What Happened to Us
Most Americans think they know the story of the pandemic. But when I immersed myself in a Covid oral-history project, I realized how much we’re still missing.
Notice your resistance to reading the next several thousand words. They’re about the necessity of looking back at the pandemic with intelligence and care, while acknowledging that the pandemic is still with us. They raise the possibility that when we say the pandemic is over, we are actually seeking permission to act like it never happened — to let ourselves off the hook from having to make sense of it or take seriously its continuing effects. As we enter a fourth pandemic year, each of us is consciously or subconsciously working through potentially irreconcilable stories about what we lived through — or else, strenuously avoiding that dissonance, insisting there’s no work to be done. And so, with many people claiming (publicly, at least) that they’re over the pandemic — that they have, so to speak, restraightened all their picture frames and dragged their psychic trash to the curb — this article is saying: Hey, hold up. What’s in that bag?
One excellent place to start rummaging, if you’re still with me: The NYC Covid-19 Oral History, Narrative and Memory Archive, established at Columbia University in March 2020. Within weeks of the first confirmed Covid case surfacing in New York City, an impromptu collective of sociologists and oral historians assembled virtually and began interviewing, over Zoom, roughly 200 New Yorkers to document their individual experiences of the pandemic as it unfolded. People spoke to the interviewers for hours about what they were seeing, doing and feeling and about what they expected, or feared, might happen next. The researchers talked to those same people again many months later, and again after that, conducting three waves of interviews about pandemic life from the spring of 2020 to the fall of 2022. During that time, unintelligible experiences became more intelligible or remained defiantly unintelligible. The anguish of the pandemic heightened and dulled. During that time, time itself smeared.
The archive, which will eventually be made public by Columbia, bulges with revelations, anecdotes, anxieties, blind spots, big ideas and weird ideas. A father of two, in the Spuyten Duyvil neighborhood of the Bronx, predicts, in April 2020, a permanent end to the custom of shaking hands (“It just seems like a really stupid thing to do — and unnecessary”) and suspects everything will start going back to normal by the end of May. Another father of two, still adrift in the doldrums of the pandemic nine months later, hears his 11-year-old daughter cry out, “I want homework!” and realizes how desperate for structure she has become. Those working in hospitals report feeling menaced by constant auditory stimulation — the beeps, the alarms, the calls for respiratory therapists, Stat! — while outside the hospitals, well-meaning New Yorkers mark time by leaning out their windows, screaming and banging pots.
You get the picture. The archive contains a stupefying amount of lived experience, material that the Columbia sociologists who initiated the project, Ryan Hagen and Denise Milstein, could theoretically spend the rest of their academic careers examining. But it’s also material that, as noted, most people seem to feel great resistance to revisiting. Even many of the project’s participants told the interviewers, at different points, that they had no desire to look at the transcripts from their previous interviews, and some who did read through them reported feeling shaken, as though they’d been plunged back into a bad dream. When it came time to conduct the final round of interviews last summer, dozens of people declined. (They would say, “ ‘Wow, just even getting this email from you is bringing so many feelings back,’” one of the interviewers explained.) Many just ghosted the project altogether.
Impatience with the pandemic. A compulsion to move forward. A lack of interest — or maybe just some kind of block — when it comes to looking back. These aren’t just characteristics of the current mood. They are themes you would have noticed surfacing in even the earliest interviews in the archive if it had been you, instead of me, who spent a chunk of last summer and fall reading transcripts and listening to hours and hours of recordings. If it had been you who traveled back in time, through the portal of those testimonials, while sitting at your desk, eating lunch, folding laundry, driving, squinting at your laptop in the sun beside a swimming pool while the other parents gossiped and laughed loudly and asked you why you weren’t joining in. And, when you told those parents why (“I’m reading a few hundred oral-history interviews about Covid in New York City”), they gave you looks of incomprehension and pity, the way you would look at a rehabbed animal being returned to the wild, an animal finally free to gallivant and graze but that, instead of bolting through the open door of its cage, burrows deeper into the cage and says: No, thank you. I’m taking some time to further examine every aspect of this fascinating cage.
You would have noticed in those interviews, for example, how people’s inclination to process what was happening to them seemed to weaken and narrow as time went by. Many people re-evaluated the lives they’d been living in their prepandemic pasts, and many thought, with hope or dread, about a post-pandemic future. But the pandemic-present could seem unanalyzable. It exhausted people. It thwarted their powers of concentration. It was traumatic, probably, but also too big or too boring to do much with. And so it was as if people subtly discounted the lives they were living: “A timeless moment,” one woman calls it in May 2020; “lost years,” another says, in mid-2022. All you could do was move on, even though you weren’t actually moving. Because what could be accomplished or understood in such a messy present anyway? (“Like, I can’t sit there and cry for very long,” one working mother explains. “I have a child kicking me in the back or trying to do Spider-Man on top of me or something.”) Literally or figuratively, we were trapped, impatiently punching around inside the deflated balloons of our lives. Maybe, on some level, people were just waiting around for the air to rush back in.
It was all very idiosyncratic. Every life, every day, could be upset by its own subtly different turbulence, and every person had to improvise a way to withstand it. Some of those interviewed seemed to abandon all faith in institutions, while others decided to trust institutions more. Some grew disillusioned with New York City; others loved the city just as much. In the final set of interviews, most of which were conducted last summer, some people said the pandemic was over while others insisted it absolutely was not. Or that it was “sort of queasily over.” Or that it had been over, but then “it stopped being over.” “I think we all, as a society, became better,” one nursing-home aide concluded. A nonprofit worker confessed, “I used to think that we lived in a society, and I thought that people would come together to take care of one another, and I don’t think that anymore.”
The archive makes clear that, with respect to Covid — with respect to so much — we are a society of anecdotes without a narrative. The only way to understand what happened, and what’s still happening, is to acknowledge that it depends on whom you ask. People’s experiences were affected by their race, ethnicity, wealth, occupations, whether they had children at home. But they also turned on more arbitrary factors, or even dumb luck, like if someone happened to be living with a sort-of-annoying roommate in March 2020. One woman suggested lockdown would have been so much more tolerable if she’d stocked up on those packs of dried mango from Trader Joe’s. A man compared the pandemic to a game of musical chairs: The virus shut off the music; you were stuck where you were stuck.
Now, it’s as though we’ve been staring into a fun-house mirror for a long time and our vision is correcting — but it’s correcting imperfectly, so that we may not pick up on all the bulges and dents. We are awash in what Hagen referred to as an “onslaught of narrative repair,” scattershot attempts to clarify or justify our experiences, assignments of blame, misunderstandings and misinformation flying in all directions. It will play out and reverberate for years or decades, Hagen told me. “And I wouldn’t have been sensitive to that, I don’t think, if I hadn’t watched, in these interviews, people struggling to do it hundreds of times in real time.”
Consequently, the “normal” that American society is now scrambling to return to may be an even more irreconcilable array of normals than the normal we lived with before. “The pathological normal,” Hagen calls it: a patchwork of homespun, bespoke realities, each one invested in a different story about what exactly happened when Covid ruptured the story of our lives.
“This project is more like a sociological observatory,” Hagen told me, “like a telescope where you open it up to the night sky and capture as much as you can, then see what you can find.” The researchers did not work up a strict set of questions to ask New Yorkers. They had no hypothesis to test. Instead, as the pandemic swept in, Hagen and Milstein partnered with Amy Starecheski, director of Columbia’s oral-history master’s program, to recruit two dozen oral historians to help conduct the interviews, and adopted that field’s free-form model of conversation. The aim was to draw out whatever specific observations were most meaningful to the people being interviewed. The Columbia Center for Oral History Research produced a similar, landmark oral history after Sept. 11. But as Starecheski explains: “This was a slower unfolding. With the Covid project, it was like we’d be able to interview people after the first plane hit and then right after the second plane hit, too.”
The impulse to sweep up material was widespread. So much so that researchers at the University of Delaware and New York University even started cataloging various collections made during the pandemic. By last summer, they had identified about 1,000 preservation projects. One researcher, Valerie Marlowe, described the Columbia project as “exceptional,” adding, “the scope and breadth of what they’ve done is really comprehensive.”
It’s easy to pick out any number of demographic slices that wound up underrepresented or overrepresented in the archive. (One glaring, but understandable example: The interviewers managed to talk to far more people who were stuck at home in 2020 than out in the world working.) Still, it’s an impressive sampling of New York City’s resplendent spectrum of people types: There’s a Black nurse who appears onscreen for her interviews with a bird perched on one shoulder; a Mexican American City Council candidate in Brooklyn; a 74-year-old Manhattanite who self-identifies as a “middle-class, Jewish, New York theater animal”; an H.I.V.-positive Vietnam veteran who sells scarves on the street. Rich people. Homeless people. Teachers. Emergency-room nurses. Immigrants. An aging Catholic reverend with a choppy internet connection. A queer modern dancer living alone in Brooklyn, who, in the course of the pandemic, becomes a queer modern dancer and certified doula living with a gigantic puppy in Newark.
Even only three years later, it’s jarring to access the first moments of the pandemic in such granular detail and panoramic breadth. You notice how quickly horrendous things became ordinary. One paramedic describes getting called out on 13 cardiac arrests on a single day for the first time in her career and crying on the way home. “I go back, and I’m like: ‘That can’t possibly — that’s got to be a one-off. That can’t possibly happen again,’” she says. “And it happened again.” It happened again 12 days in a row, in fact. You also recognize how rapidly people adjusted to those shocks, smoothing over the hazardous edges of each new experience and moving on. New problems kept arising, and new habits or routines were established to patch them over. But often, Milstein points out, as soon as those solutions were put in place, we seemed to forget the problems had even existed; our sense of “normal” reset to assimilate them. And so, reading and listening to the interviews, I frequently found myself in the throes of some uncertainty or discomfort that we long ago resolved or to which we had since grown numb.
Here, in the archive, for example, is a young woman introducing her interviewer to an object called an N95 mask — the best kind, she explains. Here’s an older man saying, “We’ve of course been part of Zoom funerals which, you know, are becoming a pretty big thing.” Here’s a woman afraid to walk her dog because of “the tiger thing.” (A tiger had just tested positive at the Bronx Zoo, sparking worries about animal-to-human transmission.) Here are people living with no expectation of a vaccine, then living with an expectation that vaccines will soon solve everything. Here’s a grandfather who claims, in the slender epoch before rapid tests became available, that his grandson’s manager at Petco is making all the employees sniff a can of dog food to see if they still have a sense of smell before she’ll let them into work.
It’s one thing to recall, or to be told, how disorienting, isolating or boring the early lockdown phase of the pandemic felt; it’s another to re-experience that formlessness through a hundred specific descriptions of it. An interviewer asks an 82-year-old woman how her day has been so far. She replies, “Making oatmeal and taking a shower.” A woman in Queens notices that, whereas traveling from place to place throughout the day once marked the passage of time, she’s now keyed into how sunlight shifts across the interior of her apartment. A clinical psychologist near Union Square, reflecting on the transition to remote therapy, says: “I miss seeing the shadows that my patients cast onto the floor of my office. …And I miss kind of having some sense of where they were by the smells that come in the door.” He goes on, “I just feel like there’s so much information that’s missing.” A contact tracer explains, “I was honestly surprised with how many people are just happy to get to talk on the phone” — even to someone calling to alert them that they might have a deadly disease.
Hard things, meanwhile, continued to get harder, chaotic things more chaotic. Among the interviewees was a homeless mother of four who became enraged that other people at the shelter weren’t covering their mouths when they coughed. (“My anxiety is on 1,000,” she said. “I’m homeless, but I refuse to die.”) Another woman kept living for months with the man she was divorcing because the courts were closed, then backlogged, and it felt too risky to make the children go back and forth between two apartments. A young woman with bedbugs in her Jackson Heights apartment couldn’t get the place fumigated — she would have to stay somewhere else and couldn’t risk carrying Covid (or bedbugs) there — and couldn’t find any alcohol to kill the bedbugs herself because the supply chain had gone so screwy; trapped at home, she was afraid to sit on her couch and watch a movie. A midwife at a hospital in the Bronx found it too uncomfortable to wear an N95 all day, so she opted for a surgical mask instead, but “there were several times where I’m at the perineum with the patient pushing and then a nurse is coming into the room saying, ‘She’s positive!’ and now I have to put on the full P.P.E. garb.”
More than once, life seemed to be attaining “an uncanny resemblance to normal life,” as one man put it. (“I think a few weeks ago, we had a day when no one died in New York,” another elaborated in June 2020.) But not for everyone. And the prospect of normalcy was often short-lived. By the end of that first summer, with a second wave of virus cresting over the city, one man biked around Lower Manhattan and observed: “Everybody seemed kind of languorous. Like they were trying to refit themselves into their outside bodies. Everybody was, like, at a little funny angle to the ground.”
Rage was another theme, particularly as the 2020 presidential election approached. One woman who worked in the art world said: “It just feels like everybody is in, like, different levels of hysteria and stress and anxiety constantly — and, like, just negative and upset and anxious. It does not feel good.” She added that recently she had almost yelled at someone in Whole Foods, a woman who was talking loudly on her phone with her mask down. “I think I mentioned yelling at someone in Whole Foods last time, too,” she notes, referring to her last session with the interviewers. “This seems to be a theme.” A man surprises himself by how ferociously he screams at another dog owner during an altercation in Prospect Park. The guy “deserved every word I gave him, absolutely,” he said. “And I don’t take any of it back, but I don’t think I would have been as incensed if there wasn’t the larger cloud of existential dread hanging above our heads.”
Milstein, summarizing her impressions of where things stand now, based on the most recent interviews she conducted, told me that many people’s social lives seem to have contracted. “I’m getting from people that relationships of care” — close relationships — “have deepened,” she said. “But at the same time, the outer rings of the social world feel hostile. So, it’s almost like a circling-of-the-wagons feeling.” One woman in the Bronx explained that lots of her neighbors seemed to be perpetually drunk, getting into altercations or “regressing”; she was picking up a “nothing matters” attitude from all directions. (One day, she said, she watched an intoxicated woman with two children goading the younger one — a toddler — to tell the older one that she was fat and ugly.) A woman in Brooklyn notes that one great benefit of the pandemic is that she has now drawn a bright line between the people she cares about and everyone else. She feels entitled, for example, not to “hug any more randos” at parties. A third woman explains that she has started carrying a little knife with her in the city and bought one for all the women in her family too. “I have donated to so many GoFundMes over the past year of women being murdered,” she says.
One question the researchers often asked was, “What can you imagine that you couldn’t imagine before the pandemic?” When Milstein posed this to a young college student and H.V.A.C. repairman in November 2020, he immediately replied, “The end of the United States as we know it.” Milstein explained to him that this struck her as significant, because a lot of people seemed to be saying things like that, many more than expressed such concerns when they started their interviews in the spring. Back then, she told him, people were mostly just learning to bake bread.
Hagen told me recently: “We had a really interesting breakthrough this week. We are realizing just how deranged life under the pandemic actually was.”
What is normal life?
No, seriously. Whether we’re desperate to return to some version of it or adamant that we already have, it seems worth pinning the concept down.
In 1903, the German sociologist Georg Simmel took a long, hard look at life in big cities and concluded — I’m paraphrasing — that normal life is basically a continuous bombardment of irreconcilable psychic noise. “Man is a creature whose existence is dependent on differences,” Simmel explained in an essay called “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” We enter each moment expecting that it will resemble the last one, and if we find that continuity between past and present disrupted, it pays to perk up. This was true in rural life at least, Simmel argued, where certain natural rhythms blanketed people in a “steady equilibrium of unbroken customs.” But a city never stops throwing new stimuli at us, engaging our impulse to notice and differentiate. In a city, there’s simply too much newness for a human being to perceive without breaking. The psyche therefore “creates a protective organ for itself against the profound disruption,” Simmel wrote — a dispassionate crust he called “the blasé attitude.” The blasé attitude, he wrote, is “an indifference toward the distinctions between things. … The meaning and the value of the distinctions between things, and therewith of the things themselves, are experienced as meaningless.” So, extrapolating from Simmel: One way to describe normal life would be as an arrangement of circumstances that can be successfully ignored.
A cliché example: New Yorkers who want a slice of pizza can expect, without even consciously expecting, that they can walk to the nearest pizzeria and buy one. Folded into that expectation are other expectations: the expectation that cheese, tomatoes, flour, yeast, electricity, water and gas have all continued to reach that pizzeria without disruption, and often via convoluted supply chains, from very far away; that mass transit carrying workers to the pizzeria is running; and so on, ad infinitum — all kinds of complex conditions that need to be painstakingly maintained. “We can take for granted a lot of aspects of daily life,” Hagen told me, “but they have to be constantly reproduced every day through serious action.” That is, stepping out for pizza, we mistakenly regard normal life as unmovable bedrock instead of as a high wire tautened over an abyss. We are blasé about it. And that usually works out. “But more and more,” Hagen went on, “the disasters we face are moments when ‘normal’ stops being produced.”
The earliest interviews in the archive document this well: A virus wearing down, then finally devouring, the blasé of the most famously blasé people on Earth. “I realized it when people said goodbye,” one woman recalls; she goes to get her hair done and notices, “These are the kind of goodbyes that you say, I just felt it, the goodbyes you say at a wedding, at a reunion, at a graduation.” Another woman throws a book party for a friend — “20 people sitting very close, dipping into the same peanuts,” she recounts — and two days later someone tells her to quarantine. “Quarantine? What does it mean?’” she remembers thinking. “It had some kind of evocative … like children’s literature.” A nurse at Montefiore is shocked to see a 14-year-old girl, admitted with difficulty breathing, decline so rapidly that, within 30 minutes, she has to be intubated and moved to the I.C.U. And yet, it was the look of horror on the face of the girl’s mother that truly undid the nurse. (“I had no words for it,” she says.) She immediately texted her own teenage daughter, told her to leave school and wash herself head to toe with disinfectant, and added, “You’re never leaving the house again.”
This was the spigot turning, the pipe dripping dry, the production of normal shutting off. The experience was painful; it left everyone raw. But the weirdness we’ve felt since — what’s still making us wobbly now — may be the strain of trying, as hard as we can, to crank that busted machinery of normal back on.
One stormy spring afternoon last year, Hagen and Milstein met to discuss their progress in Milstein’s office at Columbia. The two sociologists sat, masked, on either side of a small round table. An air purifier hummed near the door.
By then, Milstein and Hagen had spent so many hours poring over the archive that they were exceptionally conversant in those New Yorkers’ stories, following them not just with professional intrigue but also with what seemed like affection, as though they were three seasons deep into history’s most expansive cable drama. They had taken to calling the interviewees “narrators,” as their oral-historian colleagues do, and referred to them by their first names in conversation (“Bridget” or “Alton”). They took pleasure in recalling the details of their lives: the guy who formed a habit of putting on a dress shirt, slacks and shoes before sitting down to work in his living room, then changing into a T-shirt and comfy slippers, Mr. Rogers-style, at the end of the day or the woman who, over time, wound up organizing group walks for people on her block in Harlem and relayed the mantra “When in doubt, focus out.” When the discussion turned to another narrator, Milstein asked me: “Did you read that one? He found love in the pandemic!”
Milstein and Hagen were attempting, for the first time, to draw some conclusions for an academic paper, focusing on a subset of 110 interviews conducted during the first three months of the pandemic. It was an abysmal time, during which more than 54,000 people were hospitalized in New York City and almost 19,000 died. For the paper, they decided to cut off their sample at Memorial Day Weekend 2020, That was when the George Floyd protests ripped through the city, and it was clear from the archive that those demonstrations functioned as a turning point in New Yorkers’ experience of the pandemic, separate from the protests’ actual purpose. That weekend and in the days after, tens of thousands of people who had been reluctant to go outside and participate in public life suddenly did. And even those who didn’t join the protests soon noticed that those gatherings hadn’t led to a spike in Covid cases. So they felt emboldened, too. The protective lid that had twisted shut over the city suddenly popped off. Hagen and Milstein were investigating the nature of the pressure that had built up inside.
There’s an idea in sociology that, as social creatures, we are only ourselves because we perform being those selves every day; our individual identities depend on the frameworks in which we’re embedded. But during this first act of the pandemic, the entire theater in which many people gave those performances crumbled. “Like, if I’m working in a hospital,” Milstein explained, “I think of myself as a doctor. I’m someone who can save my patients. But now I’m in a situation where I can’t save my patients. So am I still that? Or am I still a teacher if I’m not going to school?” This kind of subtle identity crisis was replicated millions of times, all across New York City and the world. Hagen and Milstein were also picking up on a separate kind of “socio-material crisis”: a breakdown in the predictability of the material world around you. That elevator button you push every day might suddenly be a vector of disease. Grocery shelves might be empty. Even the city itself seemed to be, in an experiential sense, dissolving; “New York City is right now a very abstract concept,” one woman in the Bronx explained: a disjointed set of neighborhoods that most people had ceased traveling among.
The sociologists told me about a third, more abstract crisis as well: In their view, time basically stopped working. They showed me a diagram they had worked up to illustrate this three-pronged predicament. It bore the title “Phenomenological Model of Crisis With No Resolution,” and, though it was just two blue shapes with some hot pink arrows running between them, it expressed ideas that would take several paragraphs to break down. But the upshot was: People were stuck. With everything suddenly up for grabs — with people’s identities undermined and their surroundings untrustworthy — the narrators struggled to negotiate, and find meaning in, the details of their daily lives. And without any sense of when the pandemic would end, it became impossible to break out of that malaise, to project oneself into a future that kept evaporating ahead of you.
To describe that limbo, Milstein and Hagen used the term “ontological insecurity” — a play, they explained, on “ontological security,” a well-known concept within the field. In sociology, the term is most associated with the English sociologist Anthony Giddens who defined ontological security as a “person’s fundamental sense of safety in the world” — a belief in the reliability of our surroundings and the continuity of our own life stories within them. It’s ontological security that allows us to “keep a particular narrative going,” Giddens wrote.
A few months after I met Milstein and Hagen at Columbia, Hagen presented their work in a panel at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Los Angeles. He cited Giddens and pointed out that the focus of their research — “how people find their footing in times in which the most solid-seeming facts in their social world seem to melt into uncertainty” — was probably extremely relatable to everyone in the room. Presumably, a lot of them had had to work through a novel set of questions before deciding to attend the conference just like he had, questions such as, he said, “Is it safe to sit in a room of sociologists breathing?” Hagen had to be careful not to catch Covid ahead of the event and to weigh the inconveniences, or worse, that would be foisted on him and his family if he were to get sick afterward. “All for an illness that may be no worse than a passing cold,” he noted, “or could incapacitate me for the rest of the summer, when I should be prepping for the fall semester.” Of course, it’s “a certain kind of social privilege,” Hagen pointed out, “not to experience this sort of radical uncertainty as an everyday condition but rather as an exceptional occurrence” — to not have your ontological security battered to pieces by life all the time.
The conference organizers had chosen the estimable Berkeley sociologist Ann Swidler to moderate the panel discussion, presumably because the ideas under consideration dovetailed with Swidler’s own interest in how the social world copes with flux, or what Swidler calls, in her work, “unsettled times.” Responding to Hagen’s presentation at the conference in Los Angeles, though, Swidler leapfrogged over Giddens and her own work and reached back to the origins of the field for a reference point. The uncertainty she heard all these New Yorkers in the Columbia archive expressing, Swidler explained, reminded her powerfully of Durkheim’s anomie.
Émile Durkheim: French, 1858-1917, typically credited with inventing the modern field of sociology, along with Max Weber and Karl Marx. All three men were writing in an era of tremendous upheaval. Europe was rapidly industrializing. Religion was losing its sway. Tight-knit communities were slackening into a fog of unhappy individuals, and as a sense of belonging receded, alienation took its place. In different ways, Durkheim, Weber and Marx were examining how modernity seemed to be slowly obliterating the bases for human solidarity and interdependence. All of them, Milstein told me, “saw the world as being on a kind of crash course.” If they had lived through the pandemic, she added, watching American society prioritize its economy so starkly over human welfare, witnessing “so much of social life converting into online interactions between people inside these little, two-dimensional squares on a screen,” she said, they probably would have felt vindicated. She imagined the three of them looking around and saying: “Well, there you go. This is how you end up. Welcome to the crash!”
Durkheim introduced his concept of anomie most fully in an 1897 book-length study, “Suicide.” Suicides, Durkheim contended, “express the mood of societies,” and he was keen to figure out why their rates increased not just during economic depressions but also during times of rapid economic growth and prosperity. He concluded that any dramatic swing within society, regardless of direction, leaves people unmoored, plunging them into a condition of “anomie.” Swidler told me that, while the word is often translated as “alienation,” it may more accurately be understood as “normlessness.” “He means that the underlying rules are just not clear,” she said. Anomie sets in when a society’s values, routines and customs are losing their validity but new norms have not yet solidified. “The scale is upset,” Durkheim wrote, “but a new scale cannot be immediately improvised. …The limits are unknown between the possible and the impossible.”
Amid the anomie of the pandemic, there was hunger for any frame of reference. There are narrators in the archive who compare their experience to Sept. 11, to the financial crisis, to the AIDS crisis, to a game of Jenga (“it feels like things are just piling up, and piling up, and piling up until eventually it falls over”); to a game of double Dutch on a playground (one woman says she is teetering on the periphery of the city’s rush to return to normal, wondering whether she should leap in or stay out); to a battlefield, to a hurricane, to Cuba after communism collapsed, to Czechoslovakia before Communism collapsed, to the Jim Crow South, because, as one older man explains, people are giving each other such a wide berth in stores, just as white people did to him when he was a child in South Carolina. Other people, finding no adequate analogue to the crisis, attempt to wrap their own language around it and wind up telling the interviewers the strangest things: “The last time we spoke, I think things were all over the place. I think they’re still all over the place but in a more organized way” or “We were like a bunch of ants standing on our back legs with our front legs in the air and a meteor is coming.”
With few applicable norms in sight for navigating daily life, everyone had to work up individual arsenals of rules from scratch. There were complex moral questions to settle (for example, when are you obligated to wear a mask to keep others safe?). There were little heuristics to invent, like the woman who takes to spraying visitors to her apartment with Lysol as soon as they walk in, then making them wash their hands while singing “Happy Birthday” twice.
“Remember, some guy had a video we all watched?” Swidler asked me. I knew exactly the one: a pony-tailed doctor giving an elaborate demonstration of how to clean possible traces of virus off your groceries. Anomie is not a condition you’re keen to revisit, or seem to have much patience for, once the world has shown sufficient signs of resettling; Durkheim wrote that it “begets a state of exasperation and irritated weariness.” Even now, Swidler sounded annoyed and exhausted, simply remembering how intently she’d studied that man wiping down his head of broccoli and his Honey Bunches of Oats.
It is sometimes difficult to remember that the pandemic was a natural disaster, a huge force like a hurricane or a flood, that bore down on everyone, together. Because the everyday experience was lonelier than that, more isolating, like grief.
I recognized this listening to Hagen and Milstein lay out more of their initial arguments and observations. The focus of their first paper was on people’s attempts to break out of their ontological insecurity via “agentic enactment” (making a change to your environment) and “epistemic grounding” (collecting or avoiding new knowledge). They called these strategies for making the world more intelligible and manageable “repertoires of repair.” I was surprised how precisely their ideas, unwrapped from this academic language, mapped onto the shambles of real, human experience. They were diagnosing specific dilemmas and feelings I’d seen captured in the archive or struggled with during the pandemic myself. Suddenly, I was alive to a reassuring power of sociology, which Hagen would later describe to me like this: “Sociology makes you aware, in a systematic way, of the power of the society we’re embedded in, rather than seeing the world as an archipelago of individuals, the way economists and U.S. culture generally want to make you see things.”
Again and again, people in the archive would work to get unstuck from their ontological uncertainty only to get stuck again by other, more systemic obstacles. This was particularly true for people of color, Hagen and Milstein pointed out. Taking a nightly walk to decompress might be a good “repertoire of repair” for a white person, whereas one Black woman in the archive explained that she has ruled it out: What if she were followed home? What if she got into a situation where she had to call the police? “How do I know they wouldn’t come in shooting me just like Breonna?” she said. The wife of an electrical foreman in the Bronx explained that her husband had foregone haircuts because he was working outside the home and didn’t want to put his barber at risk. “So, he looks hairy as hell,” she says. “I’m talking about Sasquatch.” The problem, she says, is that he’s a brown man and brawny, and his scraggly hair is making people perceive him a certain way; they don’t show him the same respect at work and don’t seem to feel safe when he walks into stores.
Often, people’s attempts to move forward were simply swallowed up by the sheer complexity of the pandemic itself. A woman who worked for a Christian faith-based organization, who seemed to have contracted Covid very early in the pandemic but couldn’t get tested in time to know for sure, recounted asking an urgent-care doctor if she could still safely breast-feed her baby. “And they were like, ‘I don’t know,’” she said. “ ‘That’s a good question. We haven’t had that question before.’” The woman had made a move forward, toward ontological security, only to be catapulted back into insecurity and fear. She was living inside the recursive, hot pink loop on Milstein and Hagen’s slide.
In big ways, in small ways — in ways we may have stopped even registering as bizarre — facets of our society are most likely still trapped inside little, broken flow charts like that one, knocking helplessly back and forth, even now.
This was true of the NYC Covid-19 Oral History, Narrative and Memory Archive project itself. At the beginning of the project, in March 2020, Hagen and Milstein planned to conduct their third and final wave of interviews in April 2021. Surely, after a year, the pandemic would be so far in the past that the narrators would be able to reflect on their experiences. But new waves of virus kept crashing in, and the sociologists kept postponing; you periodically catch them and the project’s other interviewers apologetically explaining and re-explaining this to the narrators in the transcripts. (“I should tell you that we’ve decided to postpone the third phase,” Milstein tells one human rights lawyer, a woman who, in the seven months between their first two interviews, had actually left the Bronx and moved back to Zambia.) When they finally decided to go ahead with the final interviews last summer, it was only because the pandemic seemed to be “as over as it’s going to be,” as Hagen put it, and their funding was running out.
What I noticed in the archive, more than anything else, was the volume of suffering those interviews conveyed. Much of it predated the pandemic, and much of it didn’t seem, at least at first, to have to do with Covid at all. While the pandemic created widespread pain and vulnerability, it also made existing pain and vulnerability more visible — others’ and our own. It was as though, in normal life, we knew to brush that discomfort off. We made suffering invisible, blocked it out. We buried it in our blasé and carried on. But when the production of normal shut off, so did our machinery for suppressing that vulnerability. There were no norms to contain it. The suffering overflowed.
Trauma, abuse, health problems, financial insecurity, racism, misogyny, disrespect, disappointments, exploitation, self-loathing, self-doubt, resentment, anxiety, perfectionism, regret, restlessness, a miscellany of hassles, stresses and damages leveled on people by faltering systems, stark injustices, the inevitable foibles of being human and small-bore cruelties of every kind — it all surfaced in the narrators’ interviews in long, unstoppable digressions or poignant asides. Unhappiness sprouted, fungal-like, into all kinds of lives, at all levels of privilege and in unusual forms. So many people seemed uneasy, overtaxed and sometimes even torn apart by the strain of simply existing in society that all it took was someone — the interviewers — to get them talking on Zoom for an hour for those feelings to burble out.
A new mother, working at a jewelry store in Times Square, can’t understand why someone who works as hard as she does still has to worry about affording diapers and formula. A trans woman recounts being whipped by her mother as a child, then later raped, and concludes: “This world loves to tell kids every single day: ‘Be different. Be who you are. Be what you want to be.’ But the minute you show them an ounce of it, they’re already tearing you apart.” A teacher at a fancy preschool laments how little time some of the children seem to spend with their parents, how they get picked up after a 10-hour day only to be given a plate of dinner by themselves, quickly bathed and put to bed. “I know that Brooklyn is expensive, and I know that parents have to work really hard to afford their life, but it just always made me really sad,” she says. An older Native American man with Covid, worried that he may not recover, explains with devastating plaintiveness how certain traumas in his life have “hindered my ability to experience my fullness.”
One aging narrator tells the interviewer, “You get this feeling that old people aren’t that important.” Another says, “As a boy in America, I had been robbed of many things by not having hugs.” One mother is locked in a fight to get her special-needs child the support he’s entitled to from the Department of Education. After recounting her past experiences with homelessness, a woman railed against her cellphone carrier, how it hadn’t credited her payment and was stonewalling her: “I thought maybe he would give me some slack. But no slack. I was like, ‘I’ve been with you since May!’” And a software engineer living alone in the East Village seems, on the surface, to be living an absolutely glowing, exemplary pandemic life: taking tennis lessons, taking violin lessons, taking online acting classes, playing hockey, volunteering to deliver groceries to neighbors and thereby befriending a charming, older painter named Joan. But then, the same narrator reveals that he’s an addict; one reason he is keeping busy is because he’s “really, really freaking nervous” about the damage he’s capable of doing to himself in isolation. “No one’s going to know if I drink a gallon of vodka,” he says.
These confessions came alongside periodic expressions of hope that things would surely have to change; that amid all of this, we, as a society, couldn’t ignore our many injustices and baseline dysfunctions any longer. The willingness to see that dysfunction, and to mark its distance from our ideals, seemed itself constructive, even momentous. “I think we needed to see how ugly it was in order to realize what were we really dealing with,” one man said.
And now, three years later? I’m wary of even typing that last paragraph. As new “post-pandemic” norms assert themselves, there’s pressure to regard that sense of empathy unlocking, of possibilities opening up, as squishy and naïve. It seems to be yet another aspect of the pandemic that a lot of people don’t really want to talk about anymore, part of the overall fever dream from which society is shaking itself awake.
“I often think about all of this as anticlimactic,” Swidler, the sociologist, told me. She was genuinely surprised: At first, the pandemic seemed to create potential for some big and benevolent restructuring of American life. But it mostly didn’t happen. Instead, she said, we seemed to treat the pandemic as a short-term hiccup, no matter how long it kept dragging on, and basically waited it out. “We didn’t strive to change society,” she told me. “We strived to get through our day.” Marooned in anomie and instability, we built little, rickety bridges to some other, slightly more stable place. “It’s amazing that something this dramatic could happen, with well over a million people dead and a public health threat of massive proportions, and it really didn’t make all that much difference,” Swidler said. “Maybe one thing it shows us is that the general drive to normalize things is incredibly powerful, to master uncertainty by feeling certain enough.”
In this view, one remarkable thing about the archive at Columbia is that it chronicles how society confronted a new source of suffering that seemed intolerable, and then, day by day, beat it back just enough to be tolerated. Over time, we simply stirred the virus in with all the other forms of disorder and dysfunction we live with — problems that appear to be acceptable because they merely inconvenience some large portion of people, even as they devastate others. If this makes you uneasy, as an ending to our pandemic story, maybe it’s only because, with Covid, we are still able to see the indecency of that arrangement clearly. We haven’t yet made it invisible to ourselves. Right now, we’re still struggling to stretch some feeling of normalcy, like a heavy tarp, over the top.
That said, it’s not inevitable that this is the end of the story. We tend to gloss history into a sequence of precursors that carried society to the present — and to think of that present as a permanent condition that we’ll inhabit from now on. We have started glossing the pandemic in this way already. But because we don’t totally understand where that experience has delivered us, we don’t know the right gloss to give it. I would argue that if you have the feeling that we’re moving on from Covid, but it doesn’t feel as if we’re moving in any particular direction — as if we’re just kind of floating — this is why.
“The future never exists,” Starecheski, the oral historian, told me. “We’re always imagining it.” The interviews in the archive allow us to look back on the pandemic in that spirit, reconnecting us with an atmosphere of uncertainty. They encourage us to linger here in the middle of the story; to stop rushing ahead to an end; to recognize that we are no different from the people in the archive, after all: locked down in a single moment, not knowing what will happen next.
“The days are strange,” one public-school teacher told Milstein toward the end of his first interview, in May 2020. It was impossible for him to square a sudden multiplicity of realities: how his wife could be off working at a hospital where people were dying in the hallways, while he was at home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, fielding questions from one of their children about Fortnite characters and watching Tasty videos with the other. “It’s just very strange the way that we’re living through this slow-motion catastrophe and yet we’re still living our normal lives,” he said. Signing off, Milstein reminded him that they would talk again later in the year and that maybe things would be clearer then.
“I wish I could talk to that guy right now,” the man said. “Future Me. He’s got a lot of information that we could really use, I think.”
Seven months later, Milstein actually asked Future Him what insights he’d gained. He replied that there was one obvious lesson that he should have learned by that point, though he still hadn’t, really: “Just how easy it is to be wrong.”