Man with a Machete, Covid-19 and a Tenement Fire

A man with a machete with a ponytail may or may not be robbing houses in my neighborhood. I really cannot tell by reading comments on a NextDoor post, but people have called the sheriff’s department. This seems like a fitting metaphor for our times.

Frankly, I’m too exhausted worrying about covid-19 to fear the machete man. I am taking reasonable precautions to avoid catching this virus, including curbside pickup grocery shopping and disinfecting groceries in the garage. I already worked from home and now cannot yet envision returning to out-of-the-house activities such as the gym, browsing in stores or sitting in a restaurant or bar.

Now, I also need to worry about people spitting on strangers in public, armed protestors and whether we’ll be able to safely vote this election year. I can push away some of the dread by reading how doctors are finding some more ways to treat covid-10 patients and that is really heartening. Still, some folks want to reject good medicine. For example, anti-vaxxers are already flexing their social media muscles.

What I find fascinating is the willingness of people to believe in things that are not actually happening vs. what is happening.

Threats: Real or Perceived?

What is happening is a novel virus that is highly contagious and deadly for many who contract it. Yes, many more survive, but what about those who don’t? The death toll in a few short months is horrible, even if there is some hope for better outcomes with different treatment modes.

What is happening is the recognition, based on scientific data, that wearing masks can mitigate the spread of the virus (Japan is faring better than a lot of other countries and they are wearing masks). What is not happening is some totalitarian government forces taking away your rights or any of the other ridiculous notions being spread. Just put on a damn mask when you go about your business. I’m all for rugged individualism, but please don’t breathe all over me and store inventory with potentially virus-laden droplets. Are the people who are literally up in arms over closed hair salons also angered by stop signs or the old no shoes, no shirt, no service signs?

Yes, we all want the economy to improve. Yes, really, everybody wants that. Here’s an idea, if most people wore masks, then shared spaces would be safer and we could get the economy rolling along. We’re not talking about wearing masks forever. At least until there are effective treatments and until we have a vaccine. And for Pete’s sake, get the vaccine.

Tenement Fire

Still, some folks don’t seem to be taking this seriously. I can see this on the mask-less faces of people I see blithely strolling in and out of the grocery store while I do curbside pickup. Allow me to share an experience I had with a NYC tenement fire to illustrate my point.

In the mid-1990s, my friend Jackie and I lived in an old tenement house on the Upper East Side. We referred to it as our third-world apartment in a world-class neighborhood. We also called it the cave. It had two things going for it: pretty good location and cheap as dirt rent. It had flaws, including the rats in the alley behind us and their horribly loud fights. The makeshift bedrooms were so small that you could hear newspaper pages turning in the next room. Anyway, you get the picture. It was a dump.

Then the smell started. It was the odor of heating oil fumes wafting in and around the building (our livingroom window opened into an airshaft). Concurrently, the hot water was failing. Tenants called the management company to complain about cold showers and noxious fumes. Now, I don’t know why the management company and/or landlord didn’t take these warnings and complaints seriously. I do know that because of neglect, the situation worsened.

One night, I came home ahead of my roommate after partying with friends downtown. The odor was back, so I opened the livingroom window and went to sleep. Before dawn, someone was ringing our buzzer like crazy with the S-O-S signal. When I answered, a man screamed, “FIRE!” At first, I thought his might be a prankster so I went to check. I cautiously touched our apartment door, which was steel, to make sure it wasn’t hot. I opened the door to a solid wall of smoke. This was indeed a fire. I woke up Jackie to tell her we needed to get out.

I covered my face with a towel and pounded on the door of the apartment across the hall. Our neighbor, a grouchy old man, opened the door in his boxers and waved me off with a flourish of annoyance when I told him we needed to get out fast. He then turned his attention to a fireman at his window.

All the tenants got out. We were standing on the sidewalk in jammies and coats in frigid weather. The fire department response was immense. The battalion chief called us over for a huddle. He and others had axes. He informed us that the furnace was leaking heating oil, creating the fire condition and the heavy smoke. He related that the furnace was already jerry-rigged so they dismantled it with the axes. He added that city code required the landlord to replace it in 24-hours so we wouldn’t be without heat for long.

Excuse me, I said. He acknowledged me and I asked, could the furnace have blown up if you hadn’t come here? His answer was precise:

“Yeah, to kingdom come.”

My point is when people, say doctors, warn you that this is a particularly contagious and deadly novel virus, listen. When they call it a pandemic, listen. When it’s strongly suggested that we all wear face coverings in public, please oblige. If you ignore the warnings, things could really blow up. Capiche?

As for machete man, the NextDoor thread now includes a photo of a man asleep under a banana tree, posted by someone who said they called the police too. I’m beginning to wonder if this man is simply a lost soul rather than a menace. Let’s stay focused on the real threats.

The Sage Leopard,