All over Paris right now a ritual is being repeated, by the hour, the day, the week. From the front of a long queue, its masked members standing two meters apart, a single customer enters a bakery and stops well short of the counter to give an order for a loaf of bread. The gloved baker retires from the counter to get the bread. The customer advances and puts money down and retreats a few steps. The baker steps forward, takes the money, sets down the bread, gives change if necessary, and retreats again. The customer advances, takes the bread, and departs. Next!
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, similar sorts of transaction occur. Last week, my son drove up to his girlfriend’s house with a carful of furniture from his dorm room. Like thousands of American college students, he had been told to leave right away. Her parents had left the garage door open, and he unloaded the car without seeing a soul. His girlfriend, in self-quarantine, yelled hello from behind a door. My son retreated to the driveway. His phone rang. In a minute he would be allowed to go back in for a plate of sandwiches that would be left for him. He waited, entered, ate, retreated, called, thanked, and drove away, never having seen anyone. To prevent the spread of disease, “social distance” had been maintained.
Image: George Tooker, Subway, 1950, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
William Chapman Sharpe is professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University, where he specializes in the literature, art, and culture of the modern city, particularly New York. His work has been supported by grants and fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is editor...