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The Music of Shelter


Brian Cullman

The transvestites that gather across the street by the gates of the school don’t look the same with their N95 masks on. They huddle together, much too close, with oversized handbags & cheap cigarette lighters and keep their heads down. They’re in tight pants or miniskirts, heels way too high, and they pass a blunt back and forth between them. I try to imagine the lipstick they’re wearing, purple or shocking pink. I can’t.

I nod my head as I pass.

“Stay safe, Daddy.” one calls out. “Stay safe. Ain’t nothin’ good comin’.”

I came down with the virus about six weeks ago. Maybe more. There was no fever, no sore throat, but I had a dry and constant cough and was exhausted all the time. I’d sleep for 9 or 10 hours, get up, get dressed, and then go back to bed. I had no sense of smell and there was a sharp metallic taste in my mouth, like I’d been chewing on rusted hubcaps all night.

Everyone I know who’s gotten sick with this complains about that taste of metal. That’s the constant. Apart from that, all our symptoms are different, but the metal taste is there for all of us, and for all of us the air tastes stale and second hand.

Years ago, I lived on 16th Street and Third Avenue, across from Joe Junior’s, and just below 15th street, there was a secondhand cheese store. For a few dollars, you could buy an enormous wheel of cheese that was a few hours, maybe a day away from going bad. If you were having a party in, say, 20 minutes, it was the place to go.

But the air in there had that strange smell of something turning, something in transition. It smelled of long gone locker rooms and of butter and death.

It wasn’t unpleasant.

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A friend died of COVID-19 last week. He couldn’t get an ambulance to take him to the hospital, and his lungs gave out. He’d been ill for about 10 days, maybe 12. He’d start to feel better, like he was on the mend, then the virus would sneak up and knock him down again till there was no breath left in him.

He died in a small apartment on the Upper West Side with his wife and daughter around him. The ambulance that wouldn’t pick him up and take him to hospital also wouldn’t pick him up and take him to a funeral home or morgue. There were no cars available. His wife and daughter were alone with him, and the hours went by. They covered him with an old grey blanket, but his feet stuck out. They worried that his feet were cold, so they found a green towel they could cover them with. And they waited.

Sometime that night, an artist they knew offered his help, and one of the art vans that usually transported his work to MOMA or The Whitney or to art storage in Long Island City was hired to transport the body to a funeral home on the upper east side. There was still artwork, wrapped and stored, in the back of the van, an early Basquiat or a Wayne Thiebaud. He’d spent his life surrounded by art of every description. He was right at home.

Except maybe for the green towel.

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Once you’ve had this virus and come out the other side, once you stop sleeping all day long, once the air stops tasting stale, and once that metal taste goes away, no one knows if you’re really in the clear, whether you can come down with it again or with some variation of it. No one seems to know anything.

All we know is the ambulance isn’t coming.

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Brian Cullman is a musician, producer, and writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Spin, Details, and The Paris Review. He is Journal of the Plague Year's West Village Editor

Paintings by Wayne Thiebaud