Meeting Social Obligations

Early in the morning on a recent Sunday I pedaled up Prospect Park southwest, my bike weighed down with cargo and moving at a deliberate pace. The sun wasn’t out in force yet so the warmer-than-usual mid-spring day was still cool and, in the punctuated calm of the pandemic, the streets were quiet.

I stopped for a moment to send text messages to three friends with estimated times of arrival. I’d planned, in my Brooklyniest endeavor to date since moving across the East River last year, to deliver homemade kombucha (and chat for a few minutes, at the prescribed distance) to each of them. There were nine homebound friends on the itinerary, and I’d drawn out a clockwise loop that reached up to Greenpoint and east to Crown Heights before returning home to Kensington.

I stopped to see my co-worker James at a Windsor Terrace brownstone. I was unsure how comfortable each person would be interacting in person, but James came out offering fresh steamed dumplings with soy sauce and a napkin, we both masked up, and I was at ease as I handed over a small bottle of white tea kombucha with grapefruit. We talked about our work and my new bike with its continuously variable transmission before I made for stop number two.

The apologies started piling up early. At a table in the front garden of her South Slope townhouse, Chelsea indulged me with iced tea and a discussion about activating outdoor spaces. Using outdoor space to interact with your neighbors…herb gardening…coffee and breakfast on the patio…I was titillated. By the time she sent me on my way with a dozen packets of heirloom vegetable seeds and a cache of empty glass kombucha bottles, I was already an hour behind schedule, and I had to start messaging the remaining seven people with apologies for a delayed timetable.

I hate being late, though I urged myself toward acceptance on a day in which I would have the opportunity for an unprecedented degree of social interaction. Besides that, no one really had anywhere to go.

George grinned as he emerged from his Boerum Hill apartment, and brought me orange slices like I was running a marathon. I really appreciated those – the day was getting hotter as it inched toward noon. I left him an oolong variety with rosemary and ginger in the fancy local-Brooklyn whiskey bottle.

There wasn’t a ton of space on the sidewalk outside Isha’s apartment building in downtown Brooklyn, keeping us from lingering. Luckily, a delivery worker on his way into the entrance was kind enough to mug for a photo with us.

“There are no right angles in the living room,” Jack said, referring to the sloped roof of his top-floor Greenpoint apartment and the obtuse junctures of the walls. “There are between the floor and the baseboard trim,” I pointed out, “and I think you’ve been inside for too long.” Uncharacteristically for this journey, I’d asked to come inside, because I really had to pee.

Fortunately, Jack kindly obliged, though unfortunately I had to make it up four flights of stairs before I could sprint past Jack and his roommate into the restroom. When I emerged I dug in my panniers for two pickle jars of unfinished white tea-grapefruit that still needed a couple more days of fermentation.

Jack is an accomplished conversationalist, able to expound thoughtfully and playfully on whatever topic. He also has terrific stamina, and by the time I left I was two hours behind schedule. He insisted that I ride through McCarren Park “at this sun-dappled hour,” so I mosied west a little before making my way to Bed-Stuy, sending two-hour-behind-schedule alerts as I went.

Rosa and Ben were sitting on the steps of their Bed-Stuy brownstone soaking in the sunshine when I arrived. Ben asked if I wanted some coffee, though not the kind I expected – he stepped back inside to roast beans in their popcorn air-popper and tucked them in my bag when they were done, still sour and needing more time to do something chemically I didn’t understand. Meantime I sat four steps down on the stoop to catch up with Rosa, who regaled me with stories of new hobbies and dreams of beating a path out of the city in a beater car. On my way out she packed me a bushel of tahini cookies that may have been the deciding factor in my making it through the last three stops.

Logan talked to me from the required distance behind the gate of his little front patio. I presented the fermented goods in a cheap whiskey bottle and he loaded me up with bad (good) puns and strange Loganic delicacies – homemade mustard that still needed a couple of days to get funky, preserved lemons, and chili crisp. I think Logan has been watching a lot of cooking shows.

Huddled in the shade outside John’s apartment building on Fulton Street, we discussed the city’s response to the pandemic – the confusion about what was ok to do in public and wasn’t, the bungled street closures and mixed messages, the peak of the crisis in mid-April that had blessedly descended to a consistently downward trend.

The last apology was the biggest – I was about three hours behind my original itinerary when I found Olivia set up picnic-style in her Crown Heights courtyard. The Hebrew ice cream truck parked a few feet away, its bilingual clarion a siren call to relief on that first hot day of spring (not to mention relief from the nostalgic horror-tune of Mr. Softee). We lingered, shifting around to stay in the partial shade of the miniature locust tree growing through the courtyard wall. Olivia is good at finding the good in tough situations and helped put this strange circumstance in new perspective. She is also one to keep a jam-packed social calendar, and had found this spring a respite.

An untold duration of time later I pedaled home, late, grateful for healthy, gracious friends and glad to have had a social schedule to fall behind on for the first time in too long.

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