From the April 2021 issue: You won’t remember the pandemic the way you think you will
An unfamiliar charge popped up. “Ode to Babel”? Huh? Should I have disputed it? No—that was a Brooklyn cocktail lounge cum art gallery, where a friend of mine, a prolific podcaster, had shared her expertise over rum drinks—I was about to launch a podcast of my own, and needed advice. Next up … a giant order from my local Thai restaurant. How could I have been that hungry? Then I remembered—that was the week when my publisher sent a vetter, fluent in Italian, to my apartment to go over the galleys of a novel I’d translated. We had worked together for days, five feet apart, me in the study at the desktop computer, she at the kitchen table at a laptop—uninterrupted except by the food-delivery person buzzing up.
When I advanced into March, the procession of rides, feasts, shows, exhibitions, and outings thinned. My translation sidekick had contracted COVID-19 that month. She recovered quickly, but by the middle of the month, tens of thousands of New Yorkers had caught the coronavirus, and the city went into lockdown. I had been eagerly awaiting the first New York City FC soccer game, but the season, of course, was canceled. I stopped taking taxis; stopped seeing shows, lectures, friends; stopped leaving my apartment, except to go to the drugstore or the grocery. The only public performances I attended all spring took place in my living room, every night at seven, when I threw open the front window and banged a spoon against a pan, joining the chorus of applause from the neighboring tenements, thanking the health-care workers who were putting themselves at risk to help the people of our city.
As I clicked on, through April, May, June, July, August, September, the lists of charges narrowed and grew repetitive. Rite Aid, Key Food, Rite Aid, Key Food; ink, books, paper, Rite Aid; subscriptions to magazines, newspapers, and streaming services; drugstore, grocery store, drugstore. In normal years, despite my rigorous record-keeping, I need a couple of days to comb through the receipts, rack my brain for overlooked expenses, add everything up, double-check the math and the margins, and send the roundup to my accountant. But documenting 2020 took only a couple of hours. I scanned the pages and sent them off, and during our Zoom session, my accountant congratulated me. I had spent so much less than usual, he said, that even though I had fewer expenses, I would come out all right, tax-wise.
I didn’t feel like rejoicing. I preferred the suspense of earlier tax seasons, when I would revisit the expenses I’d incurred and agonize over whether they would be enough to offset whatever my 1099s showed I had earned. I’d always been too busy—seeing something, interviewing someone, traveling somewhere—to keep track of my freelance income or gain any real sense of the tax load the IRS might ask me to bear.