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Staying behind in plague city
I am troubled by this unexpected joy in the presence of so much suffering. Is my euphoria a by-product of mass trauma, a neurological state of hyperarousal that comes from living with ambient death? Is it the pleasure of being a New Yorker among New Yorkers again? Feeling a certain shame in my joy, I consult the poets.
-Jeremiah Moss, Feral City (2022)
Three years ago this month, in March 2020, people fled New York City to avoid a plague. More than 300,000 New Yorkers left the city. Some 40,000 died with COVID-19 listed as a cause of death. More than 5,000 businesses in Manhattan shut down for good. The MTA, which took the liberty of running thousands of empty trains on schedule throughout the plague, lost $1.5 billion in revenue last year. Ridership is half of what it was.
This was as close to rapture as most of us will ever reach. Streets lay silent and thoughtless without traffic. The air hung heavy and empty. Stores were barricaded with boarded windows and plywood doors. In my Midtown high-rise, we banged pots and pans at seven every night from our balcony and cheered the healthcare workers who marched like soldiers toward the hospitals on First Avenue. The Empire State Building pulsed a bloody red as night fell. At dusk, Frank Sinatra blasted from the fire station at the bottom of the canyon thirty-two stories below at unimaginable volume. We participated in picnics in Central Park despite Mayor de Blasio’s dire warning that “good weather is a threat to us.” We typed, clicked, and Zoomed from the top of bureaus and inside bathrooms. I had the best runs of my life in an abandoned city so quiet you could hear your heart within the rhythm of the infinite that New York will never lose, no matter the number of ghosts haunting it with the reminder that everything is finite.
Downtown, in the East Village, author Jeremiah Moss rejoiced in this rapture. His latest book, Feral City (2022), is a picture of the uncanny joy humans have in the destruction of routine and a reflection on the islands of beauty within tragedy, a reminder, when read right, that tragedy not only a a state of being, but a state of place.
“People are animals before they’re human.”
We start Feral City pre-pandemic. Something terrible has happened: Jeremiah Moss has a new neighbor. Worse yet, the neighbor is, according to his social media stalking, an influencer with a rich family. He is convinced she is a member of the herd of newcomers who are nothing more than unconscious consumers, a group he deems “Hyper-Normative New People.”
Moss can’t help but blame Hyper-Normative New People for all of the city’s pre-plague woes. These livestock, in their careless consumerism, are the central antagonists of his blog, Vanishing New York, a periodic update of lamentations on businesses that are, in his opinion, murdered by mass culture. The blog began in 2007 and culminated in a book of the same name in 2017 with a focus on the deconstruction of gentrification. These transplants are portrayed as a menacing horde from the suburbs destroying the city by softening it with the sins of the suburbs such as smartphones and chain stores, brunches and brands, golf clubs and spotless white shoes. It is possible to sympathize with this view if one stands on a street corner of the Meatpacking District on a Saturday night for ten minutes or alights upon a rooftop bar in Lower East Side or decides to get twenty-three dollar pancakes in Greenwich Village. At the start of the book, the plague of the Basic and the Extra is upon us. COVID-19 has not yet raptured the undesirables away.
Huddling in his apartment and judging this new neighbor and her friends from his peephole, Moss describes himself as a “Leftover,” an unwanted and discarded object cast aside from another era of the East Village. Living in the past, he resents the present. Through a gauntlet of academic and occasionally home-cooked terminology, the reader is made to understand one thing: the wrong people are moving to New York City. Jeremiah Moss wants New York City to be weird again. To have personality again. To be a city culture, not a consumer culture.
As Moss describes it:
Consumer culture has the power to take us over, drowning out our singularities as human beings and turning us into commodities… The normotic colludes with this takeover to remain blank and shallow, “abnormally normal,” an extrovert who talks mostly about mundane daily activities.
Moss, who evidently spends most of his time pre-pandemic stalking his neighbors by finding their names on the packages in the stairwell and looking them up on his computer to imagine their lives with misplaced malice, conjectures that Hyper-Normative New People prefer “mnemic excreta” rather than fully experiencing life. This term evokes the image of half-digested memes left behind in a horse-like act of casual and unapologetic defecation after a session social media grazing. Hyper-Normative New People, Moss claims, believe a photograph is better than a lived experience because their humanity has become an object. In other circles, one might hear this called the metaverse: younger generations have one foot in the real world and one foot in the virtual, permanently. This creates a loss of culture within the cities that depend on people not only as transactions, but as conduits.
Feral City hypothesizes that the Hyper-Normative New People prefer the familiar to the strange. If something disrupts their preferred reality, they are “masters of unseeing” who can become blind to something disturbing in a blink. Detached from the city as a life, they view it as a place to enter and exit as easily as a credit card swipe and live an urban lifestyle following nothing more than a pattern of transactions like mice in a maze. Forever comfortable, Moss contends they will always be lonely in recognizing the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable:
Caught in the trap of being New People, they are alienated from here. All that absence makes the city a lonelier place. I miss the New York mind… Even on uncrowded sidewalks, I am constantly getting hit by the New People.
Wherever one might stand on the catchy category of Hyper-Normative New People, Moss communicates the very real pain of seeing a city he loves turn into a shopping mall and the masses streamline their shared hobbies with algorithmic precision. In their silent sameness, Moss, a resident of New York City since 1993, identifies a new generation of transplants that are making the city “a lonelier place” and filling it with a “psychic vacancy.” Simply put, the normies of New York City are not present the way he believes people should be.
During the lockdowns of COVID-19 and the disappearance of this particular species of New Yorker, Moss sees a new ego emerge from beneath consumer culture:
The city’s id is shaking loose… I’ll say it again: We have no stores, no shoppers, no restaurant reviews or fashion trends to incite consumption and competition, no office workers rushing around, no eyes staring at iPhones, no outward signs of bourgeois acquisition and productivity.
In this feral city, Moss discovers a new salvation and a new self as he joins tens of thousands of people to march the streets to protest police brutality. Watching stores burned, broken, and looted, Moss believes the system brought this reckoning upon itself. During the summer of 2020, the people took back the streets. The chant became “Whose streets?” to which the same crowd answered, triumphantly: “Our streets.”
While the question of an awakened crowd rang across a city suddenly cut open and raw, Feral City explores the surface of another question: when where those streets? During the tragedy of COVID-19, the city become a place transported and trapped in another time.
Goodbye to All Them
How is it that tragedy would make me fall in love with the city again?
Our memories of any true tragedy and any true joy stands in sunlit relief from the hazy clouds of everyday memory, because our body produces adrenaline as we adapt to new circumstances and adrenaline makes us remember things. As one paper puts it:
It is well established that hormones of the adrenal medulla (epinephrine) and adrenal cortex (corticosterone, cortisol in humans) are released during and immediately after stressful stimulation of the kind used in emotionally arousing learning tasks.
Our shocks of stress from tragedy and our rushes of joy both boil within the adrenal glands, which, when activated, crystalize and capture those memories to make them glow. As the study concludes:
Extensive evidence indicates that stress hormones released from the adrenal glands are critically involved in memory consolidation of emotionally arousing experiences. Epinephrine, glucocorticoids, and specific agonists for their receptors administered after exposure to emotionally arousing experiences enhance the consolidation of long-term memories of these experiences.
Jeremiah Moss knows it’s wrong to love the plague so much, but he can’t help it. His adrenal glands are pumping, erupting like a dormant volcano. Resentful and lost pre-pandemic, Feral City shows him unfolding and embracing a new lifestyle, because he finds a community of other Leftovers. In the hot magma of this fresh river of self, he’s reminded of the New York City where he moved twenty years ago, seeking outcasts and rebels as a trans man, not driftless and exiled from the people who were popular in high school. During the plague, the popular people left and the second city emerged from hiding.
People keep saying New York has become unrecognizable in the pandemic, not itself, but that depends on which New York you’re attached to… But for many of us, it’s like catching the scent of a lost perfume, the madeline that makes memory bloom, and we go tumbling back through time.
Moss, who is relentlessly focused on the magic the city has lost, finds it again in the pandemic by discovering a culture without capitalism and therefore a culture without expectation, a living city where everyone is present. Readers might also postulate that the city he locates is in fact something stored within himself, because it is a memory of past feeling that informs his view of the present.
To recite the shadow of the past reflected in Feral City: Jeremiah Moss, a trans man, moved to the city like almost everyone moves to the city, including the maligned Hyper-Normative New People: with flutters of hope and uncertainty, anxiety and romanticism, beating his heart. New York City, with that promise of the infinite, became his home because it promised him he could be whatever he wanted to be without judgement but, as it does to us all, it eventually betrays him with limits. During the plague, all the hope and uncertainty, anxiety and romanticism, that promise of a new beginning, forever, resurfaces. He tumbles back through time, because he feels a city he remembers. It is not the absence of the Hyper-Normative New People that make the city beautiful and feral, but the presence of that feeling.
Tragedy is a loss of circumstance, the feeling that the very earth on which we stood dissolves and leaves us to fall into nothingness and drown in darkness until we craft a new world from what we believe we see. Tragedy is a time machine. In the bitterness and the sweetness of any truly special memory, we are remembering it through a luminescent veil of feeling even as we are making it.
This means that Feral City is a travelogue. Jeremiah Moss visits a city he remembers because he is visiting feelings he remembers. Old feelings can paint new memories. Moss describes the sensation as something similar to pentimento, which are the previous forms and figures on a painting that have been covered up by new brush strokes, painted over. In a life spent grieving for a city and a self and a sense of wonder lost to cynicism, it is COVID-19 that gives Moss a new understanding of life again when all the paint of modern life is peeled back, scraped away, and reveals that all those lost colors are still there under the surface.
In tragedy, we travel into and outside ourselves all at once. The emotion is the location. But, like all feeling, it fades. We move on and leave people and place behind to become a memory. Everything we know, everything we experience, is all predestined to become pentimento, painted over with persistence by life as we know it by the colors and shapes of our forming and fading, only seen when we peel the layers back.
By the end of Feral City, we find that Jeremiah Moss has already painted over the man who biked alongside protesters, led groups to safety, joined the people he believed to be real New Yorkers. The Hyper-Normative New People are back. Swearing in Washington Square Park to himself, he’s overheard by a man with his child.
“Watch your language!” the father yells at Moss. The mother and father are beyond redemption, they are “blond, white, and blandly good looking.” The city has fallen once more, and Moss seeks shelter in the feel-good resentment that has become his routine.
He admits that, sometimes, he “missed the ambulance sirens and bodies in the street.” He wants there to be a feral city, forever, without the people he finds to be unredeemable. His being back and burdened by the banal, he sinks into an old self without the beauty of tragedy.
In the height of the pandemic, Moss regularly encounters a Jesus-like figure who stands sentinel in the fountain at the center of Washington Square Park.
A young white man in a dirty white suit with a picture frame around his neck and a battered mannequin leg in his arms… He salvaged the leg from the SoHo looting where he did a spontaneous piece of performance art, sitting in the broken glass on the sidewalk, a dollar bill in his mouth.
Moss asks the young white man in a dirty white suit with a picture frame around his neck and a battered mannequin leg in his arms what the performance art means. We are made to understand by this point that, in Feral City, this is one of the good guys bringing the old New York back.
“It means whatever I want it to mean,” the man responds.
The same could be said, forever, about the memories we create that become the painting we make of our lives. Feral City is deeply personal and deeply revealing and shows how we all create the reality we choose but, sometimes, the reality chooses us.
The death of any place is the death of the place in one’s heart and the heart is where we visit those places. The resurrection and rapture of the plague city is up to interpretation and Moss bejewels it with the values he visualizes. Feral City demonstrates how values create vision. New York City is always victimized by variable values and that is why it is always said to be dying and why COVID-19, creating a single honeycomb of tragedy for us all, can be remembered so individually, so brilliantly, but sting with such singularity.
If it’s appropriate to call the years living in that feral city a movement like any other, from Beatniks to hippies, wolves of Wall Street to titans of tech, it is a disagreement on what movement matters most that Moss seems to be constantly battling in the book and he is effortlessly convinced his reality is the right one, offering a poet’s prose to describe the particulars. A disagreement on those particulars persists in every movement in New York as people seek the new hearts of new destinations. Take Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” (1956), which waxed poetic about being young in New York and searching for yourself from Columbia University to the Village, from art to addiction and from love to lust but then losing it all. The poem sums up the grief of watching a movement pass and the erosion of the ecstasy of those eccentricities with the objectively beautiful line:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.
One might imagine Moss agreeing with this statement. Or he may agree with Kurt Vonnegut, who responded to the poem with a typically contrarian take on the Beats, explaining:
I like ‘Howl’ a lot. Who wouldn’t? It just doesn’t have much to do with me or what happened to my friends. For one thing, I believe that the best minds of my generation were probably musicians and physicists and mathematicians and biologists and archaeologists and chess masters and so on, and Ginsberg’s closest friends, if I’m not mistaken, were undergraduates in the English department of Columbia University. No offense intended, but it would never occur to me to look for the best minds in any generation in an undergraduate English department anywhere. I would certainly try the physics department or the music department first — and after that biochemistry. Everybody knows that the dumbest people in any American university are in the education department, and English after that.
Every set of values is different, which is why every reality of tragedy is different. At the end of Feral City, in reflecting mournfully on the city he lost again as the plague subsides, Moss is mourning the feral feeling of self he briefly became. Others may remember the pandemic for cramped family homes or lost jobs, fear of strangers and fear of the outdoors and the indoors or the loss of friends and family. It is not a place most of us are willing to visit again, but it is valuable to reflect on the fact we all visited the tragedy of the pandemic at the same time and we all came back from it with different souvenirs. Unlike Moss, most of us don’t even want to look over our shoulder at what we left behind. Rather than reflecting on the beauty of tragedy, we may want nothing more than to embrace the beauty of normalcy like never before.