The plan, months in the making, was to visit New York and Boston for two weeks. I would see old friends, give a talk at Yale, visit bookshops and get advice on magazine publishing. Needless to say, it didn’t quite work out like that, says Tom Hodgkinson in his letter from New York
New York, 15 March, 2020.
What a very strange time to be here, as the prices of stocks and shares plummet while the plague of the coronavirus appears to be silently spreading.
It’s like being in Florence in 1348. My hosts recommend taking wet wipes everywhere I go. People are being told to work from home but my host, who toils on Wall Street, says that this idea is not working out at all. Yesterday he and his co-workers struggled at home, unable to access the various subscriptions they need for work. The IT guys, he says, were completely overloaded by queries and problems. Add to that the problem of cats jumping on your keyboard and brushing their tails in your face, and deliveries knocking at the door and children wandering in and you can understand why they all decided to go back to the office today.
Yesterday was a day of exquisite drifting for me. I walked around Brooklyn, which is where I am staying. New York looks strangely quaint and old fashioned: the trucks have nineteen fifties styling, there are tiny cafés with plants out the front, and there’s a refreshing lack of chain shops.
Small businesses appear to thrive. I saw G. Esposito and Sons, Jersey Pork Store; Carroll Gardens Fish Market; Cobble Hill cinema; Trader Joe’s, a large grocery store on the site of the august South Brooklyn Savings Institution; Sam’s Restaurant, Serving Brooklyn for 88 Years; a note advertising Accounting and Tax Services for Friendly and Creative People stuck on a phone booth. One shop front says it provides working space for writers but warns “Do Not Knock”.
I had breakfast in a trendy corner coffee shop called East One. It was fairly packed with young parents wearing beanies and working on their Apple laptops. I took the ferry to Williamsburg, a trendy quarter. We whizzed under the Brooklyn bridge and around the bay. I saw the Statue of Liberty in the distance and also the confident towers of Wall Street, where no one actually understands what is going on.
In Williamsburg I wandered into a bookshop called Spoonhill and Sugartown Bookseller where I bought copies of the Baffler magazine and Jacobin, a stylish left wing mag. I enquired as to whether they might like to stock the Idler and was given the email address of the owner. I made a similar enquiry in the Rough Trade shop which opened here a few years ago. The chap there did not seem impressed, even when I boasted that I had worked at Rough Trade in London in 1990. He said something about not opening a special account. Luckily the girl behind the counter gave me an email address to try.
Everything is being cancelled. I was due to give a talk at Yale but that has been called off because there will be no students there. Schools are closing and yesterday, of course, Trump announced a ban on incoming flights from Europe, though the UK is OK [Trump has since closed borders to UK too].
I feel sort of in the way, like I should have stayed at home.
At the weekend I am going up to Boston and plan to visit the home of the Alcott sisters and Thoreau’s lair, so expect a few words next week about the Transcendentalists, those great American idlers.
Note: I never did make it to the land of the Transcendentalists. I cut short my trip and went home on 18 March. After I wrote the above, I was delighted to visit a Brooklyn bookshop called Books Are Magic and find that it was completely packed – there was even a queue.
These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your comments.
One thing about the COVID19 effect in NYC – it will be an unprecedented opportunity for people to try out the idling life.
McCorkle Terence Diamond, Soho, New York
I’m in NY also but our people seem to be coping with the remote working option which most have elected to use. I’m going back and forward to the suburbs by (empty) train a couple of days a week. Many people are freaking out about the virus and now the markets. Will they learn to be idle? I don’t think it’s in their DNA.
Malcolm Wright, New York
Not to be pedantic but Trader Joe’s is in fact a chain that extends coast to coast.
Will Nelson, US
After reading this I immediately happened upon these lines in a letter from the Irish painter Nathaniel Hone (the younger) to the workaholic New York art collector John Quinn in 1910: “I think that you Americans work a great deal too hard. I suppose that it is a matter of climate and that you cannot help it. In this lazy Island we find it quite easy to be idle.”
David Boyd Haycock, Oxford
While here, I highly recommend you check out the bookstore Book Row, formerly known as “Better Read than Dead,” which is housed in an old shipping container storefront in an alley that also has a record shop and other small DIY businesses in other containers. Address is 867 Broadway, Brooklyn, 11206. Some other great bookstores out that way in Bushwick as well, including Human Relations and Molasses (which also has a little bar), worth checking out. Hope you get the chance.
Zach Gajewski, New York
[Thanks Zach. but in fact I had to bail and flew back to London after just four days in the States. TH]
Life is indeed getting weirder and weirder and constant travellers like myself are having to seriously re-think. It took me three hours just to get through Delhi airport last weekend on a four day trip from Nepal – I had my temperature taken twice and was doused in disinfectant on return to Kathmandu. Now India has suspended all visas for a month, initially, and other countries are banning people en masse. The upside is airplanes and airports are almost empty; once smoggy skies are blue as pollution plummets; and city streets are as they were decades ago: almost empty. It’s indeed as you say, like Florence in 1348.
Julian West, India
I am a letter carver in wood. I was just chatting with my mentor, the letter carver Martin Wenham, and he finished with this lovely, originally Welsh, quotation: “Idleness is the praise of the sword and rust is its mark of honour.”
This piece on brought back such memories… It’s 1959, age 21, just down from Oxford, November, after a very stormy crossing on the Queen Mary, approach the Statue of Liberty in the rain, distant thunder, all dark and gloomy, sound of police sirens in the distance, distinct sound of two gunshots, porters only available for a bribe…. but the start of an unforgettable year which ended with a chance, quite long and intimate, chat with Castro in Havana.
PS I sent your ‘virus=idling’ piece to two friends who live in France and they have cancelled the Economist in favour of the Idler.