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Review: 'How We Live Now: Scenes From The Pandemic' By Bill Hayes

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Ron Zuckerman
Bill Hayes is the author of "How We Live Now: Scenes From The Pandemic."

Here we are six months into the COVID-19 pandemic and still, still, experiencing its assaults on our everyday lives.

Bill Hayes was in one of those heart-sinking moments a lot of us experienced in those early days in March when it became all too patently clear that how we were living was about to change dramatically.

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In this slim volume, Hayes captures in real time the period from mid-March to June when New York City was slowly morphing into an apocalyptic ghost town. In photographs and short vignettes, he documents the changing landscape, ephemeral moments with other New Yorkers in restaurants newly outfitted for takeaway service only, on subways, in parks, and city streets where the usual throngs have vanished.

Here and there, he encounters denizens of the metropolis that make up the black-and-white street portraiture interspersed in the book. In one, a young girl arranges what look like magnolia petals to create a mandala. She tells Hayes she doesn’t know why she is making it, just that she always has made them. She always has — even before the pandemic. It’s a stunning moment to think that the blight did not affect her art did not prevent her from making more of it.

Hayes wants to tell her that she is “making a whole universe out of what would otherwise go underfoot, unnoticed… a different universe from the one we are currently inhabiting.”

She lets him add a stripped twig to her work. When he goes to scour the ground for it, he has to concentrate and focus to find something. The impromptu exercise has forced him to defamiliarize the tiniest natural element — to really see it and appreciate it — in spite of what else is going on all around him.

A photograph of the mandala-in-progress with the shyly smiling woman in the background is interspersed with other photographs of New Yorkers. At first, none of the subjects is wearing a mask. As you move through the pages, nearly everyone wears one.

This book is a long love letter to New York, to a city not many of us can imagine shuttered to the point of desolation. The book also includes a love story — one that began for Hayes in late December 2019, a few months before the springtime first wave devastated the country, the world.

And another love story — about Hayes’ long-time partner, Oliver Sacks, the world-renowned neurologist, naturalist, historian and author.

Sacks had “treated survivors of the encephalitis lethargica pandemic that swept the world in the early twentieth century, killing or incapacitating five million people.”

From him, Hayes learned the imperative to write. Hayes shares that one evening in 2015, a few months before he died, Sacks looked up from his work and said to Hayes: “The most we can do is write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”

Hayes is the author of "Insomniac City" and "The Anatomist," as well a collection of street photography, "How New York Breaks Your Heart."

In some ways, this new book could be titled, “How New York Puts the Pieces Back Together Again,” as we see the ways — with numberless implications — that New Yorkers have adapted to the pandemic crisis. Certainly, Hayes documents enough of them to restore a sense of hopefulness about what is yet to come and the ways we must continue to alter our lives for the sake of survival.

Hayes recounts moving exchanges with those who had heretofore made up his daily life — waiters and barbers, pharmacists and UPS delivery drivers — and so many others who keep the city that never sleeps awake and alive, bustling and thriving. We read about the ways they keep on, masked and socially distanced from life as they knew it.

The 51st chapter in the book of short vignettes features a list of confirmed pandemic cases and deaths in the United States, starting with day 57 and going backward to day one.

May 7 was months ago now, and the numbers have grown to staggering and inconceivable totals.

Although Hayes’ accounting of the pandemic ends in May, he offers an early June postscript.

Because the streets of New York were largely empty, by the early summer, Hayes could hear birds singing and trees rustling, sounds that pre-pandemic were drowned out by the hustle and bustle of an ordinary day in New York City. But now the sounds were drowned out by something else — the chants of protesters in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

Hayes grabs his camera and his facemask and hand sanitizer and heads out before the curfew.

This afterword in this collection of photographs and brief chronicles is a poignant reminder that no matter what else happens to us as a community, city or country, this is “how we live now.”

Bill Hayes is the author of "How We Live Now: Scenes from the Pandemic." It’s published by Bloomsbury.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.