I stepped back into Manhattan and Brooklyn last week, down to the city from my life in the deep upstate woods. I was revisiting the world of privilege that had ousted me in 2021, and that had been so confident and even smug right up until and into the “pandemic.”
It’s haunting, what that world seems like now.
I know some readers must be thinking, Why have compassion for, why even bother with the fates of, wealthy liberal elites — those who aligned for the past three years with a million lies, and who only grew wealthier and more status-secure as a result of the depredations of the recent past?
I hear you.
But I feel the need, as a witness to this dark time, nonetheless to describe what I saw. When an empire’s elites lose confidence or all sense of purpose, history reveals that it is hard for that empire to survive. And the collapse of confidence I saw, may show a movement in the life of the nation away at least from the complete madness and denial that has gripped this world since 2020.
Brian and I attended an evening gathering of New York City thought leaders, and old-school society leaders. It was in a private home, and convened by the same glamorous group that had dis-invited me from its “list”, due to my naughty vaccine status, in 2021.
I felt that it was important to show up now, and see what had happened to this world in the meantime.
I felt myself step back in time, to pre-2020. There was the familiar swish of the cab that let Brian and me off at an elegant corner on the Upper East Side. There were the obsequious doormen on either side of us, gesturing us forward, into the marvel of the intact Art Deco elevator. They did so with a theatrical servility that I now understand, after my three years in exile in “the other America”, to be purely gestural, and in fact to be deeply ironic.
There was the doorman standing inside the elevator, whose entire job involved pressing the ancient buttons — a flagrant display of conspicuous consumption. There was the door of the elevator opening directly into a penthouse, rather than into a hallway lined with apartments. That private-elevator marker, like a “Park Avenue Classic Six” apartment, or a dedicated parking space in the garage, is a sought-after status symbol, in a city that has little physical space in which to display variations on wealth.
There was the white-on-white-with-beige-notes interior (2016 trend). There was the fantastic backdrop of bookcases, replete with ladders, that lined a study all the way up to the eleven-foot ceilings. (Were the Victorian sets of matching kidskin volumes at the uppermost levels — decorative?) There is the Miro mobile, swaying gently in a corner of the living room, just past the gleaming baby grand piano. There was the Rothko-like art and the Rauschenberg-like art, or maybe they were Rothkos and Rauschenbergs. One painting — with a provocative social-justice message — I recognized from its having been in the Whitney museum catalogue.
There were the staffers in black pants and white shirts — actors and painters by day — passing trays of small circles of white bread with tiny dollops of sour cream, all topped with pearly black caviar. There were the folding gilt chairs, unchanged in these settings since the 1930s.
But everything felt different. In the “before” world — before 2020, before “lockdowns” and “masking” and “mandates” — there was a robust, fairly healthy city outside of these gatherings. It was a city that these people felt that they influenced, cared for and even led. There were schools educating children adequately, and businesses employing people freely, and trains moving people to cultural events and family gatherings and museums and libraries, all showcasing an intact American culture.
The same group now no doubt had the same access as before, the same resources, the same networks. But now, they were lords and ladies of a dungheap. The society and culture outside this elegant interior, had collapsed.
Outside, now, graffiti defaced neighborhood after neighborhood; the New York City police have stopped ticketing people “tagging” buildings. Outside, a Columbia University student was attacked while posting flyers relating to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and Columbia University briefly closed in response to duelling protests. The light of peaceful free expression is being extinguished. Outside, in far Brooklyn, as Brian documented last week, lines of hungry Americans, patiently waiting, stretched a mile long outside of a church dispensing free food. Outside, random acts of violence take place in the subway system every day — a man last month was slashed in the head with a boxcutter.
But over and above the collapse of civility and of safety was a sense among the elites of what felt like defeat. They did not manage to lead their nation through a crisis with integrity, or even with basic facts at their disposal; and now, in that assemblage, it felt as if there was among them a sense of loss of purpose, if not outright shame.
Perhaps it was because this group had been taken in so thoroughly, and was now slowly waking up to that reality. Maybe people even in “that world” are becoming aware of the fact that they stayed indoors for 14 months with no reason, that they missed Thanksgivings and Hannukahs with family for no reason, and that they “masked” and imposed masks on their visiting grandchildren, for no reason. Maybe there was a sense of dispiritedness and even of depression, in that room, because perhaps even they know now that they took something into their bodies that can hurt or someday kill them.
That is what it felt like. A bonfire that had been mighty, that had flung its radiance across the globe, was dying. It felt like embers of an old fire collapsing in upon themselves and going cindery.
Whatever these people had been through in the last three years had aged them. It felt in that room as if a group who had been the proudest people on earth — the thought leaders of New York City — had now just stopped trying.