“For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole first.”
― Immanuel Kant
This morning I got my Covid vaccine at the Javits Convention Center in New York City (where I just moved last week). It was gloomy out and raining and the doors to the center were open with all variety of military and convention staff giving specific directions about where to go, and which first of many lines we would wait in before our appointment.
Like many convention centers, Javits is unwieldy in its enormity. Skinny metal tube-like beams criss-cross the ceiling while whatever daylight exists, still manages to fill the space, as though falling through the sky in slow motion. I walked in to see hundreds of others around my age, masked and being told go left, go right, lane 2, lane 3. As I turned the corner a room big enough to hold thousands appeared, desks set just feet apart had tall posts topped with lights on them each with a number, a person, a plastic partition and a stack of papers. A member of the Army said “Welcome, go to desk 28” and as I walked to sit down to answer medical questions I began weeping while I smiled through my mask. Rows and rows of desks, hundreds of them each had an essential worker and a person there for their shot. The scale alone shocked me. We were all there to protect ourselves, and each other.
Seeing Javits filled with countless military, nurses and civilians looked like something out of a scene from Independence day or Contagion. Folks could have been registering to take the first ship off of Earth to head to the next solar system or enlist for a war. I’ve never seen anything like it.
I kept thinking about how early on in the pandemic when New York City was hit especially hard, Javits was filled with white medical tents and beds to keep patients in isolation. People were getting sick and dying at such a pace the hospitals couldn’t hold them. You know when something spills out into a convention center, it’s rarely good. Javits had been transitioned to Javits Medical Station and today it is the Javits Covid Vaccine center. Those photos in early 2020 were damning and terrifying and now here we were almost exactly a year later, alive, moving, and hopeful.
Each room we walked through somehow grew in size. The final lines led us to nurses stations where I couldn’t even count the number of people I saw with their sleeves rolled up getting their vaccines. There was a lot of joyous crying, laughter, jokes, and a reverent silence somehow woven in. We all knew the seriousness of why we were there, and the hope of what those lines meant were the only thing taking up more space than the light seeping in through the windows.
To the left of the lines in another part of this space were rows and rows of black folding chairs. This was the holding center where people sit for 15 minutes after the shot to make sure they’re ok. Hundreds of people sat in silence.
Finally, I was told to walk and follow the yellow taped arrow to lane 3 to station 30 where I met my nurse who was cheery and smiled through her mask at me. I was so excited I could barely contain myself but I took off my jacket, rolled up my sleeve and through watery eyes answered her questions. Seconds later the shot was done, I had my card in my hands and couldn’t believe it. After more than a year in isolation, here I was surrounded by thousands of New Yorkers saving each others lives.
I sat in a black folding chair staring at my name below proof that I’d been vaccinated and I looked around at all the people behind me and in front of me. It seemed like endless rows of people and every thing about this shook me. What a beautiful thing it is to care about each other. Yes these vaccines protect ourselves of course, but it’s a special duality. By protecting ourselves we also protect one another. The sheer size of the operation was unlike anything I’ve seen and am likely to ever see again. It made me feel good to be a human being and these days those feelings are hard to come by. To watch everyone working together to keep us safe was and still is deeply moving. This is when we are at our best, when we aren’t just thinking about ourselves, but about the whole of us, the whole of who we are and where we are. None of us exists in a vacuum, we exist here together and because of that, it’s our duty to protect each other. To deny that is to deny the whole, as Kant said.
When we’re done with our 15 minutes, an Army man released us row by row. Waiting at the end of the room right before the exit is a Wall of Thanks with notes written from the newly vaccinated to the essential workers. I stopped to read them all. Next to it is a background for people to take their photos, like on a red carpet at a film festival. I watched a few families take photos of each other posing, smiling so big their masks almost popped off of their faces. Spouses did the same, folks took selfies. I watched them and smiled because they are proud for what they just did, they feel safer. In a large way it is a celebration of what science gives us when we fund it and care about it. Look at what can happen in the face of tragedy.
As I prepared to walk out of Javits, a woman’s pre-recorded voice echoed through the center reminding us to keep our distance, to be safe and at the end of the message she pauses for a second and says, “remember, we are all in this together.”
“I don’t reproach the spring for starting up again. I can’t blame it for doing what it must year after year. I know that my grief will not stop the green... I survived you by enough, and only by enough, to contemplate from afar.” —Wislawa Szymborska