But soon enough reality jolts me. The brilliant sunset disappears into darkness. The sandwich is devoured. “Veep” becomes too real. Nostalgic conversations about the good ol’ days turn to statistics about hot zones, epicenters and voting fraud. My night is bittersweet, often tense, with wine as a necessary sleep aid.
“Are you going to leave New York City?” everyone keeps asking.
Never before have I felt so claustrophobic in my beloved hometown. My desk window faces a large stone office building. I’m in Groundhog Day, the identical view every day, a relentless sameness. Short commutes to work used to give us distractions, interesting sights, the chance to interact with the world rather than alone with a co-quarantined spouse or even oneself. One neighbor has renamed New York “No York.”
On daily walks through my neighborhood, I sadly count small businesses that have shuttered and probably won’t reopen. Some stores are still plastered with plywood, June’s looting frozen in covid time. Other windows showcase last spring’s cheerful, brightly colored fashions that never got purchased or worn. Queues forming outside grocery stores are reminiscent of bread lines in the Great Depression.
I’m relieved that life in covid’s former epicenter has eased, from PAUSE to Re-Opening Phase 4. My neighbors and I are no longer flattening the curve, proud of our hard work and sacrifices. We’re resilient city folks once again. We scaled that statistical mountain, rewarded with descent and plateau. But every day, every task, every motion reminds us where we are, where we’ve been, but not where we’re going.
Emerging from five months at home, I’m fortunate to spend a few weeks out of the city. I don’t have to wear a mask to go to the basement laundry room. I don’t have to worry who touched the dryer last, unsure whether cleaning my clothes is risky. I can walk on an empty road without fear that I’m wading through dangerous aerosols. I’m allowed to actually touch vegetables at a farm stand before purchasing them, the sensory pleasure startling in comparison to urban markets that have adopted a “hands off” approach. Even the person noisily mowing grass across the street, making me sneeze, gives me a sense of temporary normalcy. I turn into a birdwatcher, pausing for the simple joy of viewing nature more acutely than before.
Born in New York City, I never went to sleepaway camp. The countryside has always been full of apprehensions: bottomless lakes without lifeguards, spiders and ticks and lions and tigers and bears, houses that alarmingly creak, basements that remind me of horror movies. Yet this time my brief stint in the country feels safer; I’m calmer, less trapped.
An acquaintance talks about walking in the woods on a retreat, continuously swatting away bugs. After a few days, she stops shooing the bugs away. Studies have shown that gorillas do this naturally. “Learn to live within your environment,” she urges.
How do you learn to live in covid world, with no close or definitive end in sight? I want to shoo virus germs away.
“Are you going to leave?” everyone keeps asking.
Sometimes I wish I could.
Clearly many people are worse off. I still have a job, even if I’m anxious about the viability of the university where I teach. My husband is among the nearly 20 percent who are unemployed here. But we’re managing. My anxiety soars with worries about an unforeseeable future, panic attacks erupting late at night. Walking to the grocery store, passing the growing numbers of homeless, I’m even more grateful to have a shelter and nutritious meals.
People say the city is in shambles, proclaiming it dead. Moving vans line city streets. But I can still hear my neighbors clapping the essential workers every night at 7 p.m., tearfully knowing how they risked — and gave — their lives to save us. As in the aftermath of 9/11, there will always be “us,” who lived it and survived it, and “them,” who will never truly understand it. I lived through the crime and near-bankruptcy of the 1970s. I walked under the first low-flying plane that crashed into the World Trade Center, saw both buildings implode from a mile away, and slept in my living room because the fumes were slightly less noxious there. I lugged water up 14 flights for elderly neighbors after Hurricane Sandy. My roots are here. My daughter lives across the river in another borough. How could I leave?
E.B. White, in his 1948 essay “Here Is New York,” describes me in the first of his “roughly three New Yorks: the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its turbulence as natural and inevitable.”
During lockdown, I was afraid to go for walks after sunset, through empty streets and past so many darkened apartments. Eight felt like midnight. Now I see life re-emerging, energized by makeshift cafes with glittering lights, plywood perimeters decorated with robust ivy and fragrant pots of basil. I feel a rebirth, eavesdropping on people’s laughter. Clinking glasses, friends make hopeful toasts again. Optimism tries to squash pessimism and despair.
“Are you going to leave?” people keep asking, as far away as Australia.
No. Not yet. Probably never.
Cities never remain stagnant. That’s what makes them vibrant and unique. This is New York. Now. I won’t recognize it tomorrow, and that’s why I’m still here.