Mass hysteria is a terrible force, yet New Yorkers seem always to escape it by some tiny margin: they sit in stalled subways without claustrophobia, they extricate themselves from panic situations by some lucky wisecrack, they meet confusion and congestion with patience and grit — a sort of perpetual muddling through.
— E. B. White, “Here Is New York”
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE B ack in March, when coronavirus first thumped New York City — and thumped it hard — I wrote in my journal that there were “people everywhere, with no place to be: leaning on lampposts; sat on benches; jogging, walking, pacing,” I observed that everyone looked “nonplussed or dumbfounded,” sort of “like a man on a recently unplugged treadmill who has suddenly realized that, in all the time he’s been running, he’s barley moved an inch.”
It’s now August, and though so much remains shut, canceled, closed, and postponed, Manhattan does seem to be in a more relaxed — I might even say leisurely — phase of this virus-induced haze. Having escaped mass hysteria by “some tiny margin” (as E. B. White put it), New Yorkers are carrying on with whatever it is they have to carry on with. To get a proper read on the new New York, a few weekends ago, two friends — Mary and Emily — and I decided to walk the whole island of Manhattan, straight down Broadway.
Our quest began in the bustling heights of Inwood, on a poorly chosen Saturday, under a blistering 93-degree heat. We passed a man in a white vest, who, sitting on the sidewalk, was loudly sharpening his knives. Shortly after this unnerving display, I developed a blister and, alerting the group, made a strategic deviation to my apartment to change my shoes. This was followed by a second strategic stop at Mary’s apartment — which is admittedly close to my own — so we could all use the bathroom, drink some water from the fridge, and sit by the A/C for a few minutes in order to “cool down.” Emily later confessed that, on both occasions, she feared we’d never continue. I can’t imagine why. Continue we did.
On the East Side, there is an invisible dividing line between the rougher look of Spanish Harlem and the gentrified glow of the Upper East. (On the West Side, it’s more of a gradual slide into niceness.) We took bets on which street would appear suddenly nicer than the others, but soon abandoned this metric on account of its hopeless subjectivity. Almost every neighborhood had boarded up shops and restaurants. “Shut down 7/31” read one cardboard sign. Another window had a sad face made out of blue tape.
At Columbus Circle, we stopped for lunch, taking paninis bought from Whole Foods to eat in Central Park. We debated whether the man picking water bottles one by one out of the recycling bin intended to fill them, freeze them, and re-sell them (as I had been warned is common practice when moving to New York). Emily said she thought it unlikely and lay back her head to admire the blue sky. She shot back up almost immediately, however — exclaiming that she had nearly laid her head in dog poop. Time to move on.
Imagine Times Square on a Saturday afternoon in July. Now imagine it without the tourists. Impossible? Not so, I saw such a thing with my own eyes. There were around 15 people there in total, including the naked cowboy and, more depressingly still, the naked cowgirl, whose aged, tassel-covered breasts were sagging. Mary wondered how somebody gets into something like that. I suggested a combination of hard luck and poor choices.
In Chelsea, we stopped at The Smith for a drink, though had to be careful to clarify that we wanted “mojitos” (which weren’t on the menu) rather than the listed nonalcoholic “nojitos.” My accent is enough to complicate an order at the best of times, but a mask adds an additional layer of risk. Curiously, it was only in and below Chelsea that we saw any evidence of the riots. A bank had had its windows done in and replaced, though the shards of glass had yet to be cleaned up. We walked past a security guard in a thick black outfit who vomited hard against the side of the road. Most likely on account of the heat.
A pointless deviation took us to Washington Square Park, where a man in a full suit stood leaning against a bicycle, swigging a beer. It seemed that the whole park was looking longingly at the fountain — which was on, though fenced off. We were so engrossed in conversation during our downtown walk that, before we knew it, we had charged past the charging bull and had arrived at our destination.
Lady Liberty stood in the distance, holding what, through my squinted eyes, looked awfully like an ice cream. We got our own dripping cones, paid for in cash by yours truly. That would have been the end of the trip, except that to use the bathroom at a restaurant, one needs to buy a drink. And to buy a drink, one needs to — by law — buy food. (Thanks Mr. Mayor. Or is it the governor?) So that was that. We sat at the waterfront, legs aching, bodies glistening with sweat, grateful to be alive and young in New York during the bizarre summer of 2020.