Pandemic Journal, March 30–April 5

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tags: John Lewis, pandemic, coronavirus, journal, SNCC

Danny Lyon
April 5, 2020

BERNALILLO, NEW MEXICO—A few nights ago, I phoned my old friend, Ira Churgin. In 1961, we were ancient history students at the University of Chicago. Ira’s roommate was Bernie Sanders. In October of 1962, we all crowded into Mandel Hall to hear Professor Hans Morgenthau explain the Cuban missile crisis, about to reach its climax. That night, we students walked home together in the dark, wondering if a nuclear war was about to start.

There we were, all age twenty, thinking our lives were about to end. In my course on European history, my professor liked to say that the outbreak of World War I was “the end of history.” That summer, I hitch-hiked to Cairo, Illinois, to see the civil rights demonstrations there and meet John Lewis, then a field worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I wanted to be a witness to history.   

Two weeks ago, I ended my daily trips to buy The New York Times and my weekly visits to grocery store. Nancy and I are afraid to go to the post office. When a FedEx package arrives, I wipe it off with alcohol wipes. The container came with forty tissues; I have twenty left.

I built this house in New Mexico during the height of the Vietnam War. I was trying to get away from New York City, from my neighbors, and from America. It is built off the grid, two thousand feet from the nearest house and road. Made of adobe and dirt bricks, the walls are two feet thick. I cannot help but feel that, in the extravagance of my youth, I built a house for this moment.

“Danny! You’re still alive,” were Ira’s first words to me on the phone. The subject of our conversation was, of course, the virus.

“What is the meaning of this?” Ira kept asking. “They are going to spend a trillion dollars. That is one thousand billion dollars! I don’t get it. What is the meaning of that? Why not two trillion?”

“They just print it don’t they?” I said. Here in New Mexico, we have been told not to leave the state. Cruise ships have stopped sailing. No planes flying overhead. Last week, prisons began to release inmates. 

“No one is immune to this. Everyone is going to get it,” Ira said. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked again. “I just don’t get it. You know there were moments in history, when the world completely changed. Like in the Middle Ages. I think that is what this is.”

“After Berlin had been blown to pieces by the Russians,” I said, “with every building in ruins, the German people came out of the basements, many of them women, and picked up the bricks with their hands and cleared the rubble off the streets. When you walk in Berlin today, the sidewalks you walk on are made of rubble. You look down and you are walking on the broken bricks that the survivors put there in 1945.”

In January, before all the lockdowns started, I visited Congressman Lewis and stayed with him in his home in Washington, D.C. He lay in his bed, buried beneath heavy quilts. He has stage-four pancreatic cancer. On my last day with him, I lifted a small DV camera and made a fourteen-minute recording of our conversation. This was, I knew, the final scene of my film on John, which I have been working on for years. The congressman and I were remembering the generation we’d been a part of, a group that changed history.

“Where are they now?” I said, and laughed.

John looked at me, and said, “They’re on their way.”

“That’s good,” I answered.

“Another group is on their way,” he said again.

“That’s great,” I said. “I’m going to stop this,” and turned off the camera.  

When this horror passes, and it will, will the survivors accept a new way to live? The party is over. Our civilization is coming to a grinding halt. Is this the turning point? Will we emerge into a new and better world?

Read entire article at The New York Review of Books

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