By Russell Saray
Our doorman opened our plywood-covered front door at 299 West 12th Street. The car service idled at 5:00 am. Low flying helicopters drowned out the chirping birds in Abingdon Square across from the building. The curfew prevented us from leaving any earlier. I worried we wouldn’t make the 6:45 am ferry to our beloved Fire Island Pines. The masked driver greeted us with a smile (I think) and opened the trunk. We loaded our “opening the season” steam trucks ourselves. The smell of Clorox filled the backseat instead of the usual cardboard pinecone hanging with religious worry beads. Moving at a clip up 6th Avenue, we zoomed by a non-stop sea of plywood. The former, “Magnificent Mile,” box shops, small retailers and restaurants looked like a war zone. I gripped my husband, Steve’s hand. The Midtown Tunnel appeared deserted. We were the only one in it. Is this what a presidential motorcade feels like?
I finally let go of Steve’s hand. He needed to resume his morning ritual and continued reading the NY Times unphased on his iPhone. I could only focus on what seemed like miles and miles of tombstones of deceased New Yorkers backed tightly together in the massive Calvary Cemetery along the Long Island Expressway in Queens. I sat, astounded at how many lives were concluded and dropped into the ground. How many were new Covid victims?
In what normally would be a two-hour commute, we arrived at Sayville Ferries in 68 minutes and a first in line spot, too. The fresh salt air replaced the scent of bleach. After a few double takes, familiar faces started acknowledging one another with a slight tug of their mandatory masks as we boarded. Every other person had a full greying beard and an expanded waistline. I zipped my hoodie to conceal mine. The ritual of toning up for the summer evaporated. Breaking our isolation with small talk eased my anxiety. We again held hands as we sat on the upper deck. The captain hollered, “All aboard!” Paradise awaited us. Goodbye to the chaos of the city.
The harbor greeted us with open arms. Giant white flags embroidered with red hearts flying at half-mast in honor of those who had fallen to Covid flew side-by-side with rainbow flags. Gay Pride Month had started. Protests had not. Steve launched the house WIFI without a glitch. We set up his new office with a view of our garden, blooming with honeysuckle. A welcome change from our shared dining room table he had been working at since March 4th.
As is my too frequently exercised habit, I checked Facebook. A Blacks Lives Matter march caught my eye. “Meet at Driftwood Walk and the ocean.” We hummed and hawed for only a few minutes. I scurried around our tool shed, the “Geppetto Room.” Year after year Dad kept us well supplied with tools. I still don’t know what many were for. I painted from an unopened can of Rust-Oleum, “B- L- M” in large black letters on a banana-colored tablecloth and stapled it to a 5ft piece of bamboo. Sunday, June 7th brisk wind didn’t hold back anyone. As we approached the starting line, hundreds and hundreds of masked enthusiastic residents and young scantily dressed renters with firm abs descended on the beach – always social distancing. After a half mile march close to the shore, we took a knee silent for eight minutes and 46 seconds – the time Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck murdering him. I held out the flag tightly. The silence broken with sudden outbursts, “I can’t breathe!” Giant countdown numbers on Amazon box remnants etched with black sharpies reminded us each minute and seconds. It felt like eight hours. My leg cramped. I didn’t dare move. A monster killed George Floyd. In the absence of violence, the brutal ending of his life sunk in as the surf crashed behind us. The salt air made my tears sting. My lips quivered. Three, two minutes…“Mama, mama!” George’s last words could be heard. Sunbathers, families with toddlers joined in with fists raised on one knee.
What I thought was inescapable wasn’t. Our BLM flag continues to fly on our rickety rusty flagpole where our bird feeder once hung. Our Pride flag can wait.