I recently wandered the streets of Manhattan. Though a seemingly unremarkable activity for someone who has done just that for over 50 years, in the time of the coronavirus it took on new significance.
A week ago I took a walk on the wild side when I returned to N.Y.C. for the first time since the pandemic struck. I did things that I had sworn off for over 8 months. In one day, I rode on a commuter train, a subway, and an elevator, my COVID trifecta of fears.
Since March I have lived in a pandemic-approved cocoon in my suburban home on Long Island.
Sheltering in place with my husband and dog Stanley, my interactions with others have been extremely limited. An occasional nod to a fellow dog walker on the other side of an empty street and a weekly excursion to the supermarket have been the bulk of my social life. Eating at a restaurant inside or out? Fuhgeddaboudit. A visit to the doctor’s office has taken on the sparkle of a cocktail party, providing me with multiple pithy exchanges and the most face to face time I’ve had with another human outside my bubble in months.
In anticipation of a next wave of the pandemic and a likely shut down, I had been on a quest to get in all my doctor appointment in time. Going body part by body part, all that was left was to get my eyes checked. That required a trip into the city.
As I stepped out into the crowded city streets, I suddenly felt like Rip Van Winkle as though awaking after a long slumber. The cacophony of sounds, sights, and movement was a startling contrast from the stillness of my sequestered life. The familiar urban noise was comforting, energizing me after the 8 months of quiet but for the suburban sounds of gas-powered leaf blowers and lawnmowers.
I didn’t realize how homesick I was for the rhythm of the city.
There were immediate and noticeable accommodations to the virus. The bustling streets were as crowded as ever, but the masses were now masked in a rainbow of colors, doing their best to stay socially distanced. Long time familiar shops and restaurants had shuttered while unfamiliar outdoor dining now existed in places they had never been before. The ubiquitous street vendors were still out in force. Their tables were still filled with shlock bargains made in China, but now in addition to selling knock-off Louis Vuitton handbags, they were all selling cheap knock-off N95 masks, this years must-have accessory.
Taking my first subway ride in more than half a year, I descended the stair with a bit of hesitation. Fumbling in my bag for an old Metro card,( the magnetic stripe card used for fare payment for subways and buses in the city) I found an old one in a tangle of tissues. Its expiration date was 2 weeks away.
I swiped the card at the Metrocard booth reader to check the balance. To my surprise, the screen revealed a fully filled card with a $40 balance. Discovering this windfall gave me the same sense of satisfaction as finding two 20 dollar bills in an old winter coat pocket. I must have refilled it early last March assuming I would be returning in a few days. Who would have ever imagined it would be months between usage?
The pre-pandemic NY subway system had shown signs of age and decay. Now quite uncharacteristically the station itself was spotless, enhanced with the addition of social distancing floor signage. The subway cars were scrubbed sparkling clean, and fairly empty giving it a surreal quality. As the train sped through the stations, I thought about that last time I had ridden one.
I was racing uptown on the #1 subway in desperate search of a new home.
As a transplanted New Yorker who unexpectedly found herself living in suburbia for the past 20 years, my plans after losing my house in February had been to move back to an apartment in the city I had once called home for decades.
While house-hunting bottom feeders traipsed through my Long Island home escorted by an overzealous realtor intent on making a quick sale, I headed into the city to look at apartments. The pressure was great to not only find a new living space quickly but frantically trying to outrace the spread of the virus that was growing daily. I knew by early March the window for viewing apartments might be closing soon as the prospect of the city grinding to a halt loomed.
The finances of affording a rental weighed on me. N.Y.C. had changed drastically in the years since I once called it home. Would I be able to return to this mecca of wealth that at times bore little resemblance to the city I lived in for decades? Would that plan have to be shelved? Then the virus hit with a vengeance. Suddenly the question of moving back to N.Y.C. the epicenter of COVID-19, shifted from Could I? to Should I?
Now returning, I nearly had to blink to believe I actually was back in a place at once so deeply familiar yet oddly different than it had been in March.
Unlike Rip Van Winkle who awakes after 21 years to be transported to the future, I found myself transported back to the 1970s, the very time I first moved into Manhattan. Looking around, the city now seemed grittier, the streets were heavily littered with trash, stores were boarded up and the buildings were scrawled with spray-painted graffiti. I almost expected to hear Mayor Abe Beame speaking on the radio.
Like the seventies when the city was perceived as a place of danger, decay, and paranoia, the great white flight is taking hold again. Since March, residents have been fleeing the city fearing NY’s demise rushing out to the relative safety of the suburbs.
I am the product of the first generation of white flight from the city who fled the urban blight to the safety of suburbia. My parent’s generation wanted no part of urban life that was perceived in decline and were part of NYC’s first wave of residents moving to the newly developed suburbs of the 1950s.
The demise of N.Y.C. has been called one too many times.
I know this because when I moved to the city in 1975 a bankrupt N.Y. seemed beyond redemption. The media from the time consistently showed a city plummeting. Central Park became synonymous with muggings and crime becoming the punch line for too many Johnny Carson jokes.
But for me, there was no other place a 20 something artist wanted to be.
I always craved diversity and excitement and couldn’t wait to flee the homogenous suburbs for city life. I rushed headfirst into The Big Apple just at the time of its alleged downfall rampant with crime, arsons, and prostitution. Despite President Ford denying a struggling N.Y.C. any federal aid, in essence, telling the city to “Drop Dead, it was anything but dying to me. What others saw as a near-death experience for the city, nourished me in ways I craved. Gritty was good.
Like today, people were pulling up stakes migrating to the country to avoid the perceived collapse of the city.
But the city revived coming back stronger. And it will again. Having lived through the various transformation that took place in the city from the 1980s through the 2000s, of this I am certain.
Just when you think it’s on life support, New York City always bounds back stronger than ever. Its pulse might be temporarily weakened but its heart beats on.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2020.