NEW YORK — When you recollect the barrenness and weirdness of sports in 2020, please don’t forget the Mets-Willets Point subway stop that helps anchor the 7 Line that rumbles and squeaks through Queens. Alongside all the empty stadiums and arenas and golf courses and racetracks, Mets-Willets Point might even serve as an epitome.
Can a subway stop, presumably inanimate, look forlorn?
Apparently it can. It does seem to frown now.
It must know in its aboveground bones that each late August brings the time to work overtime and overloaded, to assume its singular place in American sports, to welcome the merry droves. If you ride from Grand Central into Queens on the local and to this 17th stop, the penultimate, you can hop off to the right, take a few steps, exit the station and reach the giant wharf-like walkway toward the U.S. Open wonderland. Then, on certain nights within a U.S. Open fortnight, you can work your way downstairs and toward the other direction to go watch the Mets, if you are that durable of spirit.
Nowadays, of course, almost nobody hops off toward much of anything, from Mets-Willets Point or the nearby Long Island Rail Road stop that works conveniently but doesn’t quite have the venerable heart of Mets-Willets Point. In pandemic 2020, almost nobody spectates. Even from the subway window approaching Mets-Willets Point and seeing the tennis stadiums out on the right and Citi Field on the left, there’s that loud quiet.
The U.S. Open begins Monday with a whole lot of without: without fans, without Roger Federer or defending champion Rafael Nadal, without three of the top 10 men’s players, without six of the top 10 women, without No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, without defending champion Bianca Andreescu. The Mets spent the weekend playing the New York Yankees in the Bronx but will have barren home games during the U.S. Open against the Miami Marlins (Monday), the Yankees (Thursday), the Philadelphia Phillies (Friday through next Monday) and the Baltimore Orioles (Sept. 8-9).
The beehive won’t buzz.
To visit the station Thursday night was to feel 2020. The subway doors opened to the left and middle platform, not to the right where there would be U.S. Open qualifying and unmistakable anticipation of the country’s turn at a Grand Slam. An overly amorous couple fastened to each other on a platform bench looked overly amorous rather than unnoticeable in the throngs.
Sirens wailed in the distance, and trains rumbled in the foreground.
Out on the so-to-speak wharf, the flood of flagpoles on both sides stood empty and a smattering of people walked home from work with the wharf as mere thoroughfare. They figure to continue that without impediment. In view on the right, the tennis complex, which briefly served as a makeshift hospital at the height of the dread here, held no tennis. The players for the Western & Southern Open, the U.S. Open preparatory moved from suburban Cincinnati to New York for bubble-making purposes, had taken the day off to support the cause against racial injustice.
A lone jogger trudged by on the giant walkway, and a lone cyclist turned up after that. Very few people milled around here and there. Strong women toted big bags. The Long Island Rail Road trains sat bored in numbers higher than usual, and a lone vendor sold fruit in cups from the top of a cooler. No, she had never sold here during the tennis times, she said. In a 45-minute swatch of time, she apparently had one set of customers.
Two elderly men walked from near the tennis complex toward the subway, carrying small batches of golf clubs but no drivers. They said they had just played the pitch-and-putt off on the left side by the entry to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, near the tennis. They said it had been their first time.
It’s possible to attend 10 previous U.S. Opens, amid the distracting throngs, and never know there’s any pitch-and-putt. And who knew the little transportation building off to the right of the walkway had the name “Casey Stengel Depot Transportation Building”? A serial visitor might not.
A couple — well, an apparent couple — rode a bike for which the woman had no seat, so she sort of balanced herself, a two-person act unthinkable on a normal U.S. Open day. Various U.S. Open employees, pared this year from about 7,000 to about 1,000, walked alone toward the subway with their lanyards.
Near the entry to the tennis complex at David Dinkins Circle, the flags of the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon looked empathetic. A family of five had snared a picnic table near the outset of the vast park. A man helped a woman train by catching her boxing punches. A father and son kicked a soccer ball in the grass. All of New York’s great colors of people and people of color appeared, just not in abundance.
Back toward Mets-Willets Point, three cyclists breezed down the wharf together, unfettered and smiling. Beneath the subway platform and across Roosevelt Avenue and near Mets Plaza beside Citi Field, the parking lot looked barren except for a line of NYPD SUVs. The Mets were to play the Marlins, but then they were not, having joined the Marlins in solidarity against racial injustice, leaving a Black Lives Matter T-shirt evocatively upon home plate.
Somebody outside right about then might not even know that yet.
Along the fence and around the corner onto Seaver Way, a wide sidewalk featured precisely nobody. One car left the barren parking lot. The sign on the fence telling parking prices — cars: net $22.65, tax $2.35, gross $25 — looked preposterous. Latin music played from a still-busy muffler shop across Seaver Way. Then it played from another still-busy muffler shop across Seaver Way.
On the other side of the stadium from the subway station, close enough to hear the hush from within, an electronic sign on the facade flashed markers of 2020: Tip No. 3, Wash Your Hands With Soap; Tip No. 4, Disinfect Your Phone; Tip No. 5, Sneeze Into Your Arm, Not Your Hand. These went toward nobody in particular because nobody in particular was present.
Back down Seaver Way to the subway, there came another howl of 2020 from inside the stadium windows: an empty bar, chairs forever upside-down on tables, a sign on the wall still lit up somehow with, “This Bud’s For You.” And then, visible through a closed stadium gate, were some stairs millions must have walked toward baseball, now empty of course, with leaves gathered beneath the first step in deadness, un-raked.
At last, the Mets-Willets Point station featured what has become familiar while remaining unthinkable. It’s an orange sign, in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Creole and Bengali, advising riders that starting May 6 there would be no subway service every night between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. In New York! That, too, rules out another nutty U.S. Open pastime, that ability to watch some delirious match that strays well past midnight into the ante meridiem, then board a lonely subway at some wee, commendable hour.
Then as a 7 train went back along the track westbound, a monster storm menaced. It hurled bales of rain into the front car at stop after stop, every time the doors opened for bedraggled humans to board. That, too, fit 2020.
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