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The Pandemic, the City, and 7 P.M. — Reflections on New York in 2020

Travel + Leisure logo Travel + Leisure 12/8/2020 Eliza Dumais

If New York had only one brochure — some pamphlet distributed by travel agents and airport clerks designed to sell you on the grandeur of the Big Apple — I’ve long thought Marathon Sunday ought to be on the cover.  In glossy technicolor, you’d see the frenzied race-viewing masses, hooting strangers onward, watery-eyed at the gorgeous feat of human motion. Twenty-six miles rinsed in the giddy euphoria of alignment — all of New York’s church ladies and bodega men exalting from the sidelines, shrieking at slippery decibels, unabashedly wanting the same thing at the same time in the same place. 

In Phase I of lockdown, the first time I heard New York ring in 7 p.m. — the honking cars, the spoons against pans, and the clamoring applause — I typed out a note in my phone: “Sounds like Marathon Sunday.”

Back then, while my roommates and I still spent our evenings arched over Key Food bags, sanitizing peanut butter jars and tins of olive oil on the floor of our third-floor walk-up, the human noise of city living went briefly mute. Each morning, we’d wake up fresh inside the daunting knowledge that we were living in some grim half-life entitled “New Normal.” Always, I’d think to myself, we’ll never make it to 7 p.m.

Then, of course, we did. Lo and behold, the whole sky would go yolky, and in place of the usual din, the excuse-me-one-dollar-closing-doors-more-please, there’d be applause — unflinching percussion sneezing out from between blocks of limestone along Prospect Park, the West Side Highway, and Arthur Avenue. A hackneyed orchestra of gratitude. That’s what 7 p.m. sounded like to me: Like we’d all agreed, for once, to root for the same thing. Like Marathon Sunday.

Jonathan Lethem once wrote that, for him, great fiction had a particular effect: It made him feel more alive and less lonely. That’s what my New York is like. These past eight months of mandated quarantine — of boarded up businesses and flimsy takeout windows and elbow bumps in lieu of hugs and handshakes — have, of course, presented themselves as a mangled, dystopian revision of the city in which I grew up. And still, my New York is as such: more alive and less lonely. 

For what feels like decades now, we’ve been watching restaurants and thrift shops shut their doors — first for weeks, then months, then “indefinitely.” We’ve greeted one another at a distance, attempting feebly to recognize familiar faces behind protective sheathings of PPE. We’ve lost jobs, incomes, and family members. We’ve grieved hobbies and classrooms and human company. 

All the while, we’ve seen folks leave in pairs, then in huddles, then by the masses, fleeing to sprawling upstate properties that seemed to materialize just as Manhattan-dwelling grew inhospitable. We’ve mourned the arrival of this new New York in op-eds and photographs and Substack email musings. We’ve waxed nostalgic — ad infinitum — about the holy allure of eating out. Somewhere along the way, the “I’m Leaving New York” essay gave way to the “New York Is Dead” essay. Gloom has a certain momentum, here.  

But New Yorkers have always had a gift for commiseration. Collective ennui comes with the territory. It’s your “locals” badge — you earn it for sticking around, grumbling all the while. 

“It’s not New York anymore, not really, when the subways have stopped,” a friend told me when the MTA cut off train service at night. She was right: This was a fact that had long haloed us in a different urban glory than other cities. You could always get yourself where you were going; 36 different train lines conspired to usher you to your destination. The rules were: whenever, wherever, don’t jump the turnstile. 

But these days, with the subway partially subtracted, New York maps differently. Growing up, I charted the city according to its underground — plotted the entirety of the five boroughs as they appeared splayed out in an iron-framed subway map. For most of us, this is a familiar error: Car-less commuting has always been a game of transportation chess. We arrange our agendas around Weekend Service Changes and Scheduled Maintenance; the world spins on an axis called the MTA. 

As of late, though, I commute on my bicycle — a Craigslist amalgam of precarious, half-working parts — and from up here, the city has better posture. The whole place skews sturdy in a kind way, smoothed over, rinsed in daylight and Clorox cleaning solution. And each time I pant over the nexus of a bridge, watching as the upper rim of my city unfurls, I feel a stupid, giddy twinge of awe. I can’t help but be astounded. You’ve probably felt that thing, too. 

The particulars of this past season will always be novel, even by New York standards. In large part, we were unrelentingly in motion. We marched in protest against the holds of white supremacy and police brutality. We joined mutual aid networks and schlepped groceries from community fridge to community fridge. We voted, bought stamps, sent letters and ballots in a salute to the USPS. When we saw friends, we walked. We spoke in parallel, masked. We’d loop the entirety of Prospect Park, veer into Dumbo, march into Red Hook, just to be reminded of its existence — and of our existence within it. 

Bars cobbled “to-go” windows out of plexiglass and plastic, and we dismissed long-standing open-container laws in a bout of collective amnesia. Restaurants began to peddle CSA boxes, marinated olives, and loaves of bread. Bookstores offered curbside sales and yoga instructors transposed their practices from cushy perfumed studios to the grassy furnishings of the park. Folks lined up — patiently — for all of it, hungry to keep the fixtures of their New York in place. The season was wall-less, spent splayed out at six feet of distance, sipping Negronis from paper coffee cups. There was an odd democracy to it — this equitable dividing of open spaces amongst us. 

At peak summer, the city government began to close streets down to traffic. Locals arrived with folding chairs, blankets, nothing at all, to sit on the reserved payment. There were natural wines and water bottles and pasta dinners. There was music — live DJs, jazz bands, cell phone playlists winding out of plastic cups. On St. James Place in Clinton Hill, every evening, an ecstatic dance party erupted — couples and children and gaggles of friends arrived, masked and jittery, shimmying in the street, maintaining distance from each separate, gyrating “pod.” It all looked like a glittering urban mirage — the dining and the dancing and the vibrating joy, all set on street corners or asphalt enclaves in lieu of upscale dining rooms and music halls.  

“She was made for New York,” Hilton Als once wrote of a friend. “She was beautiful and made no sense and made perfect sense like the Bronx or Greenwich Village.” 

That’s how it was on St. James: No sense, perfect sense, beautiful. The buzzing, haphazard, out-of-place-ness paraded as a confirmation of New York’s vitality, of the tenacity with which New York plays the role of New York — its commitment to its own motion, even when life itself feels under siege.

When the twin towers fell, I was in second grade. That was the last time I saw the full cast of New York disappear behind a sea of paper masks. The last time I saw folks up and leave in droves. Then, too, it’d been the sign of a city under siege. “One day the city we built will be gone, and when it goes, we go. When the buildings fall, we topple, too,” Colson Whitehead wrote in 2001

I can’t know, with any certainty, what this winter will look like in New York. But what I do know, for now, is that we’re still here. Still sunbathing on fire escapes; still buying bad bodega coffee with affection; still getting dressed — truly dressed — to walk to the pharmacy. I know that we’re still eating off of fine china, seated cross-legged on the asphalt, making no sense and perfect sense and admiring the very shape of that contradiction. Still salivating at our own stupid skyline, rife with things that used to be other things, feeling more alive and less lonely for the simple fact of having chosen here over everywhere else. 

Eliza Dumais is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. She's probably drinking a Negroni right now.

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