Magazine June 22, 2020, Issue

Pandemic City

Riverside Park, New York City, May 2020 (Jay Nordlinger)
One man’s experience in New York

New York is the last place I would want to be right now,” said a young friend of mine on the phone, making me gulp a little: I live right here, in the city. He had a point, though. New York has been the hardest-hit city in America during this pandemic. So far, New York has had about 204,000 cases and about 21,000 deaths.

Yet millions of us live here — more than 8 million — and we go about our lives, in whatever fashion we can. New Yorkers have had a range of experiences. I will tell you a little about mine.

In the first days of March, I had a gripe about a new inconvenience: a ban on plastic bags. I bought groceries at the Rite Aid, and I was coming home with two paper bags, stuffed. They broke, sending the groceries all over the sidewalk. Kind neighbors helped me pick them up.

At the 7-Eleven, I was given a plastic bag, which already seemed kind of subversive and thrilling. How could I have such a wonderful thing? The clerk explained to me that they were allowed to use all the plastic bags they had on hand. After that, it was Paper City.

This seems quaint now, and trifling.

On April 8, about three weeks into the shutdown, a headline appeared in USA Today: “Plastic-Bag Bans Reversed: States, Cities, Stores Are Suddenly Banning Reusable Bags during Coronavirus.” That was not true in New York, however. Still, it was an interesting development, nationally.

The last trip I had was March 12. I went to Washington, D.C., to give a talk at a club. The night before, I emailed my contact to ask whether we were still on: because things were getting canceled, left and right. Yes, he said.

I left by train fairly early in the morning. Penn Station, which was usually like Calcutta, was almost a ghost town. That was a little unsettling. When I arrived in Washington, and was en route to the club (where I would stay, as well as talk), I got a message from my contact. Would I call him? Uh-oh. I called.

“Have you left New York yet?” he said. Yes. “Okay, no problem. We were going to call it off if you hadn’t left, but now we will go through with it.” Before we hung up, I gave my host an assurance: If people wanted to stay away, I would certainly understand. No offense taken!

It was a merry evening — but it felt a little like the last supper. In fact, that was part of its merriness. The club was canceling all scheduled events until further notice.

I returned to New York the next afternoon, on an almost-empty train. Penn Station was even more of a ghost town than the day before. I got on the subway, which was fairly crowded. People eyed one another warily, even accusatorily. Woe to you if you coughed. I wanted to tell everybody aboard that train what parents tell their children about certain animals: “Don’t forget, they’re as scared of you as you are of them.”

That was March 13. I have not been down into the subway system since. I’m told, however, that the trains have become moving homeless shelters, more or less.

At the Metropolitan Opera, performances of Werther were canceled, and one of the stars, Joyce DiDonato, did something neat: She invited her co-star, Piotr Beczala, into her home for a livestream. They would perform excerpts from the opera, accompanied by a piano and a harp. Future performances at the Met — including of Werther — were still on.

But livestreaming from home soon became the norm, all across the arts world, and now people are asking, “Will there be a 2020–21 season?”

In New York, as elsewhere, people had to find “a new way of living.” (I’ve quoted a song from West Side Story.) Saying this, I am fully mindful that many were dying. A lot of us began to work by Zoom; go to church by Zoom; socialize by Zoom. The theme song of this period ought to be “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” (the Aretha Franklin hit from 1985).

Many people were out of work, out of luck. I was very lucky. In the magazine business, we can make our product at home. And our customers can consume the product at home. Contrast this with a clothing store, for example, or a sports club.

Of those who were working, many did not have the luxury of home confinement. They were “out there,” performing “essential services,” keeping the world afloat. Doctors and nurses, yes, but also grocery workers, policemen, et al. I felt surging gratitude for them.

The mail kept coming — I’m talking about the good ol’ U.S. Mail. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night . . .” My Internet provider, Spectrum, sent a man out on a Sunday evening to replace my defunct router-modem. I was kind of amazed.

On another evening, at the end of March, a big, sustained cheer went up outside my windows. Lots of hootin’ and hollerin’. I had not heard anything like it since Election Night 2012 (a bad night for me). It became a ritual: a neighborhood cheer at 7 o’clock for everyone who was “out there,” working and helping. I happily joined in, often ringing a little bell that an old friend gave me, long ago.

Some people think the 7 o’clock cheer is dorky. I find it a touching gesture, from people who are inside and wanting to express a little appreciation for those who are outside — and who maybe want to make a little noise as well.

Otherwise, it is quiet, eerily so. I hear a lot of birds. I am listening to them right this moment. In the 20-plus years I have lived in this building, I have become accustomed to a wall of sound: constant, urban sound, day and night.

I think of an old joke, or story, about the family who lived next to the railroad tracks. At 6:23 every night, as the family was having dinner, a train came through and blew its whistle. This happened like clockwork. One night, the train did not come — and, at 6:23, the father jerked his head up and said, “What was that?”

You wanted to check in on people, as the shutdown got entrenched. “Are you all right? Do you have enough food? Can I do anything for you?” I saw a woman in the hallway, going into her apartment, several doors down from me. I don’t know her name, she doesn’t know mine. (Very New York.) But she knows where I live, and I know where she lives. We both said: Knock if you need anything.

The doormen in our building, as in others, never stopped coming to work: never stopped dealing with packages and people (not necessarily in that order). Doormen are a lubricant of New York life. A native midwesterner, I never knew anything about doormen until I came here, beyond Rhoda, the 1970s sitcom — in which a voice would come through the intercom, saying, “This is Carlton, your doorman.”

Was it fair that they were “out there” — though masked and gloved — while many of the rest of us had the luxury of being “in”? Whatever the case, I was never more grateful for them.

A few days ago, I read an article in the Times — not the New York Times, oddly enough, but the Los Angeles Times. Its heading was “While New York City Fights a Pandemic, Building Doormen Greet and Troubleshoot.” The article said that there is a higher death rate among New York doormen than among the New York police.

Our building put in some pandemic rules, concerning guests, deliveries, etc. For instance, you could ride in the elevator only one at a time — one passenger or one family. We have two elevators, plus a freight. One of the elevators had a problem and was put out of service. Ordinarily, this would have meant long, long waits. Especially with one passenger or family allowed at a time! But an elevator — the elevator (plus a freight) — has never been more available in my 20-plus years. Why?

First, people were simply not going out. I have a friend here who has not been out of her apartment since the middle of March. (We have been emailing.) Second, there were many fewer people in the building. They had decamped to second homes, or perhaps to their main homes, their apartments serving as pieds-à-terre.

I detected a little class resentment among some of the remainers.

In the early days, only a few people wore masks, out and about. Maybe 5 percent of the people you saw. They seemed extra-vigilant. Then it became 25 percent, 50 percent. Soon, I was one of the few without a mask, which made me self-conscious. Where were people getting these masks? I did not have the nerve to ask them. You approached people on the street, in the pandemic, even less than you did before. Naturally — I don’t blame them — they swerved from you as though you were a leper.

Masks were not available in stores, and Amazon told me it would be a month. (It turned out to be one month and two and a half weeks.) I wore a hankie. Then my sister dispatched me some masks, as did my mother. What am I, twelve years old? No, but it’s always nice to be cared for.

By about May 15, friendly policemen were handing out masks in the parks — not merely to the unmasked but to the masked, in case they wanted extras.

In March, there was a run on dry pasta in the various stores. One of the few items scarcer was hand sanitizer. Same with  toilet paper. Eventually, toilet paper returned, but it was kept behind the counter at Rite Aid, almost like contraband. A few weeks later, TP returned to the shelves, just like normal. (No sign of hand sanitizer yet.)

My friend and colleague Elaina Plott tweeted out a picture of TP on the shelves at her store. Her caption was clever and sweet: “Nature is healing.”

Trader Joe’s, like other stores, allows only a small number of people in at a time. There are long lines outside Trader Joe’s, made all the longer by social distancing: The standers are six feet apart. I thought of GUM, the old department store in the Soviet Union, outside of which people spent huge chunks of their lives, standing, waiting.

I was in another store — Jubilee Market Place — in the checkout line. I was keeping my distance, I thought. But the elderly woman in front of me turned and said, with a shaky, urgent voice, “You’re too close.” I apologized and backed off (way, way off, so you could hardly tell I was in line). I try to cut people slack. There is a lot of fear in the air. And people, for the most part, have been patient and kind.

“That’s when you have to worry,” said a friend of mine. “When New Yorkers are being patient and kind, there’s serious trouble afoot.”

I have come to love the young cashiers at Rite Aid, Pinkberry, and other places. I see them almost every day. They are behind plastic partitions, working their tails off, scrubbing their hands, putting up with all manner of customer weirdness and nervousness. We have formed something like a bond. I feel quasi-parental toward them.

In the beginning, the only restaurant open, within blocks of me, was a pizzeria. You could not dine in, but you could take out, or have the pizza delivered. The place was operating 24/7. As I watched them, the workers seemed well-nigh heroic. Were they foolhardy? Were we, who patronized them?

Come to think of it, the McDonald’s next door to the pizza place never closed either. At least I don’t think it did. Maybe for a week or two, max. You can sooner take down the Statue of Liberty than you can the Golden Arches.

After a while, more restaurants opened up for delivery and takeout (although not dine-in). A sign in one restaurant window — printed in the British World War II style — said, “Keep Calm and Carry Out.” Some restaurants, you could not enter. You waited on the sidewalk, and a worker reached through the door to hand you your food. My barbecue place, you could enter, to pick up. A sign said, “Please Stand Six Ribs Apart.”

Street people were more present than ever, or at least they seemed so. They had the run of the sidewalks and squares. They begged with more intensity, I think, and my impression is they took in more, from passersby. What does “home confinement” mean to a street person? I met one man who seemed like a first-time beggar: someone whose back was against the wall, owing to the pandemic and unemployment. Was he scamming? Years in New York have taught me great wariness, not to say cynicism. But, no, I don’t think he was.

Little platoons cropped up. Three young people started an organization called “Invisible Hands,” which runs errands for the shut in and vulnerable. The organization now has more than 10,000 volunteers. (That’s a big platoon.) And I like the touch of Adam Smith in their name.

A ship came in: the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship. Lots of New Yorkers came out to greet it. Was this wise? They did it, regardless.

There was a field hospital in Central Park. It is startling to see a field hospital in a place you know well, or at least it was to me. It smacks of war. Field hospitals are for France, in 1916. I got some news from my hometown, Ann Arbor, Mich. An athletic facility I once worked in had been turned into a field hospital. The thought of it gave me a jolt.

The field hospital in Central Park was set up by Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief organization. Some people protested the hospital, because the organization requires some contractors and volunteers to affirm an opposition to gay marriage. (The organization will treat anyone, however.) A pandemic can stop many things, but not politics.

A sign at Mount Sinai Hospital said, “To the Health-Care Workers Fighting for Our Lives, Thank You.” I saw a headline, and a subheading, in the New York Times that was very hard to take. “Top E.R. Doctor Who Treated Virus Patients Dies by Suicide: ‘She tried to do her job, and it killed her,’ said the father of Dr. Lorna M. Breen, who worked at a Manhattan hospital hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.” (That hospital is a branch of New York–Presbyterian.)

In Riverside Park, a ball came rolling toward me. In ordinary days, I would have thrown it back, to the mother and her little son. This time, however, I called out, “Should I stop it?” The mother, after hesitating, said, “No, that’s all right.” In a touchy time, it can be hard to know what to touch, or have others touch. Normal human intercourse is called into question.

A man jogged by me, wearing a mask. He was giving me what I thought was a thumbs-up — two thumbs up, in fact. A nice gesture of solidarity, I thought. I gave him a thumbs-up back. But then I realized: My mask was dangling around my neck — I was taking in a little fresh air — and he wanted me to put it back up. There was alarm and reproach in his eyes. Another time, I passed a woman, and probably got too close to her. Veering sharply off, she said, “Excuse me, moron.”

I overheard a man in the park talking to his friend. “I have hay fever, and when I’m coughing, people look at me like I’m a serial killer.”

Out on the Hudson River, three guys were on Jet Skis, slaloming like mad, making rooster tails. They had the river to themselves, and it looked like they were having a ball. Speaking of balls: I saw a man practice his tennis against a wall. It was the first “live sports event” I had seen in ages. Another man, in front of another wall, practiced his singing — day after day. I imagined that the others in his apartment did not want to hear him. He had found an outdoor studio.

Often, the parks were crowded, while the streets were not. If you wanted social isolation, you were much better off in Times Square than in a park. In Times Square, there was practically tumbleweed. Not far from Times Square, I saw a father and a son playing catch in the middle of the street. (Baseball, I’m talking.) Just like it was 1937 or something. I had never seen this, in my years in New York.

A friend of mine said he saw kids riding their bikes in the middle of the street, poppin’ wheelies — just like they were in suburbia. I noticed that the flower boxes outside the Javits Center — which was used for a while as a field hospital — were amazingly neat, pretty, and pristine. There was no one around to mess them up: to sit in them, for example, or throw litter in them. As for the air quality, we could almost compete with the Rockies.

I  noticed something weird the other day: I waited for traffic, for like a minute. I had gotten used to tumbling into the streets, as though New York were Mayberry. Things are picking back up. There are more people about, with less obvious fear. Even the 7 o’clock cheer is petering out, much less robust and much less sustained than before.

On Memorial Day evening, people were gathered on the sidewalk outside two restaurants, one of them newly reopened (for takeout, between “3 and 8:30-ish”). The scene was almost a block party. Men were talking about the charity golf match shown on television the day before — a real, live, professional sports event: Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning versus Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady. On the sidewalk, there was something resembling normality.

A few days later, however, trouble erupted in the city: riots, stemming from an awful case of police brutality in Minneapolis. There were riots in cities all across the country, in addition to righteous protests. One night, at 2:30, I was awakened by noise outside my windows: not birds, or cheering, but shouting. And police sirens. Was the commotion related to Minneapolis? I think so, but, this being New York, who knows? When the sun came up, all was peaceful, at least outwardly.

Back to Memorial Day evening. I left the “block party” and returned to my building, where there was another party, of sorts. The super, two doormen, and I huddled for some music. We listened to a concert from New Orleans, featuring a jazz clarinetist, backed by a symphony orchestra. Picture us in our masks — a Honduran, an Albanian, an Ethiopian, and a Michigander, but all of us American, true-blue — groovin’ to some New Orleans jazz on Memorial Day.

Pandemic or not, civil unrest or not, I have so much to be grateful for.

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