Looking For A Big American Ideal At The End Of The Pandemic Summer

The weird pandemic summer is over. What's the big idea in America this fall?

They tell you, normally, to buy your Statue of Liberty tickets months in advance. But on an afternoon in July — what would be peak tourist season in dead center summer — I walked across the mostly empty Brooklyn Bridge, past the mostly ignored Wall Street bull, through the security tent, and right onto one of the boats (Miss New York) that takes you across the harbor.

You can mentally order up the sounds you should hear on a ferry to an educational tourist location (errant teenage shrieks, parental directions to get off a bench or stand closer together or quit it), but in the middle of the endless pandemic, there was nothing. The only passengers on this three-deck boat were three twentysomething guys talking quietly and me. I disembarked and collected my audio guide from a masked woman.

“Can you believe it? You’re here at one of the world’s most cherished landmarks,” the audio guide brightly informed me as I stood alone at a flagpole. The place was so quiet you could hear your own footsteps.

When I walked around to the very front, to stand under the statue's vaguely displeased gaze, I overheard a park employee tell two tourists, “There’s nobody here, as you can see."

If you’re one of only about 30 people on that island, out in the breezy quiet, you will end up realizing the Statue of Liberty’s sheer randomness. To memorialize our shared love for human freedom, France gave us a giant copper woman.

Up close, the statue is massive. Its size (280 tons, 150 feet, an index finger alone measuring 8 feet, per the audio tour) practically forces you to consider how it even got there. Requiring two decades from conception to dedication, the statue's history is filled with the kinds of small gimmicky details that might make something contemporary feel forced: Americans were corralled into a small-donor fundraiser to finish the statue’s base. Frédéric Bartholdi, the sculptor, displayed the Statue of Liberty’s hand and torch in Philadelphia and New York beginning in 1876. For a fee, you could climb a ladder up into “the Colossal Arm.” In Paris, they put the statue’s head and shoulders on display at the Universal Exposition of 1878.

It’s weird, actually, to think of the Statue of Liberty’s 30-foot disembodied head being carted around France, and its severed arm sitting in a Manhattan park for years. It’s even weirder to imagine when they finally assembled the whole thing and the Statue of Liberty towered over 1884 Paris like Godzilla.

And yet, out of this mix of physical comedy and somewhat misunderstood intentions about its purpose, this statue became something totally different, a stand-in for America itself, benevolent and solemn, welcoming strangers. It’s cheesy and sentimental and everything else, but it might be the most successful monument in the whole world. In the audio tour, which I listened to on that hot but clear afternoon, two older immigrants remember people on the boat to the United States crying and kissing each other in the rain at the very sight.

“It’s a wonderful thing, a human being right in the middle of the ocean with her hand up. It’s the freedom of the world,” a woman named Martha Dolinko, for instance, says in a great oral history about early 20th-century New York. In the United States, Dolinko had to drop out of school in her early teens so she could work across the street from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which she watched burn (she became a lifelong socialist) — the kind of brutal early life that you might think would disabuse someone of any fondness for this kind of symbol. Still, when she grew up, she told that book’s interviewer, she and her husband visited this very island again so they could go up into this statue and look out.

“It’s the most marvelous thing to see.”

In place of routine and the normal exchanges of humanity, everything past and future begins to bend a little along with the pandemic.

I'd gone to the Statue of Liberty in July, really, because I heard nobody was going. Amid the baroque weirdness of the pandemic, there's something mysterious about deserted but active locales — like baseball games inside empty stadiums. Life continues but without a vital component, in a way that mirrors everyday existence, or mine anyway. I've spent endless days inside my apartment in Brooklyn, such that last winter still feels recent, like I just stepped through the cabinet into a parallel universe and might somehow reemerge into my uninterrupted real life. In place of routine and the normal exchanges of humanity, everything past and future begins to bend a little along with the pandemic. The summer revealed the indefinite expanses of the pandemic: A year or more might just be erased from the existing trajectory of people’s lives, and time might be the least of what’s lost. How could anyone make plans when they all fall apart? What’s the point of a monument if no one’s there to see it?

Besides the extreme stresses of this time, these empty-baseball-stadium experiences seem to be the basis for what’s so disorienting about this year. When there’s no crowd, but life continues, when you can’t make plans about normal activities, but life continues, you end up reconsidering the fundamentals of life before the pandemic, and the problems of before that were left unresolved. It’s like there’s been an unraveling, where each piece lands in a big pile: It’s hard to understand how the virus works, or how things work in another state or town; there’s an interlocking crisis of money, unemployment, and business; there’s racism big and small, old and new, that corrodes other aspects of life; there are the fires and flooding, with terrible losses and strange scenes; there’s the affirmed knowledge of how important the normal things (school, work, a Friday night dinner in a familiar restaurant) that we do are, and how interconnected one normal thing is with all the others, the way one broken link breaks the rest. About a thousand people have died every day — while the logistics of returning to schools and offices crumble within days of implementation. When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87 this month, outside of the remembrances of her life, the secondary reaction was about the dark periods now associated with Supreme Court vacancies and the opaque question: What happens next?

As for the central question of this year, there still isn't a total sense of how and when this pandemic ends. In this environment, the fundamentals of American life can look strange, illogical, or surprisingly vital — the absence of something suddenly throwing into relief how important it was. Here’s everybody, standing waiting, holding all these pieces of people’s lives, unclear on how to fix and reassemble them.

Three people, peering over the water at the Statue of Liberty, stand on a mostly empty ferry

Outside of the more immediate considerations of the pandemic, the thing I can’t shake is that this whole situation seems un-American.

I am not, for instance, one of these people who feels secretly validated when Germany or South Korea does something better than the United States, as though geolocated contact tracing exposes the inherent immorality or capriciousness of this country. I like SUVs and strip malls, and I like the Olympics exclusively because I like watching Team USA win, and I love that this country always has something original, big, angry, friendly, informal, or regional to offer. If you travel alone among strangers in this country, you will see such things all the time: spoons gently clinking against coffee mugs in little diners as people catch up waiting for an event, firework stands in saturated North Carolina light, old acquaintances in a drafty East Des Moines gym hugging when one joins the Biden crowd in the archaic, weird Iowa caucus system that produced no results. A place can be profoundly messed up and great and beloved at the same time; that's America, baby.

Still, it feels un-American to end up like this, people whom events have befallen.

You might rightly hypothesize that the un-American-ness of 2020 rests with the current lack of industrial might or something to do with scientific innovation (which is surely spinning away and will deliver, ultimately) or the plainly asymmetric level of sacrifice. Maybe you feel these are actually signs about American-ness.

Still, it feels un-American to end up like this, people whom events have befallen.

But, I think, the nature of that un-American sensation is the fundamental restriction on movement during the pandemic — the deserted places, the time spent isolated and frozen in place, the complications in or recklessness of doing routine activities. This is, after all, a big country, built around the individual driver, with a foundational right to free association.

Take, for instance, a simple set of basketball courts in Brooklyn. For months, the pandemic closed up shop in some of the city's bigger parks: no teens, no basketball, no kids running much of anywhere, metal barriers around picnic tables. In this particular park, you'd see people alone, leaning on the railings, just looking out over New York Harbor. One night in April, while I walked in silence, I watched four different ambulances light up on nearby highways.

After the grim spring, in which thousands and thousands died, particularly in working-class communities, New York is still enjoying a respite from the virus. In July, the city began reopening for real, and with it, these basketball courts. Under stadium lighting and a high aluminum roof, this particular basketball court can take on that just-before-close theme park feel, or at go-karts at the beach, or evening at the local pool — a kind of peak American summer feeling, filled with people in a way that felt normal. It's the kind of place where people stay longer than they planned.

But that kind of unscheduled vibe can’t coexist with a pandemic for long. Even in that exact moment, I wondered if the basketball courts would close again, officially. Or even unofficially when the weather turned cold again. At the time, outside, off the courts, many places that might feel or look normal remained closed.

At least for some indefinite period, there’s no real escaping within this country to some mythical new life, free from these complications.

In a pandemic, movement requires planning and contingencies, or at least it probably should. You can blunder through it, or isolate from it, but there's the virus. At least for some indefinite period, there’s no real escaping within this country to some mythical new life, free from these complications. And that cuts against part of the idea of America, right, that you can go somewhere else and you can reinvent. If that’s tied up in some Manifest Destiny hangover, it must also flow from a country so heavily populated by immigrants over the last 150 years, who literally left and continue to leave their homes for reinvention, desired or otherwise, in this one. Hollywood and country stars change names, rappers hit it big, one invention changes everything out West or in the big city or back home. Even if you never drive outside town limits, you theoretically could drive almost anywhere you want in America.

The moral in movies and books with ideas like this usually is: Actually you cannot escape the past, nor can you reinvent yourself. The choices are often the current familiar thing or returning to the other, also familiar thing. And the hard reality of America — enlightenment ideals and racism in bitter, enduring conflict — is that often people can’t leave or reinvent because of the factors beyond their control. It doesn't matter much how you feel about America or where exactly you're hoping to go if the cops burst into your home in the middle of the night and shoot you.

One of the most famous Hollywood shots is the open door to the West in 1956’s The Searchers. From the pitch-black interior, the vivid, open, beautiful exterior can be seen. The Searchers itself, a complicated movie, concerns an ex-Confederate soldier (John Wayne) whose hatred for the Comanches after a fatal attack on his family so curdles his soul that he massacres Native Americans and is even willing to kill the niece for whom he’s been titularly searching because she’s assimilated into the tribe. The expanse on the other side of the open door, here, is actually cold and harsh.

But in a pandemic like this, the metal grate drops to the concrete on even the romantic, illusory idea that anyone could pick up tomorrow for some other life. Even if I can’t be there, I like the idea that the places I’ve been far away are still bustling and healthy, available to pass freely in and out of without guilt or fear. Before things really shut down, one of the very last things I did was eat hand-pulled noodles near the Las Vegas Strip. The entire time, two middle-aged women laughed in Chinese as I read next to them at the counter; they were clearly having a great time watching my objectively poor chopstick work, which in turn actually kind of made me have a great time. When they got up, they both smiled and wished me well before heading out into the dark. It’s nice to imagine us all still sitting there in close proximity, instead of whatever worries them now, the pair laughing and joking, about to bid a stranger goodnight.

A man, standing under an umbrella and wearing a face mask, looks at an ice cream truck and is about to step into a crosswalk

Just about the nicest afternoon I spent this year was in July at the Statue of Liberty. I could have stayed all year in the sunshine and quiet, listening to the audio guide regale me with statistics and the tale of Lee Iacocca raising money to refurbish the statue in the now-distant 1980s. There, the only big question was about the way a statue that nobody asked for can be built in grief for one symbolic reason, then become something else wonderful that people weep over in the rain when they see, and then who knows? Maybe this cycle just repeats, and in a hundred years the Statue of Liberty will mean something totally different.

But the bizarre pandemic summer has ended with a clap. We’re further from how things were (even if they were bad) but not meaningfully closer (knowingly, at least) to post-pandemic life.

Inside my own walls, for good or ill, this is what I keep looping back on: time evaporating. How many summers do you get? How many years? I don’t know about you, but no event in my life has been more isolating and made me more aware of how interconnected “living” really is with what society provides than the pandemic. This feels like a half-life. The actual change in seasons has prompted some answer-free questions: What happens when the weather turns cold again for real? How will this fall work, in the most literal sense? The election could require the trust of voters in election mechanisms unfamiliar to them, on a foundation made soft by the pandemic and the economy.

How many summers do you get? How many years?

The actual provenance of the Statue of Liberty, as argued in Yasmin Sabina Khan’s great book on the subject, is sad: French liberals devised gifts and monuments after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, whom they loved; one of them was Bartholdi’s statue, for which Ulysses S. Grant approved the allocated land. Édouard de Laboulaye, who championed the project and taught American history in Europe when almost nobody did, never even visited the United States. Keenly interested in the democratic republic succeeding, and abhorring slavery, he and other French liberals viewed Lincoln as the successor to George Washington in dignity and restraint — a kind of obsessive identification maybe born of the undemocratic repression and chaos then taking place in France. Mourning French instability, they spent a literal decade raising money for and building a colossal neoclassical statue for another country.

The United States and France faced not completely dissimilar animating questions in the late 18th and first half of the 19th centuries: Could a steady, stable, nontyrannical, slavery-free, rights-centered, democratically elected republic be created, and endure?

The Founding Fathers were likewise steeped in the ups and downs of Greece and Rome, and how they might relate to the present day. Reading the Federalist Papers now, outside civics class, whatever else may be said about them or the founding, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton write with some real generosity.

Hamilton basically states outright he does not believe most critics of the new Constitution act in bad faith, while reminding supportive readers that men can be correct for vain, selfish reasons. “Are republics less addicted to war than monarchies?” he asks in a piece arguing for a republic. “Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising as a passion as that of power or glory?” They broach problems that really have no right answer and deal with them as the kind of central dilemmas the country will always face. The problem with a right answer — slavery — that they elided unraveled the country less than a century later.

An overarching undercurrent in the Federalist Papers is that, really, brilliant as it all may be, they are kind of making it up. It really does read like an experiment, involving a lot of ancient history and then-contemporary theory. There’s already been one ill-fated government, and here they are proposing another. Hamilton writes, “Hearken not to the unnatural voice which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many chords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family.”

Beyond the direct relationship to the US system of government, though, the writing still resonates because of Hamilton and Madison's insight into the ways people behave and the way governments might follow — it’s an exercise in mutual trust with the reader.

There are many volumes of material of what could be said about Donald Trump, but in this specific regard: He’s not concerned with mutual agreements and the social contract. This is not a president who will pantomime grief or restraint, for instance, to honor American traditions. Instead, Trump offers a never-ending loop of events and reframing of events, heightened beyond anything in recent memory.

His ever-expanding nature creates constant reconsiderations of tradition: that either they mattered much more than you ever thought or that the norm was never any good to begin with — complacency or viciousness always lurked underneath a veneer of someone’s Washington civility. The condition of the Trump era, though, is constant motion without closure; what’s gained or lost can be tough to see, and there is rarely any sense of an ending.

His opponent has built an entire candidacy around the restoration of general order. Over the last two years, I've seen Joe Biden indoors and out, in Philadelphia, in Iowa in summer and winter, in Delaware this summer inside quiet rec center gyms, talking about vaccines and cotton-swab manufacture and K-shaped economic recovery. But his candidacy has always carried an elegiac quality, of trying to reverse something that probably cannot be done: that if we could go back just slightly, and perhaps ignore a good deal, then good things will spring from a promise and performance of moral leadership.

Attending Biden's events during the pandemic has, paradoxically, not seemed too different from before. He speaks; the cameras watch; questions take place. But there is a central difference, and it is when the candidate arrives: Rather than the woozy, explosive roar of a crowd, Biden appears soundlessly, like an apparition. Over the hum of the fan in a gym, whether he shouts or takes a pause, the central pitch of Biden's candidacy is this: Stop.

The difference between an American year and an un-American year might seem inane and stupid to you, for the reason of this deeper question: How can you capture in a few words what applies to hundreds of millions of people, perhaps only bounded by geography? But nebulous concepts matter within the expanding crises of 2020. Election results, the authority of courts, public health in an airborne pandemic, recognizing and unwinding racism, and restoring economic demand are exercises where belief meets action, and shared assumptions can make or break the endeavor. A central difficulty of the next year will be: No one brilliant slice of the knife exists that ends the pandemic; even a perfect vaccine would take time to distribute after completion, and it wouldn't restore what’s been lost in the interim. Returning to more risk-mitigated activity — schools, offices, church, and everything else — in any kind of mass, sustainable way requires mutual trust. A few people can relent, and the abrogation of the rules might not matter, unless it does. And we are not owed stability in America.

My warm, expansive, casual view of what constitutes America doesn’t coexist well with this pandemic, or the way this year keeps surfacing the corroded frames underneath pre-pandemic life, or all this disappearing time. Except in this one regard: If you feel as I do that we are all kind of out here on our own during this time, then we aren’t. We are merely waiting to meet again. ●

America In The Fall

The weird pandemic summer is over. What’s the big idea in America this fall?
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