An Australian’s desperate attempt to leave the now-epicentre – before it was too late
It was 4:45 p.m. New York time, 7:45 a.m. Melbourne time, when my parents called and said, with an unmistakable tone of disappointment, ‘We think you should come home.’
Thirty years before, they had chosen California as the locus of their own grand pan-continental dream; I was now continuing the ritual of the Rosenberg Stateside Migration, though on the other side of the country. Yes, I could’ve made it simple and straightforward for myself and leeched off the connections Mum and Dad still had in L.A. But what ambitious young person, finally ready to fulfil his long-dreamt-of American fantasy, would choose the well-worn path? How else should I assert my overblown sense of agency? And besides, who can say no to New York?
At the time of their call, I had been living out my dreams of independence for just over a month – five weeks or so. For the last two of those weeks, I had been attending a film school workshop program, and in the three weeks before that, I had only one aim: settle in. Become accustomed to New York’s brand of trumped-up (read: Trumped-up) manic intensity, absent in a town like Melbourne but par for the course in the madness of the Big Apple. I was eager to plant myself firmly in that mythical tradition known as ‘Life in New York’, and so I began doing all the things regular people do in that strange, amazing place: having bagels and black coffee every morning; riding the subway, where I’d be treated daily to a drummer playing wildly on a kit made out of everyday household items; finding it hard to relax amongst the ceaseless noise of the stirring city.
Cut to the night before my workshop began and I had thrown together the semblance of something familiar: I had my room in Brooklyn, I had a bike, I had Quaker Oats in the pantry, and I had Bret Easton Ellis on my bedside table. Film school began feeling like an excuse rather than an end; the City gradually became the end in and of itself, the main attraction.
Of course, none of that mattered anymore, because in the span of three days my world imploded.
When I received that call, I was just beginning to comprehend the scope of my situation, coming to incomplete decisions about what I might do in response. The verdict I had most recently settled on had its own sort of obstinacy that now seems, frankly, insane. I had convinced myself I would, in typically crude terms, ‘tough it out.’ Prove to yourself that you’re an independent adult, that you can withstand a little bit of global crisis, a smattering of societal catastrophe. What – you’re going to give in, just like that?
Yes, the mind is a fickle thing. Sorry; my mind is a fickle thing, a rash and somewhat smug little weasel that exists at the intersection between two driving forces: on the one hand, compulsive repulsion at even the most anodyne of societal norms; and on the other, total enslavement to my basest emotional whims. In other words, my mind supposedly functions according to a kind of logic, but that logic is consistently flawed, flagrantly irrational, and often, potentially calamitous. Indeed, God’s cruellest trick was to condemn us to the reality that only in the moments when we need clarity of thought most, do we discover the unsolvable deficiencies of our operating systems. When I should have been considering whether it was sensible to wait even 36 more hours before booking a flight home, I was instead wondering whether I had bought enough peanuts and sultanas to last me the next two months. Yikes.
Hours after my parents rang me, Canberra issued a similar call: if you’re an Australian currently overseas and you have no irresolvable reason to stay where you are, come home. And yet, even then, even after the two great authoritarian figures in life – the government and the parents – had made their will clear, my mind refused to give in. Sleep on it, I told myself. Yeah, right; as if I’ll be waking up tomorrow morning and changing course.
‘Sorry Mum, sorry Dad, sorry ScoMo, I’ve decided to remain in the most densely populated city in America – a country without universal healthcare coverage and in which I’m uninsured – to wait out the gravest pandemic in 102 years, because… well, I need to prove to myself that I’m all grown up. I’m a real man, I swear!’
Sleep on it? That night, I barely slept a wink.
And by the time that morning had somehow come, and I had wearily checked my phone for updates, I discovered that my situation had deteriorated from world-implosion to full-blown-black-hole.
Firstly, I learned that Qantas had cancelled most of its international flights, as had Virgin. Did I feel betrayed? Kind of – but only to the extent that one has a sort of chauvinistic affinity with their country’s national airline. Rather, was I somewhat more concerned with the fact that cancellations were ostensibly affecting anywhere from 60 to 80 per cent of flights, a number increasing with every (un)waking hour? You bet I was. And whether or not this was actually the case mattered little; what I am talking about here is feeling, pure unadulterated irrationality. I was caught in Walter White’s ‘fugue state’, except unlike his, mine was becoming more and more real.
My second discovery was that I was not alone in my exposure to such a crushing pressure. In the preceding days, I had begun catching the scent of a growing sentiment of self-preservation amongst the locals. Gone were the pleasantly carefree Sunday mornings of sitting by the window with coffee, watching couples and children and familiar neighbourhood figures strolling down Bedford Avenue. Gone were the days of picnics in Prospect Park followed by innocent gallivants to Williamsburg bookstores swamped by hipsters and amateur writers. All gone in the new world. New Yorkers were now forgoing their beloved subway. In shops, crowds of people were amassing panoplies of foodstuffs of which supply lines were being barely depleted. On weekends, locals were desperately flocking to public parks, even in spite of the bitter cold. In hindsight, these were perhaps the unconsciously self-expressing warning signs of a city, which deep down knew just how vulnerable and unprepared it was for the impending doom it faced. They all sensed the reckoning, the splitting open of the glossy skin, that was headed for the Big Apple.
But it was my discovery of the growing concern amongst Australians that made me truly alarmed. Because who else would I trust to stay calm but my fellow Australians, a people so unpretentious that its idea of cultural enshrinement is to rebrand the national spread in honour of a tennis player. Yet the trends I noticed in the ‘Australians in NYC’ Facebook group were enough for me to deduce that, much like the symptom of the viral threat itself, heat was radiating from the collective forehead. Where 48 hours before, people were posting questions about furniture pickups and where to find mixed netball competitions in Manhattan, now the pressing issues included the spousal re-entry eligibility on an E3 visa, what to do with empty apartments on which one was still paying the lease, the healthcare coverage status of non-immigrants who might or might not be feverish, and, of course, pontifications over whether a travel ban was coming in the next four months, four weeks, or four hours. Panic – but in its own very Australian sense, subdued, collectivised, weaponised for pragmatic purposes – became the modus operandi, perhaps because, I believe, we all instinctively felt the city was going to be decimated by the crisis. Be it blessing or curse, Australians are realists at heart, and reality was proving itself a terrifying prospect.
Part of the difficulty was that one felt the need to draw a line in the sand, because home is where you want to be in times of crisis. Thus, either home is here, or it is a long day away by plane. Momentous, deeply personal decisions like that can scarcely be made in short order, but now they had to be.
And so, the calculation went something like this: you have forged a decent livelihood in one of the world’s most competitive cities; yet your raison d’être, if not totally sucked away by the void, has been altered to the point of effective redundancy; your family wants you to return, as does your government; yet leaving, at least according to the processes to which your mind is currently beholden, would be to push the pause button on whatever way of life you have arduously constructed for yourself; however, your national airlines are cancelling 80 per cent of their international flights; yet all of your local friends, be they native New Yorkers or not, are for a variety of reasons committing to stay; and maybe New York feels like home to you now, and you trust your instincts deeply; well then, listen to your instincts – what do they tell you?
In sum: every reason to stay, every reason to leave.
What relief I felt, then, to hear those six innocent words, usually uttered with such little lasting effect, but now fraught with the burden of significance. ‘We think you should come home’ ended my indecision. The call had come, the ship had sailed. Now, no matter what perverse attempt at self-determination I might feign – telling myself I’d sleep on it as if there was something to actually consider – reality was, as always, blindingly clear: with the shuttering of doors across the City, including those of my school; with the lack of reliable information being gathered about the virus; with an unshakable spectral presence clouding over my life; and with the news of the possible total destruction of the Italian way of life only an ocean and a bit away, there was, really, no way I was staying. Why? Because, for whatever romanticised notions I had of a life in New York, the impending crisis crystallised what I, of course, intuitively knew all along: Melbourne, to me, means home.
A $1700 Etihad flight was all that was left to arrange; I was to fly home the next evening, a stopover in Abu Dhabi. As I booked the flight, I would have no intimation of the developments in the 72 hours following my departure, by which time I would be safely at home in my anonymous corner of the world: that the United Arab Emirates government would declare Abu Dhabi airport closed (thus barring the way home for any Etihad travellers); that 60 per cent of all new cases of COVID-19 reported in the United States would be located in the New York metropolitan area; and that in the cultural and economic discourse of the relevant masses, the word ‘recession’ would have all but entirely given way to the word ‘depression’.
I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of any of it. No; instead, I would pay the $1700, shut my laptop, and then sit on my windowsill smoking a cigarette, watching ambulances rushing down Bedford Avenue, and, believe it or not, I would sleep soundly and deeply that night, my last night in my bed in Brooklyn. Believe it – or not.
Photo by Elroy Rosenberg.
Elroy Rosenberg is a writer (read: louche layabout) based in Melbourne, with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. His work has been published by Dog Door Cultural, Almost Real, and Rough Cut Film among others. elroyrosenberg.com