NEW YORK CITY
IN THE TIME OF THE CORONAVIRUS
Here we are, entering the fifth ceaseless week of the lockdown. I’m writing from New York City, but that opening sentence might well be true where you are of the city you’re in as you read this. For the first time in history, all of us on the planet are talking about one thing at once as we live through this scourge.
Yet once again, NYC has become its own unique experience. As has happened repeatedly in history, the Big Apple is Ground Zero city in ground zero country. I remember the start of doomsday, a lady on a bus complains about West Side Story being canceled, saying it’s kind of overkill to shut down Broadway. Then in a blur, the mayor utters “shelter in place,” and my boss summons me to a meeting in his BMW in the middle of chinatown. The mission: buy all the masks you can find in every street corner, “This is history in the making.”
Two months later, more than 20,000 New Yorkers have died, many of those in lower income neighborhoods like the immigrant communities along the proletariat 7 Train line in Queens. Hardest hit areas include Jackson Heights and Corona where many live in multiple family apartments, as the virus tends to spread among dense clusters. Fewer people are infected in wealthier neighborhoods of Manhattan, its citizens evading the pestilence fleeing to their vacation homes in the suburbs.
One warm spring afternoon early during the lockdown, i defy the quarantine and e-bike to Times Square. Shed of its denizens of costumed characters and tourists, hawks and pigeons take their place. Birdsong reclaims the soundscape of the city. Zen takes place in Central Park resonating with the thrum of ruffling leaves, water running over rocks, and the fauna that inhabits its 840 acres. Grand Central takes aspects of sleep, the only startling noise i hear was my camera clicking at a scene of absent humans. These public spaces are emptied out for now, a necessity to ensure public health. The emptiness is a quiet reminder of how we New Yorkers have once again heeded the calls of our leaders to sacrifice the aspects of our lives we take most seriously, our impulse to commune with each other, and unnaturally stay away, for the common good.
Our buses still run, now for free and many times empty. The trains still serve, ostensibly for essential travel only, but at times occupied by your humble writer gingerly trying out a trip to the city to photograph or just walk around, to pick up a pint of papaya ice cream from Morgernstern, pick up a bucket of Chicken Joy, or a bahn mi on Grand Street, or take out a slice of pizza at Philomena’s. These activities seem trivial, but for a New Yorker they are essential, especially now that we have to stay apart.
No one knows how long New York will stay on hiatus, but it will open one day. We’ve been through tribulations: 9/11; the day the market crashed. This time, it’s more horrific what we’re going through, but as sure as the sun will rise, New York will be back, and it will be the moment we return.