bunker, day 23:

We’re right in the middle of it now, it seems, the hurricane swirling all around us. The morgues of the city are overflowing already, our dead stored in makeshift holding facilities. Outside, one hears the unnervingly regular wail of ambulances like air-raid sirens. The streets are mostly quiet, and nearly everyone wears masks, as though the entire city has become an intensive-care ward. It will get worse, we’re told each day, until it gets better; the only question is how strong the wind will be, and how long it will continue to howl.

Life in the bunker, day 25:

Disjunction: Tasty bowl of oatmeal, crossword puzzle, French study. A New Yorker dies of Covid-19 every five minutes.

Life in the bunker, day 28:

The death toll in New York City—at least the official death toll; the unofficial is surely much higher—now stands at 4,009. We have already lost more souls than we did on 9/11, and that number will unquestionably grow much higher.

On 9/11 and the days after, our heroes were firefighters, police, medical personnel, construction workers. Today we have others on the front lines: medical personnel, of course, and police, but also teachers, daycare workers, subway and bus operators, grocery clerks, delivery people – all of them performing essential services for the city, all of them grossly underpaid and underappreciated, many of them black and brown, who together have suffered and died far out of proportion to their numbers. Our debt to them is monumental.

Life in the bunker, day 29:

New York has been enduring the equivalent of 9/11 every four days.

Photograph by Jonathan Morse

Life in the bunker, day 30:

We’re a month in now; how many more to go?

I went outside this morning to take out the garbage and heard a sound I hadn’t anticipated—a plane overhead. I was struck by how strange that sounded, and then how strange it was that it sounded strange.

That’s a 9/11 flashback; I’ve been having them a lot lately.

Life in the bunker, day 31:

Yesterday was the day we were supposed to leave for a week in Paris. Family trip—the kids have never been out of the States. Tonight we would have been at Au Petit Fer à Cheval in the Marais, eating steak and tarte tatin. The most minor of disappointments amid all else, but still.

Life in the bunker, day 33:

Here in New York City we remain at the top of the apex, with hundreds of our friends and neighbors dying each day. I have not set foot outside of the house, other than to take out the garbage, in two weeks. I have not been on the subway, nor taken a bite of food prepared in a restaurant, in five weeks. For how long will this go on?

Very early on, it became clear that there was no gain in contemplating what the future would hold. In the morning, I wake and think about what we can do to make the day as safe and as pleasant as possible. At night, going to sleep, we mark off another day healthy and closer to the end, whenever that might be.

We take it a day at a time.

Life in the bunker, day 34:

Ten thousand lives lost so far in New York City. Ten thousand.

Think about that. That’s one-fifth of all the Americans who died during the entire Vietnam War. In one American city, in one month’s time.

Life in the bunker, day 36:

The anxiety, the anxiety. On most days the anxiety is like the low, persistent call of a car alarm in the distance: it’s always there, but you do what you can to ignore it and just focus on whatever is in front of you. On other days, though, the alarm is close and loud in your ears and you can’t help but wonder if it’s not yours, and there’s almost nothing you can do to concentrate on anything else. Today, at the start of the sixth week, is one of those days.

Life in the bunker, day 42:

Grieving today for two friends who were laid off in the past week—each of them from great jobs, jobs for which they had spent a lifetime preparing. Perhaps they will get the jobs back someday, when this plague has passed over; perhaps not. Who knows what the future world will look like?

The deaths alone are distressing beyond measure. But even beyond that, this pandemic is leaving behind it a vast trail of wreckage that will not be made right for a very long time to come.

Life in the bunker, day 44:

Greetings from “the deadliest county in the U.S.” Brooklyn takes great pride in being a national leader in many ways; this is not one of them.

Someday, who knows when, this will all be over.

Life in the bunker, day 45:

A month and a half in now.

I miss restaurants, I do. I miss shouldering up to the counter for a slice of dollar pizza, and sharing plates around those big round tables in Chinese restaurants, and sitting elbow-to-elbow at the long, snaking lunch counter at the Grand Central Oyster Bar under the vaulted tile ceiling. I miss the Italian food markets of Arthur Avenue, and the endless array of gold jewelry shops in Jackson Heights (though I never buy anything), and the showcases of the diamond district and the knock-off watch dealers on Canal Street. I miss the anticipatory hush in a packed Broadway theater just as the lights go down, and the crowds waiting afterward at the stage door for a glimpse of the actors; I miss the eager kids waiting for rides at the Coney Island amusement park; I miss reading old books under the gooseneck lamps at the New York Public Library. I miss playing poker with friends, eating barbecue in a townhouse built by John Jacob Astor and later taken over by the American Communist Party. I miss the bocce players in Corona and the handball players in the local schoolyard, and the chess hustlers in Washington Square Park; and sitting with all the others on benches watching people go by, a crowd ever fascinated by itself.

The magic of the city, of course, lies precisely in its density – that mad exhilarating crush of people from all over the world – and that is what the virus has attacked and destroyed. Someday the city will be back again, grievously damaged but still intact. In the meantime, though, I guess I miss more than anything what we all do: living life without this constant tremor of fear, that hum of anxiety always in the background, endlessly rising and falling like a distant siren.

Life in the bunker, day 49:

What times are these, that we can find some comfort in the death of “only” 330 of our friends and neighbors the day before?

I will say it again: These are battlefield numbers, from the streets of America’s leading city.

For seven weeks straight, day after day with no surcease, we have endured this endless onslaught. Hundreds of us dying every day. Hundreds. The morgues are overwhelmed by the dead.

And yet somehow New Yorkers continue to go about our lives, to whatever extent we can, with whatever sense of good cheer, or at least forbearance, we can muster. We shop if we need to, stroll if we feel we can. Mostly we just stay inside, and await the uncertain future.

Life in the bunker, day 51:

Report from the nation’s largest city: There are so many dead here that we are unable to bury them all. This is not something that any of us have ever experienced before, at least not in America.

Life in the bunker, day 59:

Ah, yes: A long-term “disaster morgue” has now opened in the neighborhood. Not sure that’ll be mentioned in the real-estate listings.

Life in the bunker, day 60:

To those protesting because you don’t want to wear a mask to a store, here’s what I have to say: Fuck you. I’ve been in my house for two months now, as has my family, and most of my neighbors, and those whom I care the most about in this city.

And while we’re doing that, we’ve been sewing masks for our front-line medical workers facing battlefield conditions; and trying not to go crazy from the constant sirens; and watching the Governor’s daily press conference at 11:45 to hear the grim statistics from the day before – hundreds more dead every single day for two months straight; and updating wills, because you’re not confident both of you will survive and you want to make sure the kids will be taken care of in the event of your deaths; and worrying about elderly parents, and arranging for them to get food, and fretting that if they have to go to the hospital you will likely never see them again; and worrying every time you think you might have been accidentally exposed to the virus, and starting the fourteen-day clock again in your mind; and contemplating which hospital emergency room would be the least overrun in the event you have to go, and whether to take an ambulance to get there; and sending donations to the organizations caring for our elderly and newly unemployed, and for our undocumented neighbors who won’t get federal aid; and taking time every evening at 7:00 to cheer for our heroes; and looking at the houses up and down the block and wondering where the bomb will explode next, like in the Battle of Britain; and putting cash in an envelope and taping it to the front door as a tip for the delivery guy who leaves essentials like food and medicine on your stoop with a few sharp knocks on the door so you don’t have to see each other; and feeling the doubt creep into your mind with every cough and wheeze amidst allergy season; and taking walks when you can, struggling to maintain social distance in the congested city; and waiting patiently on line, six feet apart, outside of pharmacies and grocery stores, all the while wearing masks; and having every conversation shadowed by the pandemic, whether you’re discussing it or not; and checking the local maps in the newspaper to see how your zip code stacks up against others in reports of new cases, feeling the epidemic surrounding you; and home-schooling the kids and wondering how to get them exercise when all the playgrounds have been shut down; and wandering through the deserted neighborhood, looking at all the locked and gated stores and knowing that many of them will never re-open; and worrying, and worrying, and worrying, about your health and the health of those around you, and all the while mourning the deaths of people you have known and loved, who died all alone in hospital rooms and will not receive the burials they deserve.

So fuck off with your little mask bullshit, because we’ve got more important things to do.

Life in the bunker, day 68:

Got in the car this morning for the first time in nearly three months, just to move it across the street for the temporary resumption of street cleaning. I drove around the block, to charge the battery a bit, and found that I was reflexively checking to see who was wearing a mask and who wasn’t. All of these activities, which once seemed as regular and automatic as breathing, are now tinged with dread, anger, and above all, with strangeness. What a life this is now.

Life in the bunker, day 73:

For the first time since this crisis began, New York’s Covid-19 deaths from the day before totaled fewer than 100. While still tragic and far too many — those 84 grieving families today cannot find much comfort in knowing how few are their co-mourners — it is a testament to the people of the state that a serious, stringent, and protracted quarantine program has reduced deaths to only about ten percent of what they once were.

Whether the numbers remain low, of course, or whether they begin to rise once more, is entirely up to us.

Life in the bunker, day 76:

The Census Bureau reports that one-third of Americans now show signs of clinical anxiety or depression. At least one of them is writing this post.

Life in the bunker, day 86:

This is the day of which we have long dreamed, and often believed would never come: Zero confirmed coronavirus deaths in the city for the first time since March. We have earned it with our own hard work and suffering. But New Yorkers, we must stay vigilant! Wear your masks!

Life in the bunker, day 98:

Morning observation: There are far fewer sirens now than there used to be.

Life in the bunker, day 100:

This will be my last “life in the bunker” post. Not because we here are shutting down the bunker – we’re not – but because 100 days seems like a good number on which to end, and at this point, as the crisis moves on from New York, I’m not sure I have that much more that’s new to say about the situation.

I began these “bunker” posts, honestly, as something of a joke, but before long they began to accrue real meaning for me, and it seems for many of my friends as well, some of whom were going through the pandemic here with me in NYC, and others elsewhere who wanted to know what we were experiencing here on the front lines.

I’ve tried as best I could to get across some of what it’s been like, living in a city that endured some 24,000 deaths in a span of just a few weeks. Now, at last, through our efforts, we have flattened the curve and reversed it: the daily death count is in the teens rather than the hundreds. Now, ironically enough, the latest talk is that New York may ask visitors to the city to quarantine themselves for 14 days, as was earlier requested of us.

The toll of Covid-19, I’m quite sure, will never be as bad elsewhere in the country as it was for us here in New York City: the density here is much greater, far more international flights came into our city in the very early days of the crisis, the virus circulated unchecked in office buildings and subway cars for a long time without our knowing it. But let the hell that we endured be an object lesson to the rest of the nation: let our suffering, our lost loved ones, serve as a constant reminder of the power of the virus, and the absolute need to remain vigilant against it.

Be well, everyone.

Matthew Goodman is the author of four books of nonfiction. His book Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into eight languages. His most recent book, The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team, received the 2019–2020 New York City Book Award. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The American Scholar, the Harvard Review, and many other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and two children.