No, New York Is Not Dead
Though it’s hard for me to believe the people who are having that debate are even here…
I’m not clairvoyant. I moved out of the city in September 2019 because I’d been fortunate enough to be cast in a continuously-running show in a beach town in Massachusetts. We did many many performances in the summer, when throngs of tourists strolled the streets looking for entertainment, but also kept up a regular schedule of shows year-round. Wasn’t nearly enough money to live on. Nevertheless, a rare privilege to be paid to do Improv comedy. So I moved there.
I’d still come to New York often. My ex still lives in our old apartment and didn’t seem to mind (much) me staying for a few days when I got a gig back home. I was born here: Lenox Hill Hospital; just like Lady Gaga. Was in New York often enough that I volunteered at an animal shelter to help fill the days I was here, since I mostly worked at night and on weekends.
March 8th was the last show of any kind I did in New York. The animal shelter was trying to get volunteers to foster as many dogs as possible, because they knew something bad was coming. Already, in the previous couple of weeks, an insane number of people were coming in looking to adopt dogs. Because they knew something bad was coming. It was a good idea. I requested a particular pit bull that seemed to really like me. They were a little hesitant to let me take her. After a few days, I decided not to wait, and took off back to my “new home”. Would’ve been a good thing, in retrospect, to have that pit bull. She was a very sweet dog. But in the early days, when I really kind of wanted people to stay away from me, having that particular dog with me would’ve helped. Also, I really think that dog would’ve been a big help to my sanity.
Of course, all the shows I had moved to that beach town to perform in were cancelled. As the summer wore on, two of the theaters we work with offered to let us do some shows in their driveways. I would’ve. But many of the others in the group were not enthused. I can understand why: we yell at each other a lot during our shows, and there’s typically a lot of physical contact. It’s just the way we play.
So I spent the first several months glued to a sofa. The first “event” for me ended up being going to the doctor for an annual checkup. The idea of going into a building other than my home or one single supermarket really snuck up on me. I was surprisingly all over the place about it. I’m not usually like that.
Anyway, this week, I returned to New York. My ex is away; I have the old apartment to myself. I came not for a job, but because I needed to get my car repaired and it couldn’t wait any longer. Yes, I know. Who comes to New York to get their car repaired? But that’s another story.
Also, this is my town.
Been thinking about people I knew in this neighborhood who are gone now, taken in the early days of the pandemic. A certain corner. In front of a certain building. I see them still.
Been thinking about my dad not now but on 9/11, who was out of the city and jumped in a car and rushed back. I scolded him at the time. Told him he should be inviting his friends to join him where he was until everyone became a little clearer on what was going on. I remember his answer: “I have to go back.”
Landing first in midtown on a sunny Friday, the first thing that struck me was how few people were on the street. Way fewer than I’d imagined even after people had been telling me how few people there are on the street these days. Near Grand Central, and then as I rode a Citibike through the Garment District, I’d say about 70% less than what used to be normal. Often times, I seemed to be the only person on the street who was not delivering something.
Chelsea and Greenwich Village was a bit more populated, but would hardly call it “lively”. My old apartment is on a major cross street in the very front of the building, and very often in the few days I’ve been here, there is silence outside. The ubiquitous coffee carts that normally dot every corner around here, and even somehow manage to pop up in the middle of busy construction zones sometimes, are nearly all disappeared. This being New York, the massive street construction that was well underway when I moved a year ago, looks exactly the same; no signs of progress. It was something I was wondering about, and was exactly as I would’ve guessed. Meanwhile, the giant Google building might as well have tumbleweeds outside of it.
The CVS I went into one morning was very well stocked with mostly strange brands of toilet paper and paper towels. They were doing much better on the toilet paper. Still, other than me, the store was empty. Located in what was a bank building with big, vaulted ceilings, I felt like I was wandering in a canyon. A speck on the earth and nothing more.
When the weekend came, things got a bit more buoyant. There was almost a crowd as I passed by the farmer’s market. On a beautiful sunny day, quite a few people seemed to be in parks. But very little wandering around. Like they had a mission for the day to go to the park, or whatever, and that was it. Very few signs of the typical New York style wandering that everybody almost always does when the weather’s nice and you’re not stuck at work.
I took a bicycle down to the Lower East Side, which was also surprisingly quiet even though many restaurants were open and had outdoor seating set up and the weather was beautiful. Only when I passed close to New York University on the return trip, did I see actual crowd scenes: almost all at outdoor restaurant/bars where people mostly drank in still relatively small but maskless groups, and spoke loudly.
In general, people are very polite. They say “thank you”, “excuse me” or even “sorry” in situations where no New Yorker ever would’ve before. In a hushed tone that’s definitely not “New York”. People seem to be monitoring their speed and distance: nobody has brushed by me on the street, and I’ve been extra careful not to bump into anybody too. Even when people aren’t wearing masks, they often pull one up over their face if you are, when you walk by.
When you walk into any place of business there is a strong and palpable feeling in the air that “we’re trying to do our best.” So you’re compelled to try to do your best as a customer.
Mask compliance is pretty good, though not uniformly good. And obviously, one thing you can’t but come across, even in a New York devoid of crowds, is a lot more people than in small town Massachusetts. But everybody these days seems to have a purpose. So they pass quickly and tend not to linger. My best friend in 8th grade’s mom taught me that: always look like you know where you’re going, even when you’re wandering. That way you won’t get mugged. But now it does seem like people really aren’t going anywhere outside if they don’t have a place they need to go.
I know a lot of business owners in the town I live in now in Massachusetts and nearby had a hard summer and are still having a hard time now. And I don’t want to minimize that. But the restaurants there that I popped into every once in a while were totally rocking compared to even the busiest place I witnessed this weekend in New York. And it goes without saying that the New York businesses are paying a lot more in rent for the privilege of doing a lot less business.
So why am I not leaning toward the “New York is dead” camp? Because what’s not lost — at all — is the feeling of resilience I’ve always felt in New York. And among New Yorkers. The determination of New Yorkers — who remain one of the most diverse groups of people on earth — does not seem to have faded at all. They’re just not being stupid about it.
This is true of New Yorkers on any given normal day, even. But especially in times of disaster. We’ve been here before (I will always say “we” no matter how far I may wander), and we’ve persevered. I will not say my short stay in city these past few days was celebratory, nor did I feel I had witnessed any triumphs over anything. Yet. At the same time based on what I saw, and the super-human efforts being made all around even in small, barely perceptible, just-getting-by ways, I was convinced that the spirit I’ve always known here is about as far from dead as possible. My love for the city and my optimism is unbound. And I can’t be the only one.