Every so often when I visit the pickup window of my library, a short stack of The New Yorker magazines appears in the sliding drawer, saved for me by a kind librarian before they’re sent to the recycling bin.
It’s like finding a five-dollar bill in the jeans you just pulled from the dryer, a small, unexpected delight.
As of this writing, “delight” isn’t a word showing up with enough regularity. It is mid-October 2020. I can’t fathom what January 2021 looks like, when you’ll be reading this. From my vantage point here in the past, all I know is that something world-changing will happen Nov. 3 and the weeks that follow. And its impact, no matter the outcome, will trigger shock waves that supersede whatever we predicted. But the details are still unknowable to me. So I’m taking my delight wherever I can find it, reading old issues of The New Yorker from 2019. Right now, it feels less scary to look backward than forward. Call it escapism. Call it burying one’s head in the sand. Call it survival.
It’s fascinating to read about the fairly recent past from my desk here in the present. Though the tenor of the magazine’s reporting in 2019 seems to rise an octave with each successive issue, the alarm at the state of our country hadn’t quite reached today’s high-decibel scream. Last Nov. 18, Larry David wrote a light-hearted take on the First World problems of the presidential campaign trail. “So many of you have opened your lives to me,” his unnamed candidate intones, describing a supporter whose biggest issue is that she “walked into her closet one morning to find that many of her cashmere sweaters were marred by moth holes.”
Tucked into the Sept. 9 issue, the magazine’s “style” annual, was the two-column, “Sketchpad: A Survey of Pink in a Drugstore Aisle.” Illustrations of a scratch-and-sniff toilet cleaner, a body puff and several pregnancy tests, all of them hyper-feminine pink, transform those everyday objects into witty, just-for-fun satire.
But other articles seem to presage horrors to come. A lengthy book review of The Art of Statistics in the same issue, by the reporter Hannah Fry, evoked eerie similarities to the yet-to-be-solved mysteries of COVID-19: “There is so much that, on an individual level, we don’t know: why some people can smoke and avoid lung cancer; why one identical twin will remain healthy while the other develops a disease like A.L.S.; why some otherwise similar children flourish at school while others flounder.”
Seen through the lens of 2020, even the cartoons take on a darker edge, a new tone befitting the times, and the restaurant reviews read as downright cruel ironies, with their descriptions of divine dishes and exotic house cocktails. I read that hungry patrons at Nami Nori in the West Village could expect a 90-minute wait for a table on a Wednesday night (lobster tempura garnished with yuzu aioli and frisee, anyone?)
Just seven months old, the restaurant was forced to shutter this April. Restaurants, art exhibits, nights at the symphony, even trick-or-treating. How could we have known we were taking it all for granted?
I’m jolted by the realization that I’m looking at pre-COVID days through the gauzy veil of nostalgia, even as I read story after story about events that seemed mind-bending. In the Oct. 28 issue, Robin Wright analyzed President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S troops from Syria, a decision that produced rare bipartisan opposition. The magazine also devoted six pages to Jill Lepore’s “You’re Fired: A short account of the long history of impeachment.” Remember impeachment?
It seems impossible that the daily vitriol and death counts I’m “doom-scrolling” past now — a new word that had yet to enter the lexicon then — has forced those topics to the back of our minds.
But I still actually gasped when I flipped to Oct. 14, where a full-page illustration of a large surgical mask was set against a fiery orange sky, playing off a piece of Joyce Carol Oates’ fiction, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” Almost exactly a year later, masks are political and coronavirus cases are ascending with a vengeance. Medical experts are universally discouraging Thanksgiving gatherings with anyone who doesn’t live in the same household.
That hasn’t quite sunk in for me. I’m still in 2019, with the jovial din of overlapping conversations in a steamy kitchen, fragrant with my husband’s turkey and stuffing. The women are admiring my new tablecloth. A soundtrack of shouts and groans and the roar of actual, live crowds in packed stadiums erupts in another room. There are pie crumbs on the floor, crusty pans on the stove top and a huge stack of dirty dishes to wash. All that cleanup seems less drudgery than a happy ending to a story I don’t want to end.
But I know this moment isn’t the end of the story either. There is tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, ready or not, and all of us have got to scrape together every last crumb of hope for a new world we can find. When we turn the page to Jan. 1, 2021, we’ve got to see it as a chronicle of fresh possibilities, not a blank sheaf of paper waiting for more bad news.
Here’s the kind of thing I’m hoping for. Nami Nori, the restaurant that closed last April, is busier than ever, and in a way they’d always envisioned but couldn’t spare the time for until now: a thriving takeout business. Customers are thrilled they can enjoy the culinary magic without the wait.
That’s the kind of hope I’m writing into the pages of this wobbly, newborn year we’ve ushered in, a hope that we can bring bold new solutions to problems that seem insurmountable. That our past enlightens the present. That even if we’ve grown cynical, we can treat each other with more respect. That if we can’t yet hold each other in our arms, we can hold each other up.