As a cultural critic, so much of my life has been spent going out to events and shows, spending time in spaces with other people as they make things. But a pandemic is not the best time for shared culture (unless that culture involves an ethically questionable Netflix documentary series), and by the end of March the city’s entertainment purveyors went dark.
There are no movie theaters to pop into on a Sunday afternoon. There are no baseball games where I can ignore the Mets blowing another lead and instead catch up with friends. There are no readings at Housing Works to check out. I’m not a huge Broadway person, but I much preferred it when I had the option to reluctantly go once or twice a year and admit afterwards, “Yeah, it’s actually pretty good, as long as they don’t sing.”
My wife and father are both immunocompromised, so seeing friends in person is rare, and ultimately becomes anxiety-laden occasions that require the foresight and fortitude of a wedding planner. Because of this, even outdoor bar meet-ups and restaurant hangs are out. So have been the magical times I’d stumble into a weird hardware store filled, for no apparent reason, with vacuums from the 1980s. At this point, I even long for the days when I could hop on a subway and witness one straphanger threatening another with a stun gun over a seat dispute.
But the thing I absolutely miss the most is going to concerts and standing way too close to the speakers, which I was used to doing multiple times a month. I miss the Bowery Ballroom and the Bell House, Kings Theater and MSG, Brooklyn Steel, Warsaw, Music Hall Of Williamsburg, Irving Plaza, Elsewhere, BAM, Lincoln Center, and Beacon Theater. I miss the summer shows at Prospect Park Bandshell and Central Park, and the long treks to Forest Hills Stadium. (I do not miss Terminal 5.) You just can’t recreate the electric feeling of screaming and slamming together with other sweaty bodies on a livestream.
By summer, I realized my main hobby was doomscrolling when I woke up and before I went to bed. My second hobby was obsessively tracking my steps on my phone, because it was a data-driven way to understand that my life was 2,000-5,000 steps less interesting per day.
But then I found the raccoons.
It started out as a Friday evening ritual, a way to get outside at the end of the week, ignore the news cycle for awhile, and just enjoy the sight of other people existing at a safe distance. After work, my wife and I would head over to 108th Street inside Riverside Park, walk down the stairs, take an immediate right, and like clockwork, we’d come upon a crowd of people in various colored masks, phones pointed slightly upward, standing in front of the large stone wall.
It turns out a family of raccoons has lived peacefully inside the wall for years, though there was apparently a baby boom this past spring. There are now at least six or seven of them who come out around 4 or 5 p.m. everyday—raccoons are nocturnal, so this is their morning ritual—and proceed to delight the entire neighborhood while scavenging for food.
One guy liked to pop his face out between the stones such that he looked like an adorable disembodied head that had been mounted on the wall. Some of the baby raccoons would take turns scaling the wall aimlessly while the others watched with concern from inside a rocky nook. They seemed to have their own routines and dramas. Was I making it up, or did the mama raccoon just shoot a death stare at another one, who I nicknamed Raccoon Joe?
I came up with a theme song for them (“It’s The Raccoon Show/Starring Raccoon Joe/His Friend’s Raccoon Moe/He Loves Raccoon Flo”). It was better than rewatching 30 Rock episodes for the third time this pandemic. It was the new off-off Broadway. And I wasn’t alone in my appreciation for the show.
I’ve written enough about raccoons over the years to know that locals have a bit of a love/hate/please-don’t-bite-me relationship with our procyonid neighbors. New Yorkers aren’t allowed to “possess a raccoon without a license, and licenses are not issued for pet wildlife,” so most human-raccoon relationships only exist in city parks and garbage piles. I also know that despite the fact that the city encourages humans to coexist peacefully with our distemper-infected trash-nibbling brothers and sisters, they also absolutely do not want anyone to feed the raccoons, as they can “become a nuisance if people unknowingly supply food or shelter.”
So what happens when rather than being a nuisance, the raccoons become the highlight of a person’s week, and the best live entertainment there is in town? My visits to the Riverside raccoons started to increase to multiple times a week. Almost any time I had a few extra minutes to walk my dog late in the day, we’d swing by to check out what was going on at the wall. And I quickly saw that there were plenty of other people who were getting a similar kick out of their furry little antics.
There’s no question that people are feeding these raccoons all the time, which I will stress you definitely should NOT do (if the raccoons don’t get to the food in time, the rats who live in the park will happily do so). Often, I would watch as they climbed the wall to the upper ledge on the street level of Riverside Drive; sometimes they would literally stand one on top of another on top of another, like three children in a trenchcoat.
Cautiously, they would peek their tiny heads up to see if any food has been left for them, then climb up and patrol the wall. People get really close to them; they let their kids get shockingly close to them; my dog would whimper desperately when he saw them. A woman passed by me recently while I held my dog tightly (like one of those “hold me back, bro” memes), and stated the obvious: “I don’t know if you’re from around here, but those things are dangerous!”
I know they can bite, that they can carry rabies in their precious little trash mouths, but they certainly don’t seem dangerous. And anyway, don’t we have this backwards? “We’re technically infringing upon their natural habitat so we’re the ones that should be going away not them,” one person wrote on NextDoor recently about my raccoons. “If someone gets too close and gets bitten, that’s their fault.”
Mostly, during a period of such uncertainty, depression, and dislocation from each other, I’m grateful for the sense of normalcy the raccoons gave me. The consistency of their daily stirrings. The quiet, silly poetry of their lives. I feel like I finally get birders.
The fall is in full swing, but it’s just a matter of weeks before the raccoons start to hole up in the wall for winter. I keep thinking that I don’t know whether I’ll be able to visit them in November, when the election is bound to stretch on for agonizing days and weeks with nothing to distract from it. The cultural landscape of the city, which has barely restarted, will completely cede to the prestige dystopian television drama which is unfolding on our feeds every day. And all I’ll want is to check out what’s up with Raccoon Joe.