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Sleepless in New York

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This is written for Survival Box by Tao Zervas, a music composer and producer.

Over the last 30 years, he created scores for films, documentaries, written and produced music for TV and commercial media. He has composed and performed his music as a solo artist as well as with bands. Tao lives with his family in New York City.

Covid-19 journal part 1

In the time of Covid-19, twenty four hours in a day seem like more than a lot when one cannot sleep at night. Yet they pass quickly by, in a flatline flow that deadens the senses.

I live in Soho, downtown Manhattan, New York City, in a one bedroom apartment with my wife Amy and Aiolos and Athena, our children, ages 12 and 9. If I were to look at the glass as half full, I would say that this is my favorite neighborhood, of a great city, a charming cosmopolitan village- like community, that includes excellent public schools, top rated restaurants, quirky residents, history and an art vibe.

The half empty version of that glass is that our 400 sq. feet (37 sq. meters) apartment is not a place where 4 people can comfortably live together, sharing moods and space with each other and a home recording studio. One might easily imagine that imposing the necessity of a quarantine to the above condition, will certainly create an untenable situation.

One will be right, yet somehow…. It is both admirable and perhaps disappointing how easily humans find ways to accept and adapt to hardship.

This is a typical day of what life looks like most days now for the Zervas-Carpenters in downtown New York City.

It’s 7 am

My wife’s iPhone is blasting its wake up alarm. Hard to keep track of the days, but judging from the fact that she’s getting out of bed, it is a school day and she has to get ready to teach her fifth grade class remotely from home. Amy is a public school teacher in NYC. The NY Department of Education has instituted an online teaching system to keep educating the almost 1 million school children of the city and it uses a platform called Google classroom, so that teachers can communicate with their students and assign work. There is a wide disparity of availability and implementation of the components of this system depending on socioeconomic backgrounds. It had to be put in place very quickly and the results are mixed.

As Amy begins her teaching day with a remote meeting with the principal and other teachers from her school, Aiolos and Athena need to log into their schools remotely and do what passes for schoolwork now.

I notice that as the days go by, despite their teachers’ effort, they do less and less and also seem less conscientious about it. This is normal. This construct is so unreal for them that they have stopped taking it seriously.

Nevertheless I consider it my job to be the starting gun for them every morning, to make them breakfast, remind them to login and do whatever schoolwork, answer their questions about it and keep checking that they keep to their online schedule and everything is going smoothly.

My other job, my profession, that as a music composer has effectively become non existent since the pandemic took hold. All my upcoming projects, a film score, music for a TV series, a gig as a record producer for an upcoming singer songwriter album, have been postponed indefinitely or cancelled all together until further notice.

So I have plenty of time on my hands, unwanted time perhaps, if one can say is such a thing….

As I’m writing this the Coronavirus cases in New York City are at 224,050. Almost 12,000 people have died. 640 more people died yesterday in the city alone. 672,561 cases in the US. 34,611 deaths.

This is so sad and it angers me. The president of the country, a terribly obtuse, dishonest, malignant narcissist, is dangerously out of his depth and flirting with disaster with every decision he makes. From day one he had been guided by ignorance, greed, avarice and self preservation. Because of that he has been late to react, unwilling to accept responsibility and has left this nation vulnerable and unprepared. Now there is all this suffering…

I try not to watch the news but I find myself tuning on NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s press conference every day around noon. He has become the voice of reason and competence for the whole country. Amy and I watch it together as we have lunch. Sometimes we skip this on a sunny day and sit outside on our fire escape to breathe the air and the sunlight.

Then come the long afternoon hours.

The kids are done with school and are full throttle into their online lives. It seems that all four of us are doing something that involves wearing headphones. That is by necessity to maintain sanity, because of the close quarters of our apartment. Amy naps after meditation.

I do some music work albeit one that involves reviewing music that I have written in the past, as I find my kids iPad YouTube habits too annoying and distracting to be able to compose any inspired new music. I find myself almost relieved to find music that I had written and forgotten about.

It is such a sweet surprise and I feel comforted by it. It is reaffirmation and a journey in time where the roots are but also many flowers.

Around 5 o’clock I take my son outside to play soccer in a clearing in our neighborhood.

I play with him and that’s my daily exercise. It’s a decision that I make easily with a modicum of guilt which I assuage by taking the standard precautions. it is not too hard as there are hardly any people outside. All parks and playgrounds are closed in the city but we are lucky in Soho. We have some more open areas. I know it’s against the guidelines but moving is a necessity for my boy because he can barely stand still. Before all this he had practice four days a week with his soccer academy and a game on the weekend but all that is gone now.

My daughter is totally content to stay indoors. She has been inside the apartment for two weeks now, painting, playing the small piano, doing gymnastics in the cramped living room but mostly abusing Minecraft and TicToc with her friends on her iPad.

It’s the 7 pm ritual

When I am outside, it feels like a science fiction film, I walk fast and far along the empty streets but I get back home before 7 o’clock every evening. There is a ritual that started a few weeks ago in the city, in which every evening at 7, people lean out of their windows or get out on their fire escapes and clap for the first responders and the essential workers, doctors, nurses, firemen, policemen, grocery clerks, sanitation workers etc. Every evening at 7 PM the city communicates across the empty streets by clapping or whistling or banging a cowbell. Five minutes of uplift, dearly needed.


This is also my domain. I like to cook and I have a captive audience. No-one has anywhere to go, anything to do. We have not ordered food in over 3 weeks now.

In the night hours when the kids are on their bunkbeds Facetimimg their friends for hours, I consider binging on Netflix and Amazon shows that would never have seen the light of day under normal circumstances. They are all of a sudden made ubiquitous in tuning out the loud voice in my head which insists that I should be using all this time I have without any external music obligations, to dive inwards and compose “my masterpiece” or at least to master a piece of random inspiration that has been trying to visit me for days now. This is my inner voice saying this, mind you, a very pretentious and nagging voice. Binging on average shows usually wins out.

At least there’s some satisfaction in knowing how important these images and music have become to peoples lives now. Not a backdrop anymore, but an essential component for the keeping of their sanity.

We used to be a distraction, an afterthought, at best a luxury, us tortured and misshapen souls toiling in the arts. In this environment no one can claim that the arts are not essential anymore. Even though all money making work is gone for now, people are consuming and dependent on what we have been creating all these years.

Back to our home life: No one goes to bed early… It’s hard to sleep.

It’s either the stress or the inactivity. A day not fully lived… It makes it harder to justify sleep somehow so on and on the hours go even for the kids. When tiredness finally comes, the city outside is eerily quiet, the way it’s been all day. No New York hustle and bustle, no voices of people returning from a late night out.. Just the far away sound of ambulance sirens bringing the latest crop of the sick to the packed to capacity hospitals.

I lie down.

Sleep does not come easy.

I worry that I might have brought back the virus to my family with my daily sojourns to the outside. Maybe we had it already and showed no symptoms? So many people were sick at Amy’s school before anybody took this seriously.

I worry about my mother in Greece. I worry that I might not see her this summer. I worry about love and the forgotten. I worry about money. I worry about a future bleached from any abandon and joy. I worry about all this life now canceled. How do we make this a better tomorrow, twenty four hours at a time?

Tao Zervas, New York City

All photos are by Tao Zervas.

Tao Zervas

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