This year on Valentine’s Day, my husband and I delighted in a long, romantic lunch at Xyst, Chef Matthew Kenney’s Mediterranean country eatery in the Chelsea district of Manhattan.
It was a celebration not merely of our relationship but of being vegan in this amazing city that welcomed us twenty years ago and has allowed us to become something extraordinary: New Yorkers.
In the two-and-a-half months since that lunch date, life around the world has done a 180, probably nowhere more so than in my adopted hometown. People ask me every day, “What’s it like in New York City?” All I can tell them is what it’s like in my building and on my block.
Life in pandemic mode
Life in pandemic mode came on slowly, too slowly according to the the public health officials. In the beginning stages, I was largely preoccupied with my husband’s being hospitalized after a serious fall, but I did pay attention to the early warnings: avoid public transportation, wash your hands a lot, don’t touch your face.
Then we were told to stay six feet apart and masks, originally thought useless, were recommended and later required. In the building where I live, the exercise room closed, as did the meeting room where neighbors gathered twice a week for yoga. Still, we walked the halls for exercise — William was released from the hospital just in time for the lockdown — and every day I took our dog, Forbes, to Central Park.
It was the warmest March I can remember. The trees were in bloom, and ducks and geese were out en masse. Unfortunately, so were my fellow New Yorkers. That’s when I gave up going to the Park.
By the time my birthday came on the 21st, making me officially 'high risk', dog walks had become perfunctory and carried a set of rules: “Put on the mask, sunglasses or goggles, and gloves…take the elevator, provided no one else is in it, to the garage level under the building — the lobby has too many people.
Once outside, make it a game, a kind of parkour aimed at maintaining social distance, but when the sidewalks are crowded and many people aren’t wearing masks, enter video game mode with all the speed and strategy you can muster.
“Upon return, clean Forbes’s paws. Remove shoes, unless a trip to the refuse room or the laundry room or to the mailbox is in order. In this case, shoes stay on, after cleaning the soles with an alcohol wipe, the one first used on the sunglasses and Forbes’s leash. Wash gloves and then hands — Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday to you….After that, deal with the apartment: clean all the handles and surfaces and light switches, both cell phones and the office land line, both laptops and remote controls and the printer.”
Over time, it’s become second nature: if we touch it, I clean it. The floors are mopped three times a week, and Forbes gets a bath twice. He obviously loves never being left alone, but I wonder if he deems the upsurge in hygiene a high price to pay for the company.
The necessity of creativity
When basic activities take extra thought, they’re more tiring than usual, but I get a second wind in the evening from making dinner. Our gas range developed a problem early in the shelter-in-place period and since we couldn’t have a repair guy in, I cook on a hot plate.
Even so, it’s a remarkably creative process. Depending on a weekly grocery delivery service means no more running across the street to pick up the sweet pepper or Dijon mustard some recipe called for. This has made me a much better cook.
And being in quasi-quarantine is also making me a much better vegan. At first, the overwhelm made me speculate about pausing my activism, but soon I started seeing opportunities to insert that into the current situation.
The Gentle World folks had offered a discount on cases of their classic Cookbook for People Who Love Animals and I’d ordered one. When it arrived, my building super was nearby and I asked if I could put cookbooks by the mailboxes for my neighbors. He said I could, just 10 at a time. They disappeared daily until all 40 copies had been distributed.
Getting the word out
The film I produced last year, A Prayer for Compassion, made it to AmazonPrime, and I worked to help get the word out. I continued to do my weekly podcast, shifting to devote one segment per episode, on average, to COVID-19-related issues from building immunity to dealing with anxiety and the financial issues so many people are facing.
I did inspirational videos every morning last month and called that project Enchanted April, figuring we needed one. As Zoom made its way into my life, and vegan festivals, webinars, and meetings started to fill my calendar, I learned to host Zoom conferences and started initiating them.
Far from having the pandemic divert attention from vegan issues, it turned the spotlight onto many of them. Articles we weren’t used to seeing started to appear in major papers and segments made their way onto the news channels:
- The zoonotic disease threat inherent in wild animal trafficking
- The problems with live markets in China and around the world
- How the crowded conditions on factory farms can breed disease
- The concern physicians have about underlying health conditions, many food related, that can intensify the severity of COVID-19 cases
- The plight of those in the low-paying and already dangerous jobs in the slaughter industry, highlighted as the virus spread so severely among workers in meat processing plants
- What people can eat instead of meat, in response to shortages around the country
- Sales of plant-based meat substitutes went up 200 percent in the week ending April 18, and the stock price of Beyond Meat is up 21 percent this year.
This is an unprecedented time, replete with suffering, loss, and uncertainty. Most people see the 'new normal' ahead as an era of restriction and limitation.
And yet within the hardships wrought by the novel coronavirus lies the possibility of a novel way to conduct ourselves on earth, with kindness, fairness, and good sense.
As vegans, we’re poised to be at the forefront of this new normal, ushering in not just a world in which wearing a mask is a fashion statement, but one in which compassion is, truly, the new black.