After three months away from New York, my first impression was that someone had hit it in the stomach with a baseball bat. The city looked wounded, stunned. I found myself noticing the hodgepodge of buildings along Broadway—shabby and undistinguished at best—more than the few pedestrians in the streets.
Until then I’d never given a hoot about New York buildings. The only thing that mattered was the people. They looked stunned too.
I came back at the beginning of Phase Two, and now, a month later, my neighborhood is livelier. Maybe too lively. A week after I arrived, I had a date to meet a friend at a restaurant. There were two restaurants on the block—one jammed, the other nearly empty. We headed for the deserted one, lousy food or not. But we had to walk through the crowd at the other place. Scary. Like the scenes at Florida bars or that swimming pool in the Ozarks. Everybody was drinking, shouting at one another, on their feet; nobody wore a mask. They looked so happy, liberated, uncaged, that you couldn’t blame them; they hadn’t hung out in months. But I did blame them! They might be killing one another, and me!
I’d spent the three months upstate in a setting somewhere between suburban and rural. I had my moods—touchy, despairing—but I was never as scared as at that moment with the restaurant crowd. Except for the kind folks I was staying with and an occasional foray to the supermarket, I saw hardly anyone. The difference was that in the country, you don’t expect to see many people. You do what you need to do in relative isolation.
Nature got me through some rough spots. Chipmunks and squirrels chased one another incessantly, ecstatically. They couldn’t care less about my worries, which was a gift. The backyard that my window looked onto became greener, fuller, thicker during my stay until it looked about to burst. Its purity of purpose—to grow—was more than reassuring; it was undebatable.
What I notice most about being back in the city is that the simplistic dichotomy the media like to make between “privileged” and “unprivileged” is true. Usually my neighborhood tends to be fairly mixed, but these days most of the people in the streets seem to be those who have to be here. Some of the privileged are among them, but except for walks along the river many of my friends hardly venture out. They can afford to stay inside; they do their work from home. But service providers can’t. The people in the streets do not look happy. The ones who refuse to wear masks seem defiant, or suicidal—I can’t decide which. Maybe both.
I don’t like the city’s prognosis. The price of real estate in the northern suburbs is soaring. Anyone with school-age kids—and money—is desperately looking for a school system that can offer an actual five-day week. I’m hearing from a doctor who’s seen that the infection rate in the city is ticking upwards. The owner of the diner where I hang out tells me that there’s no way his business can survive. What is he going to do? Probably the same as the executives at Hertz and Neiman-Marcus. Declare bankruptcy, and take the money and run.
So many of the attractions that draw tourists to the city have yet to open, or will open only on a limited basis. Hotels will stay shut for a long time; who wants to travel to get here? One’s fantasies run wild—a city not just stunned, but vacated by everyone except those with nowhere to go, crime and looting in the streets—my fantasies are no different from yours. Will New York ever change back from my initial impression as stunned into what it should be—a lively swarm of city dwellers swaggering down the streets as if they owned them, exulting in the pure pleasure of gab?
Originally published on nycitywoman.com.