“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Brooklyn to Somewhere in Virginia” by Seth Orion Schwaiger

Plague Doctor; this image and those below by the author

March 17

“It cannot happen legally. No city in the state can quarantine itself without state approval and I have no interest whatsoever and no plan whatsoever to quarantine any city. … As a matter of fact I don’t even think you can do a statewide policy.”
– -New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

Our apartment, like many in New York City, is heated by radiators. The boiler is triggered by an outside thermostat and heats the entire building, that is, several apartments, ours included. The lower the floor you have, the hotter the radiator, and if you fuss with the dials you screw the people on the top floor. It sounds uncomfortable but it isn’t, it’s actually really nice to have the windows open through the winter. That is, it’s nice until your downstairs neighbors start self isolating and, rather than quit smoking in the face of a pneumonia-causing pandemic, just end up chain smoking from all the stress.

Elizabeth and I debate whether it would be better to be quarantined in our unrentable rental in Austin, with a yard, and eighty-degree weather, and more than 500 square feet of space. The Oracle spreadsheet gives us numbers that don’t look great for the city anyway. We talk about extremes. Is it better to stay in a place with a terrible spike of a curve, where many die, but then things return to normal sooner (NYC?) or to be in a place where the curve lingers for months and months (Austin?), where we don’t have insurance, but have a far better shot at getting a hospital bed and ventilator in the very unlikely event that either of us would need one. Do we go where there’s family or where we have work? Are we letting go of our dreams if we leave now, after finally making the leap to New York and somehow gaining traction here and Elizabeth getting a Chelsea gallery to represent her practice? What if we can’t come back? Will I ever have a gallery? What if this is Spanish Flu all over again and it’s 18 months until we are through?

It eats up the entire day. News keeps pouring in. We seek counsel from our friends we trust, and ask those we love in the city to consider coming with us. We’re surprised by how understanding they all are — there were less than 500 NYC cases at the time. We’ll sleep on it before we make our final decision, pack the car the next day if need be, and take off early the following morning if running looks like the best decision.


Covid Road

March 18

“‘Quarantine’, ‘lockdown’ are scary words, and no one is talking about that now in New York. … I wouldn’t approve shelter in place. That scares people, right? Quarantine in place — you can’t leave your home.”
Governor Cuomo

In the end, our decision was largely based on comfort. We felt way too cooped up, needed more room, needed green space that wasn’t mobbed by every other sufferer in Brooklyn. We started packing our food, our precious package of toilet paper, our laundry, a suitcase full of herbs, and a ukelele — the essentials. We left for comfort, but the speed at which we left was due to extrapolated words. We sensed the change in the Governor’s language and the shifting dissonance between him and De Blasio.

Quarantine was around the corner. You might still be able to leave New York, but it would be a nightmare to get out, either because so many would be trying, or because there’d be so much static with movement restrictions.

We checked in with our close New York friends again, who all chose to stay. We gave away plants we couldn’t take with us and left that night. The city seemed … weirdly unshook as we left. Lots of people on the streets, teenagers jostling into one another, traffic as usual, some people wearing masks, sure, maybe more sirens but who can really tell.

Cases had doubled in the city by the time we pulled off the road for the night somewhere in Virginia.

Split Ventilators

March 19

We gave up trying to sleep in the car around 6am and decided to get back on the road. I was, I think, appropriately grumpy. It was still raining. I was still wrestling with canned beans and potted plants and bags of laundry and about to lose it, and Elizabeth began to play the uke. Without speaking we both began vocalizing strange coyote harmonies over the top of the chords.

Nothing made sense. We were fleeing from a pandemic, we were escaping into our own pasts, running from our own dreams, we were in nowhere Virginia, we were howling, and playing the ukulele.

March 20

“We’re all under quarantine now.”
– Governor Cuomo

World 375,458 / 16,371  USA 43,214 / 579   NY State 20,875 / 158   NYC 12,305 / 99

–March 23, 2020

(A version of this piece appeared on the author’s blog.)


Seth Orion Schwaiger is a writer and visual artist based in Brooklyn. His words have been printed in The Austin Chronicle, Sightlines, New American Painting, Conflict of Interest, Sculpture Magazine, artcritical, Glasstire, Arts + Culture Texas, art ltd., and several other publications. Follow his work on instagram @sethorionschwaiger.