The road was wide enough to have accommodated four vehicles abreast. For wayfarers on foot there were paths on either side. The line of the road was straight as an arrow, a marvel of engineering; drains at intervals, another far-sighted innovation, carried the runoff of downpours to the sea. The buildings in which the natives lived, empty now, were large enough to hold dozens of families. These too were straight-edged, made of cut-stone blocks or bricks. Where only a few rock pigeons now flap, one has to imagine the scenes of vanished activity: farmers bringing their produce to market, couples with children and tame dogs, peoples from every clime — Negroes from below the Sahara, yellow-skinned Asians, redheads from distant Britain.
It is a New York street in the summer.
The center of the largest city in the country can turn itself into a ghost town. The magician flings open his gloved hand: The coins you put there are suddenly gone. The great emptyings out are over the Fourth of July and Labor Day: Summertime, baby! then, Summer’s over! But every dog-day weekend sees an exodus, and even during the week, when sturdy Americans are supposed to be earning our secular/Puritan marks of election, unlike effete and socialized Europeans, there is a noticeable thinning out. A young man told me that when Bernie Sanders gave a speech in Prospect Park on the eve of the primary, you could get into any restaurant in Brooklyn. Now it’s as if Sanders is orating somewhere every night. Your favorite Brazilian place supports a perimeter of customers at its outdoor tables, but inside only a few foreigners sit, stolidly studying their Fodor’s. In the red-sauce joints, Dino sings “Volare” to empty upholstered booths. The Chinese restaurants draw their families, but the round-eyed culture-noshers are MIA.
Empty though the city seems, don’t try anything stupid; points of egress and ingress for beachgoers are off-limits. In almost 40 years I have been to the Hamptons only twice, the Jersey shore once; Penn Station and the Holland Tunnel should be avoided religiously. But in the summertime other venues of desperation and mayhem take on an air of calm. The big shows at the big museum are pleasant; you can actually read the text panels, you can see the art without looking through someone’s hair. The rush-hour cab stake-out — looking for one going the way you want, looking for one going perpendicular to the way you want, looking for one going in the opposite direction in case the cabbie is willing to make a U-turn — is simplified: hand up, wait at most a couple of light changes, your chariot awaits. At the gym there are empty exercise bicycles, and you don’t even have to sit next to someone bellowing on his smartphone.
Why do we flee the place we flocked to? What do we dislike about the life we love? City-dwellers came here for motion, impact, conjunction, disparity. If all they needed for happiness was a lawn, a car, and a swimming pool they could have stayed where they were born. But they needed something else, and now that they have it they need, at least periodically, to desert it. See how they fetishize the places in the city that are unlike it. Where once stood a women’s prison, next door to a Gothic courthouse that is now a library, there is a fenced garden, maybe a third of an acre. A brick path circles through the plantings that enclose a tiny lawn; at intervals, like the hours on some otherworldly clock, are benches. It is the bower of bliss in the city that never sleeps. Yet even here energy leaks in. The flowers are as groomed as red-carpet celebs, and the benches are always occupied, sharp-eyed city dwellers having staked them out and, even if the bench seats two, precluding, with an artfully extended leg, company. Nature is something we choreograph, tranquility something we fight for.
As you cannot miss the feeling that the city has been evacuated, so you come to recognize and watch for the signs of (partial) repopulation. The young man marching into the lobby with a bag of golf clubs slung over his back, like a pilgrim’s cross. The young women with tans, the unfortunate young women with sunburns. The couples, weary from fun, exercise, and the long drive back, standing by their idling curbside SUVs, considering how many trips it will take to bring up the luggage and their child. Outside the university housing, the rumble of wheeled linen carts groaning with furniture and appliances as children and parents prepare to acquire life lessons and spend $60,000, respectively.
In a few months — whoops, make that a few weeks — everything will be back to boisterous normal. Fall openings, plays, concerts. Diplomats returning to the big diplomat box. Playoff wild-card slots vanishing out of reach. The presidential campaign slipping into high gear (God help us). Kids at the high school, security guards on the sidewalk allowing (or not allowing) morning latecomers to sneak in, shooing them to the subway after they burst out at the end of the afternoon. Traffic jams, dark clothes, local apples (if coming from 90 miles away is local). Cool air, noise in the night, bustle.
There is one other time the city can be transformed. It does not come as predictably as the doldrums of summer, but when it comes, it comes to equal effect. That is with 15 or 20 inches of snow. Commerce and government call it quits. Every car sits in its own igloo. Even dogs and their owners stay inside. What do sparrows do, there is nothing for them to scavenge. Here and there, a few lights: in apartment windows; neon from delis; traffic lights, signaling to no one. Boundless and bare, the lone and level snows stretch far away. The only thing moving is some well-wrapped man on cross-country skis, striding up the road.