A reliable life

Queens, New York City, and the E train to the Jamaica Center. We were heading to JFK airport. Everything seemed to be going to plan, but why did the screen not show Jamaica Center as the end of the line? What was “Jamaica – 179 St”? The driver announced that due to engineering our train was running to Jamaica – 179 St and that for JFK we should change at Kew Gardens for a bus. With two children, luggage and a plane to catch, please not a bus replacement service!

In the end we were fine and the streets of Queens have inspired some future travels on Long Island. Handy for future NYC trips, I now know a little of the Jamaica area and that it’s easier to take the train from Penn station. There is almost always an upside.

It is very hard to think of the upside of a months-long general shutdown.

What is the difference? The length of time is of a different order, months rather than days. The scale of something can change its category: because a short period of factor, say a delay, is fine does not mean that a long period of it is also fine. Secondly we think of lockdown as a general inability, in most countries or states, to do everything in life that we want to. It affects much of life rather than just one aspect. These two factors are enough, but there is something else.

When we set off on the Subway we know that something unexpected might happen. We can still plan, hope, embark, and then adjust as we go along. When a shutdown is advertised in advance and when we are told it will last some time, we cannot even plan. An intricate set-up of travel arrangements, people and shops and all the images and experiences that we hope will go along with them, fails somewhere between conception and planning.. and in many cases, and increasingly, won’t even be conceived. We cannot rely on being able to do things.

What are we to think, now that life has been shown to be unreliable?

In fact the situation is worse than unreliable. To be unreliable would mean that trains might break down from time to time. We know that. Now, however, we are told expressly not to rely on advertised dates for reopening. Politicians go out of their way to stop us from planning. It could hardly be less settling.

Life was straightforward, in the absence of pandemics and the lockdowns that we now realise are apt to accompany them. If we wanted something then we did it, subject to the normal constraints of money, time, health and the normal sensible rules that we all agreed upon. Now we know nothing.

The reliability is not only missing in the moment (or rather the month). We have lost a sense that life continues regardless, that there is an understanding of this constant forward pressure, of the basic freedoms of travel and of association. Now, do we dare to rely on these freedoms five or ten years into the future, or within the year ahead? We will live normally, of course, and get used to things again, some of us better than others, but the thought will always be there.

Author: Simon Stevens

Simon Stevens is an independent researcher. He is a founder and Director of the travel company Alpine Exploratory based in Edinburgh in the UK. Simon studied philosophy and economics at Bristol University and economics at Oxford University.