A month has passed since the clocks stopped in NYC.
I’ve never seen it like this. Friends and family of my generation have memories of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy: ghost streets, wailing ambulances, reality suddenly upended, a sense of danger just for being where we are. Our parents remember the blackouts, the sense of chaos and fear that prevailed. We are “New York Tough” says Andrew Cuomo. He is right – we all have a story about cheating death in New York. Even living here means cheating death – keeping up lest you get run over. Living at the earth’s center.
This time, a first for us all, New York City is on indefinite hold. “The great equalizer.” And equally indefinitely we are all stuck “still watching” Netflix while the city stays lit up around us like an abandoned amusement park. The city that never sleeps has no idea what day or time it is. And speaking of sleeping, all we wear now is pajamas.
The grandiosity and paradoxes of New York are on full display. I bike through Times Square, the Theater District–Radio City, called the “Showplace of the Nation”, yet not a single soul waiting at the doors. Screens and music play on in front of concert halls, theaters, bright lights – for no one. Do they still make a sound? Evocative of an era, when the further West you went in this part of town the seedier it got, the sparser the passersby.
And indeed, the city is no longer itself, it is not existing in the here and now as we know it. It exists now through the lens of our collective experiences, as diverse and far-reaching as the city’s citizens themselves. Economies of convenience brought to a standstill, I scour the back of my fridge, remembering my grandmother’s voice: make a soup with hardened parmesan crusts, “polenta con uccellini scappati” (“polenta with birds that flew away”), wartime staples. (What would she have thought of our Blue Apron boxes?) My best friend, who fled the former Yugoslavia as it imploded, urges me to make vegetable soups to stock in the freezer – “for when the food shortages arrive,” she says flatly. I see my Levantine neighbors come up for air on their roofs – dusty stairwells and rusted ladders clanging as they rise to absorb a ray of psychological sustenance- an image of the families of Idlib and their underground shelters, small faces peering beyond dark doors when the coast is clear. What must they be thinking?
These days you can almost feel each individual presence, pulsating, ruminating, in their apartment. Stuck in our solitude, we can feel each other thinking – so unusual for this anthill of 9 million where being smushed like a human sandwich, cheek to cheek on the subway, is a normal occurrence. I bike on Park Ave in the Fifties, normally the sight of rush hour madness, to find a man staring down at the sidewalk. “Now what?” In Queensbridge Park, lone bench-sitters gaze at the water, unable to be interrupted, forced to sit with it. The first time any of us can remember hearing so many birds chirping loudly from the window – could we hear them at all before? There seem to be so many. The sound of a single car horn blocks away cutting through the night so clearly, it seems right next door.
We are together but alone – alone, together. That is New York: the power of our collective experiences lived at once. Amidst our clumsy yoga poses, experimental loaves of bread, our lone walks, our memories and our transference, we are in the same boat. United to help each other as only New Yorkers know how to do. “New York tough”, different – but always and more than ever, more in common.
It is unclear if this graffiti predates COVID-19. It is also unclear if this is an order, or an adjective. Either one works. Everyone has a story of cheating death in New York. And long may we continue. Alone but together.