ALBANY — Since I’m one of those people who relates most everything in life to music, I can’t help but think of a couple of Bruce Springsteen songs as I sit in a lonely room, day after day, trying to gather and put together information for this newspaper that will benefit and inform in any small way this community that I love while maintaining my fragile sanity in the process.
I think first of Springsteen’s “My City of Ruins,” a song that’s most often associated with the 9-11 terror attacks but was actually written before that catastrophic event. It was written, ironically enough, to promote the revitalization of the singer’s hometown, Asbury Park, N.J.
I say “ironically enough” because our community is attempting a similar type revitalization as it deals with the realities of an aging and crumbling infrastructure and a population that is overwhelmingly poor and uneducated. And while much of the progress has been like another Springsteen song — “One Step Up and Two Steps Back” — there have been improvements that managed to spark hope in a population that heretofore has had little, resigned mostly to an ever-declining status quo.
That hope, though, has taken a backseat, just as everything else has, to the coronavirus. We see people in grocery stores wearing surgical masks, their eyes revealing the fear they feel just in looking for food to feed their families. We automatically reach out to shake peoples’ hands, to share a moment of human contact, and are momentarily taken aback when they shrink away in terror. It’s hard for social creatures to adapt to antisocial behavior, but it’s what our city — and our world — has become.
I’m encouraged when I talk to Dave Patel about a complete makeover of the Village Green Shopping Plaza in northwest Albany, but then I hear of another mom-and-pop store or restaurant closing down because there are too many people who refuse to risk a visit. I’m encouraged when people of all walks pay for planned appointments at businesses that they can’t currently keep as a means of helping small businesses stay afloat, but then I’m slapped back to reality when our state and national leaders say this pandemic has no end in sight.
I read the new numbers that come from Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital every day, and it’s sobering. The thing with numbers is that we too often allow them to be only that: numbers. But all those hundreds of sick people and the rising count of the dead are real people, people who were a part of the fabric of this community. Then I read on Facebook that the virus has taken someone I had gotten to know fairly well — Femi Anderson — and I start to think about the last time we talked, and the danger of this COVID-19 becomes all too real and the numbers start to mark my soul.
In the midst of this new world we live in, no one who isn’t there can begin to understand the struggle for survival that is going on at Phoebe. These brave men and women who answered a calling to provide health care put themselves in danger’s way with every patient visit, every time a nurse takes vital signs or a doctor conducts an examination. They’re overrun at ground zero of this coronavirus hot spot — and there’s no question that they’re just as scared as you or me; they have kids and wives and husbands and aging parents, too — yet they continue to do what they were trained to do.
And, oh, by the way, Phoebe has come under fire from many in the community because of past business dealings that became an all-too-public — and ugly — part of the hospital’s history, but those who would criticize the hospital, its staff and CEO Scott Steiner at this point in time, knowing what they’re going through on a day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis ... all I can say on the hospital’s behalf is you can kiss their ass and move somewhere else, move somewhere where your constant pissing and moaning is more appreciated.
I say this community, when — and, God, I hope and pray there is a when — this pandemic is finally behind us, should collectively and individually open its arms and give a hug and a handshake of appreciation to every hospital employee who stood firm with death all around him or her and did their job.
The other Springsteen song that I think of lately is “The Rising.” This song is a tribute to New York City in the aftermath of the terror attacks, and it is a song of both hope and redemption. I never hear it without getting chills, a flood of memories of that fateful day rushing in and offering both a sober reminder of how vulnerable we felt as a nation and how quickly we shook off the feelings of doom and started rebuilding.
I listen to “The Rising,” and I want to walk from house to house in this pessimistic community of ours that has come to expect the worse and can’t even respond positively to good news, so accustomed is its populace to worst-case-scenarios, and I want to share Springsteen’s message of hope. I want to say the one thing that might slap them out of their lethargy and their pessimism and assure them that there is good in this world, that their negative reaction to all things — good and bad — is a cancer that eats away at their souls and leaves them a hollowed-out shell of themselves and what their lives should be.
It’s easy enough for our leaders to offer words of encouragement, tell us that we’re “going to get through this together.” Our skepticism has led most of us, even those of us who walk around with a glass half-full, not to believe anything that comes out of a politician’s — be he or she local, state or national — mouth. What’s more encouraging, at least to me, is seeing the haggard faces of those health care workers and those first responders and those small business owners who stay open even though they’re losing money put on a look of determination and get back in the fight for another day.
I’m not native to Albany, but I love this city. I love its people, from those whose homes I’ve visited are little more than basic lean-tos to those in mansions whose grandeur leaves me in awe. I love the city and county workers who go out there every day and collect our garbage, repair our roads, keep our electricity on and our water running, and I love those who are doing everything they can in their little spheres of influence to make our lives at least as normal as possible.
I want to live through this virus. I want to shake people’s hands again, give them hugs, walk into a convenience store to get a soda and a snack without dousing myself in cleanser when I walk out the door. I want to see people, grateful that they were spared the worst of this evil pandemic, supporting their local businesses, remembering the ones who faithfully stayed open when it would have been much easier not to.
And I want to personally thank our police officers and EMTs and firefighters and city/county employees and health care workers for risking their lives to help save others and to keep our community operating. I want to be there for The Rising. And I hope it’s as glorious in real life as it is in my imagination. God bless Albany and all of its people.