Since the pandemic hit nearly a year ago, I have been keeping a low profile. I have stayed home most of the time, starting an online coaching business, visiting with family and friends over zoom, learning to paint through Youtube tutorials, expanding my cooking skills, exercising to online classes and watching countless Netflix productions. True, there have been some new insights, habits and skills gained, but at this point, I am eager for life to return to normal.
So, when my daughter who lives in NYC asked if I could come for a brief visit to drop off a guitar and celebrate her 27th birthday, I jumped at the chance. She said that NYC restaurants were open for indoor seating at 25% capacity and many had adapted by building outdoor heated structures that were separated with temporary walls. She said to wear a mask at all times, follow the same protocol I had at home and I’d be fine. As I began to think about the details, however, I got a little nervous. What would the City be like in the wake of Covid 19? Would it really be safe to walk down the street in such confined quarters? Where would we stay? Should we plan to eat outside in the middle of February? Had I made a bad decision?
When my boyfriend and I first arrived, we were struck by how little traffic there was. We had both driven through these city streets on a number of occasions over the years, and this was a stark contrast. In place of cars, there were hundreds of electric bikes, most making deliveries of groceries, meals and numerous other goods. Some were even pulling trailers. There seemed to be more bikes than cars and it felt a little unsettling as the traffic rules for this growing culture were vague and chaotic. It was a bit of a free-for-all and we found ourselves looking over our shoulders and around corners constantly in order to avoid these speeding delivery vessels.
My daughter lives between Murray Hill and Gramercy near the Lower East Side and we were able to find a hotel within a 30 minute walk to her apartment and a 15 minute walk to where we would be having dinner. We had stayed at this hotel before so we felt comfortable booking a room there and the cost was nearly half what we had spent in the past. We settled in, regrouped and then made our way to dinner. My daughter chose a chic Indonesion/French restaurant in Nolita and we decided to try the indoor seating because well, it was cold and we wanted to get the full culinary experience.
As we walked, we began to notice a number of empty storefronts and many makeshift structures jutting out into the street so that clientele could sit outside to enjoy their meal. Many were charming, garnished with clever decor and seating pods separated by plywood walls and plastic entrances, a testament to the innovative and resilient spirit of the New York culture. Modular heaters accompanied each space and although eating while dressed in winter garb, the diners seemed cozy and relaxed.
We enjoyed a first class dinner in a nearly empty restaurant with all the amenities and accoutrements one would expect of a fine NYC establishment. It almost felt normal until we got the bill via an app on my cell phone and did all the paying and tipping without making any further human contact.
It was a decent walk back to my daughter’s apartment, but the weather had cleared, we had eaten well, and the visit felt too short, so we offered to accompany her home. We were only a few minutes into the walk when things began to feel different. I had visited my daughter before and walked through these very neighborhoods, but now I noticed an increased number of vacant storefronts. There seemed to be a lot more graffiti and there was trash everywhere. (It may have been trash day or a result of the winter storms that had passed through, but I never noticed it like this before). There were few people walking the streets and as we continued, it got quieter and more desolate. Where there normally would have been hundreds bustling to and fro, there were only a few. True, it was Monday, but it was only 9 p.m. when we dropped off my daughter and headed back to the hotel, and the city was asleep.
As my boyfriend and I turned a corner, we paused for a moment to take it all in. I felt a weight in my chest and a realization of the extent to which Covid 19 had administered a devastating blow to this proud metropolis. I felt fear, grief, sadness and uncertainty. It seemed very clear in that moment that life would never return to normal because that’s not how it all works. We cannot erase an experience or even go on as if it hasn’t happened. We can never put it all behind us, because even though the phase of destruction eventually ends, it becomes a part of who we are going forward. And in that, I felt hope.
As I stood there looking at the boarded up storefronts and the moon under a brightening winter sky, I began to think about Pete Seeger’s song which was made an international hit by the Byrds in 1965 when it rose to #1 on the Billboard charts. The lyrics of the song, Turn, Turn, Turn, were taken directly from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. They rang true then and they ring true now.
“To Everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”
New York City will rebuild just as we will all find ways to heal and redesign ourselves. We are creatures of adaptation and soon we will flourish again, as the cycle of life continues. Turn, turn, turn.