I. Research vs Reality
“Is it possible to get more copies of Killing Williamsburg?” Spoonbill Books is running a GoFundMe, and after featuring my novel about a New York epidemic on the front page of their website, they sold out. The Bedford Avenue bookstore has carried the novel since it came out in 2013—but selling out in a couple of weeks was unheard of. Do people really want to hear more about pandemics? Is Camus’ The Plague really a hit again? It would seem bizarre, if anything could be considered “normal” these days.
I’ve gotten messages from friends saying, “If your book were a movie it would be streaming like crazy right now,” and “Your book is becoming reality.” Or, “Is it ever strange to have such morbid things remind people of you?” Not anymore.
Killing Williamsburg tracks a fictional suicide epidemic that starts in Williamsburg and decimates New York, killing over three million people. I wrote it in 2000, setting it in the pre-9/11 New York that we knew. I was asking the question: what would happen if we had that many deaths in New York? What would happen if a third of the population suddenly wasn’t around?
I thought that with only one medical examiner’s office per borough, the city would run out of body bags. The National Guard would step in. And even though Giuliani was an asshole, he’d probably step up, eventually. All of these things came to pass after September 11th.
It’s easy to forget, even for those of us who were here, but September 11th was fairly localized. While the aftereffects lingered, the attack itself was in a specific place, and the city around it was able to, more or less, limp along. The current coronavirus pandemic is a worldwide condition, and New York’s resulting lockdown looks all too familiar to me.
Killing Williamsburg described empty, desolate streets. Total disruption of services—subways and buses that barely ran, yet lights that stayed on even if the bills weren’t paid. Disruptions to the supply chain, lack of necessary goods, and burgeoning black and grey markets and increasing barter. People who didn’t get the “bug” ran in droves, leaving the city, abandoning their homes, whether temporarily or permanently, unknown. The characters in the book break into abandoned apartments, using them as refuge, as they do the horrible work of trying to clean up the city, wearing bandanas over their faces and shaving their heads to keep the scents from sticking.
“Eerily” was the word of the month in March, as everyone hid inside and streets, subways, and public spaces emptied out. Hoarding and the obvious jokes belied the truly valuable items any smart eBayer should have stockpiled in February: webcams and hair clippers. Multiple stories of suburban flight are surfacing now, as New Yorkers snap up New Jersey and Connecticut real estate, but anecdotal knowledge has told us plenty already: the rich got to their summer homes quickly, and younger people—and some not so young—moved back home. Privilege came out of the closet (and plenty of writers cashed in).
The lack of national leadership is, it goes without saying, more pronounced now; it’s almost quaint to remember George Bush reading “My Pet Goat” and being—understandably—surprised by a sneak attack from a sworn enemy. Contrast that with months of Trump denying we have a problem and you are firmly in the world of Killing Williamsburg: Deny it, contain it, continue on like it isn’t real.
The book also delves into the widespread rumors and misinformation about the “bug” as the disease spreads. A gab session amongst workers cites:
“The medical examiner’s office has shut down completely…. The bodies now collected are merely stored in walk-in refrigerators in restaurants all over town; the Williamsburg dead are waiting in meat packing plants on North 6th. There is a death train…. The bodies are taken far out across Long Island and thrown into the Atlantic, sent to mass graves packed with lye, stored underground in unused subway tunnels, ground into protein powder and shipped to Japan. The carcasses are hauled to landfills in Staten Island and New Jersey, buried with common garbage like any other city refuse.”
Even in the fictional world, most of these rumors were false. The refrigeration turned out to be true, and it isn’t surprising that real-life New York approved refrigerated trucks as part of the 2008 Pandemic Influenza Surge Plan.
The body bag shortage seen during 9/11 has been more pronounced during the coronavirus. The most close-up disturbing read of 2020 might be this—trigger warning— first-person account from a morgue truck. I found it “eerily” reminiscent of a passage from Killing Williamsburg involving a staircase, heavy human remains, and Hefty bags that prove insufficiently hefty.
II. Welcome to the Internet.
In the book, the worst rumors were misinformation about Hart Island. I’d never heard of Hart Island before researching this book. The internet was still young in 2000, and my best information came over the phone from Thomas McCarthy, director of historical services at the Department of Correction. Most New Yorkers, we now know unequivocally, had never heard of Hart Island until last month, when City Council member Mark D. Levine tweeted—incorrectly—that New York would be burying bodies in “a NYC park.” That sent the media and the people into a tailspin of misinformation, paired with almost simultaneous overreaction when faced with the grim realities of what happens—under normal circumstances—with the unclaimed remains of New Yorkers. We don’t know about death, we don’t talk about death.
Above all else, what I could never have imagined, in the year 2000, was the internet. Memes, Facebook, Twitter, 4chan, the return of fucking Nazis— none of this shit was imaginable to me 20 years ago. And before raising anyone’s blood pressure or cracking jokes about middle-aged people trying to learn technology, imagine this quarantine in 2000, let alone 1918. Our Zoom happy hours and working from home have been tedious and also a lifeline. Want to know“What’s up with the helicopters in my ‘hood right now”? Twitter will tell you. I found out about the first plane hitting the Tower when a friend in London called my landline.
So it’s upsetting that the internet so slavishly bows to the masters of misinformation. The horrible rumors described in my book were passed around word-of-mouth on job sites. The internet is like lipsticky gossip on crystal meth: lightening fast and permanent. It is so instantaneous, contagious, and unstoppable, your racist Uncle in the Midwest has stacks of Undeniable Truth proving COVID-19 is a hoax, and convincing him otherwise would be like explaining why the sky is blue to someone staring at a radiant red sunset. There is no objective reality anymore, everything is opinion, everything is politics, and any so-called “expert” could be selling an agenda at best or be “part of it,” lying to hide the truth.
In the early days of my fictional pandemic, doubters just didn’t come to Williamsburg. They stayed in Manhattan and looked away. From what I can see in the deep Facebook comments from friends of friends, that tactic holds sway—many people have never been to New York and don’t understand our unavoidable proximity. They’re certainly not coming now, and they aren’t coming to our news, either—they don’t have it, won’t get it, and basically, don’t get it.
III. The Question of Suicide
My book was about a fictional suicide epidemic, but there have been several mini-epidemics since the book was written, the latest being last year’s record number of U.S. police officers, including 10 in the NYPD.
The room grows darker considering Big Insurance’s response to the crisis, as cited succinctly in the Bloomberg headline: “As Suicides Rise, Insurers Find Ways to Deny Mental Health Coverage.”
The follow-up question is, how bad will it get under The Current Situation? A May 1st study (that was not peer-reviewed) predicted as many as 75,000 additional “deaths of despair,” including deaths by suicide and substance abuse.
It’s hard to track suicide cases in real time, since it’s such a taboo topic in our culture and seldom reported, but the high-profile or high-drama still warrant ink, and there have been a few lately: The tragic case of Lorna Breen, an NYC doctor who was working the front lines; a notable Tribeca photographer who asked, before his death, “How do you enjoy life?”; two deaths and a third attempt within two weeks on Staten Island bridges; and to top it off, these on-brand warm words from the “severely mentally troubled” individual (per the World Mental Health Coalition) who happens to be the President of the United States: “You’re going to have suicides by the thousands.”
A recent peer-reviewed article in the JAMA Psychiatry asks if the secondary consequences of the coronavirus amount to a “perfect storm,” citing a who’s-who of factors that were anxiety-inducing during “normal” times and are now ubiquitous: economic stress, social isolation, barriers to mental health treatment, “national anxiety,” increased firearm sales (access is well-known to elevate risk), and the pre-COVID-19 incidence of elevated suicide rates among healthcare professionals. Add to all that, the seasonal variation in rates: They “tend to peak in the late spring and early summer… [which] will probably coincide with peak COVID-19 prevention efforts.”
If you’ve ever suffered from ideation, know someone who has, or have just one gram more empathy than the president, this is all scary AF.
The authors of the paper, however, end on “optimistic considerations”: “Suicide rates have declined in the period after past national disasters (eg, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks). One hypothesis is the so-called pulling-together effect, whereby individuals undergoing a shared experience might support one another, thus strengthening social connectedness.”
Might. Emphasis mine.
IV. What’s Coming
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably getting the sense that my book is a Super Bummer, but it isn’t. It’s filled with black humor, but more importantly, it has an uplifting ending, nodding to Jose Saramago’s Blindness. It was written as a triumph of the human spirit, a celebration of New Yorkers’ ride-or-die, “fuck you”-style pluck. My favorite parts are the protagonist’s efforts to clean up the city, forming a crew of unlikely volunteers from disparate backgrounds, a Central Casting New York coming together to pitch in, and, weirdly, occasionally having a good time doing so. Benson, the narrator, has a kind of redemption, evolving from callous asshole to empathetic volunteer.
The book was also a love letter to my past career as a lighting technician; the working-class grit of the lead, as he partners with previously-hated white collars, was intended to harmonize with the history of people who built this city—most of whom, like Benson and like myself, were not natives to the region. One of Benson’s more self-aware soliloquies begins, “I miss the yuppies,” because they lived. People will pitch in and do the right thing, I thought. And everything that happened AFTER September 11th made me think I was right about that. New Yorkers can beat anything. We don’t give a fuck who you are or where you’re from. If you work hard and play hard, if you’re part of the fabric of this city, you belong here, and we’ll always give a fuck.
And some of this is happening now. Essential workers are earning that title. Some local causes are getting funded. Artists are entertaining us for free.
And then there’s the guy running down the sidewalk on my block the other day, AirPods in, no mask. I signaled with my arms, like, “I should get out of your way?” and he nodded and said “Yeah” as I jumped off the sidewalk. I called out, “Wear a mask,” and he instantly snapped, “FUCK OFF.” This is not an isolated incident.
This isn’t September 12th New York, holding the door open for people and offering wan smiles like it’s the south after a near-miss hurricane. I don’t know what it is—Williamsburg’s bad behavior isn’t ubiquitous citywide, from what I’m hearing anecdotally—but my fear is that we become a Trumpified New York. “I HAVE a job, fuck you.” “I’m invincible, you deserve to die.”
A decade of staring at our phones while wearing headphones, curating our reality to be more real than “reality,” has led to a dangerous precipice. Somehow having smartphones made us less curious, less driven to look for answers when the algorithm is forever serving them up to us. The perfect nexus of social media narcissism, tunnel-vision curated newsfeed arrogance, USA! tribalist exceptionalism, and garden variety White People White Collar Whitebread entitlement, has created a kind of contagious solipsism.
I don’t want to feed the divisiveness that is already eating our country alive like a red-and-blue-striped ouroboros. I’ve never understood the short-sightedness of 1% capitalists—what’s the point of being rich if there’s no one left to clean your toilet?— but the logical conclusion of administrative trends and the COVID-19 response seem darkly obvious. MAGA was criticized as a call to return to 1950s demographics—but maybe all they really want is a return to a 1950s population size.
I don’t think there are any billionaires in my neighborhood, but the line between those of us who are scared and those of us who are behaving like murderous psychopaths is easy to spot. They used to call us Williamsbeard, and we’re turning into Williamsbeardnet—masks worn only around the chin. It won’t stop the ‘Rona, but it could make us more angry and hateful, useless emotions in a time of crisis. Contagious emotions.
We’ve got to tap into our September 12thness. No matter what anyone else is doing. (ICYMI, Wisconsin’s bars are open.)
We’ve got to do what we can to stop the flow of misinformation. We all have computers in our pockets more powerful than what we had on our desks after 9/11. Look it up from a reliable, referenced source, and get used to asking, “Where did you get this information?” We have to look after each other. Do we really want to start shaming people on social media for sociopathic behavior? Is there another way we can encourage each other to wear masks and practice distancing as we roll into summer?
Asking for a friend. All nine million of them.
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in an attempt; and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
In New York City, if you or someone you know is struggling, call NYC Well at (888) NYC-WELL or text “WELL” to 65173.
Bradley Spinelli is the author of the novel Killing Williamsburg.