March 28, 2020 — The NY Times, even in the best of times, presents a picture of New York barely recognizable to the majority of its residents. In a state of emergency their reporting resembles local reality even less. In response, I wanted to give AVA readers a street-level view of life at the COVID-19 epicenter so that they can compare, and perhaps prepare for, their own experience.
For starters, it was strange to see people wearing respirators on the Times front page every day, when on the street it was an extreme rarity. In the past two weeks, that has changed; face masks are now common, though still by no means de rigueur. But the photos of empty streets and boarded-up storefronts present a similarly slanted portrait, playing up public fears.
Sure, there is plenty to worry about. But even in a city ostensibly on lockdown, life goes on. A million New Yorkers may have fled—or so it seems from the number of darkened windows in the wealthier neighborhoods—and another million are following a strict home quarantine. That still leaves a lot of folks to fill the streets, especially with schools shuttered and a large number of people out of work.
“Unessential” businesses are supposed to close, yet what that includes is vague. Smoke-and-vape shops are bucking the edict, as are liquor stores. Bodegas and newsstands are making steady sales, and so are a sprinkling of juice joints and cafes. A nice surprise is that many bike shops and hardware stores have stayed open too.
The amount of business and bustle varies widely by neighborhood. Brighton Beach is thriving, with booksellers hawking Russian tomes on the sidewalk and nail salons crowded with customers. No social distancing in evidence. In comparison, Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side are like graveyards—though the graveyards themselves are full of people exercising and reflecting on their own mortality.
The sidewalks of Park Slope are lined with people, but they’re all members waiting to get into the Food Co-op, queuing up for as long as two hours in the rain. I witnessed a Beatles sing-along on a brownstone stoop. As for Prospect Park, I’ve never seen it more packed.
In Union Square the chess players are still set up at their rickety tables, ready to take your money. Until this week, the hot dog stands were also doing a brisk business. Each day, one fixture disappears from the landscape as the death toll climbs and the virus closes in. Today the fruit vendors on the corner were gone, though they’d been replaced by an impromptu boxing ring.
In fact, closing the gyms seems to have affected public life more profoundly than any other shut-down, since this is such a fitness-obsessed town. Even a plague won’t keep New Yorkers from their daily workout. Now, instead of spinning class, they’re riding real bikes. Instead of a treadmill, they’re running down the middle of the street.
Me too. On Broadway today I got passed by a longboarder with a massive afro wearing only boxer shorts and pink gloves. The smile on his face said, “My day has arrived.” A disaster brings out all types, and all shades of reaction, from apocalyptic paranoia to peace of mind. My control freak friends say they’ve never felt so relieved; everything is out of their constantly-washed hands.
Cabs are scarce, but the busses and subways are still running steadily—perhaps even more steadily than usual—and both are free. The bus drivers stopped collecting fares, and no one will chase you if you hop the turnstile for the train. Choosing where to board, however, has never carried so much weight. It’s crucial to find a seat where it’s not too crowded, yet a seemingly empty subway car is something to avoid at all costs. A decomposing human wreck is often hidden inside—the type of “walking wounded” the AVA editors would like to place in a state hospital. I wouldn’t mind the MTA designating special sleeping car sanitariums until they find a vaccine.
There’s always speculation about cockroaches surviving an apocalypse, but a surprising survivor here is the subway musician, if you’ll pardon the comparison. The plague is in full swing, yet the saxophonists and folksingers are still at the station platforms playing their plaintive tunes. The incense seller is still set up, too, in the tunnel between the 2 and L trains, though the place looks like the Black Hole of Calcutta, with bodies lining both sides. The passage is enough to make even the most devoted city dweller doubt the choices they’ve made.
And yet, it’s the way that life here refuses to be stopped that warms my heart and gives me hope.