Seven weeks have passed since New York City, fleeing the coronavirus, put up a collective closed-for-business sign and locked itself away inside the strange, timeless bubble of the shutdown. The crisis, by any standard, has been costly: More than 19,000 New Yorkers have already lost their lives, and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands more have lost their livelihoods.
But the fabric of the city, too, has suffered harm as our attempts to stop the spread of disease have infected the streets and subways, the great public spaces and the secret little hideaways with a kind of festering emptiness. Social distance, for all its benefits, is a plague to places like New York, laying waste to the churning rhythms, the cherished rituals and the millions of spontaneous interactions where, in normal times, the city lives at the level of its cells.
With New Yorkers in retreat from New York, it seemed appropriate to ask a few what they missed most about their home as it was just months ago. Some missed the big things: the daily tide of bodies swirling around the clock in Grand Central Terminal. Some missed the small things: the two-tone chime of a closing subway door.
“There’s a complicated chemistry the city uses as eight million people go about their lives together,” said Ric Burns, the documentary filmmaker perhaps best known for his PBS series on New York. “It’s an infinitely delicate attraction-repulsion mechanism that help us negotiate our density, and it’s been put on hold.”
“It’s like our language has been taken from us,” Mr. Burns said, “and we’ve been silenced.”
A Live Audience
Dick Zigun, the artistic director of Coney Island USA and the unelected mayor of Coney Island
Having spent his career in front of crowds — whether the huge ones that spill across the Coney Island boardwalk for the Mermaid Parade each summer or the small ones that show up daily for the Coney Island freak show — what Mr. Zigun longs for most these days is a live audience.
“The laughter, the applause, looking at people’s faces — without all that, I don’t know what to do with myself,” he said.
With no one to perform for, Mr. Zigun has been spending time at home, eating, smoking pot and watching a lot of television, and the silence has left him feeling rattled.
“Not having that regular audience response means that things are echoing and hollow for me and for other people in the arts,” he said. “It’s like we’re suddenly in the Twilight Zone.”
The Scent of Chinatown
Yuh-Line Niou, first-term assemblywoman representing Lower Manhattan
Ms. Niou misses the bustle of Chinatown, now mostly silent. She longs for the waft of food that once filled its streets. Gone is the smell of spices and freshly caught fish, of hot pots, pastries and dumplings spewing from kitchen vents.
She misses the pork buns from Mei Lai Wah on Bayard Street that made her stop dead in her tracks.
“It doesn’t smell like Chinatown,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like Chinatown. It doesn’t look like Chinatown. I’ve never seen it this quiet before.”
Being in a Classroom
Rachel Markon, social studies teacher at Middle School 88 in Brooklyn
Only a month ago, Ms. Markon used to spend hours every day doing laps around her classroom, stopping to peer over her students’ shoulders as they worked. Just by circling the room, she said, she would often hit 10,000 steps on her fitness tracker by noon.
But that little walk-and-lean dance, repeated by New York’s 75,000 teachers countless times during a school day, does not translate to remote learning.
And Ms. Markon misses it fiercely.
“My Fitbit is like, 9,000 steps short right now,” she said.
The Crowds of Times Square
The Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights activist and cable TV host
Mr. Sharpton, the street preacher and organizer of protest marches, has always had a love of public spaces — none more than Times Square, he said. He recalled “being in heaven” coming into the square as a child from his home on New Lots Avenue in Brooklyn and strolling through its pulsing crowds as a young man with his surrogate father, James Brown.
But now, Times Square, like so much of Manhattan, is a wasteland.
“I have an office on 40th Street,” Mr. Sharpton said, “and every day when I come down to work, there’s nobody out — nobody. To me, it’s a horror movie, like the world came to an end. I just want it back.”
Newspapers From Street Kiosks
Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels and talk radio host
Mornings for Mr. Sliwa have always meant the same thing: a hot cup of coffee, a twice-toasted bagel with cream cheese, his nine cats and his four favorite newspapers — The New York Post, The New York Daily News, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
But with businesses shut down because of the outbreak, Mr. Sliwa, who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has been having trouble finding copies of the papers. The kiosks in his neighborhood are closed. The local grocery stores might have one or two, but not the others. Do not attempt to tell Mr. Sliwa that he could find what he wants on the internet. Reading the news online is not the same, he said.
“I love going through the papers by hand — the feel of them, it fulfills me,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter how many bill collectors are chasing me or how many ex-wives are screaming for support, when I hold the papers, I’m the king of the world. And now they’re gone.”
A Packed Coffee Shop
Alec Baldwin, actor
Mr. Baldwin starts nearly every day of the week at a coffee shop, Madman Espresso, a small, cabinlike space on University Place in Greenwich Village. It’s almost always packed, and if he shows up with his wife, Hilaria, and four children, holding up the line, he will often signal to the owner, Marco Vacchi, that coffee for the entire place is on him.
“I buy everyone coffee while my kids are munching on their banana bread,” Mr. Baldwin said. “In New York, a great neighborhood restaurant or coffee shop can be like home. I miss home.”
Dropping Children Off at School
Joshua Bell, Grammy-award winning violinist
For a musician who is often on the road 250 days a year, Mr. Bell has always found a special sort of intimacy in taking his three sons to school whenever he is at home with his family in Manhattan.
Shortly before 8:30 a.m., Mr. Bell — in normal times — would accompany his twin 10-year-olds, Samuel and Benjamin, to a special music school near Lincoln Center, connecting with them by playing trivia games and coming up with limericks.
With schools closed, however, his little morning ritual is impossible.
“Seeing my children off in the morning is very special in that, as they enter their classrooms, I catch a glimpse of their lives independent of me,” he said. “And seeing them blossom in that way just gives me a lot of joy.”
Dinner in the Restaurant With Staff
Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy, a vegetarian restaurant on the Lower East Side
Ms. Cohen misses family meal most. The large, communal meal is a tradition in almost every restaurant, when the front and the back of the house staff gather together in the dining room to relax before the rush of the night.
“After working in restaurants for 25 years, it’s still my favorite time of day,” said Ms. Cohen, 46. “It’s such a fundamental part of restaurants.”
Around 4:30 p.m., her staff would gather to eat and talk. They’d talk about whatever mischief happened the night before — an exploding stove, a sick customer, a particularly memorable date between two diners. They’d just relax.
“It was a marker of time,” she said. “It was a moment to pause and really divide those two halves of the day.”
Now, she is trying to apply for insurance and save her restaurant from a long stretch without revenue. She is cleaning her home. She’s playing Candy Crush.
“I don’t feel like any of our lives are very spontaneous right now,” she said. “That’s fine. That’s exactly what we’re supposed to be doing right now. But it’s not an adventure.”
The Rush Hour Pedestrian Blob
Amber Ruffin, comedian and writer for “Late Night With Seth Meyers”
Ms. Ruffin used to hate it: the miasmic sea of people clogging Sixth Avenue and making a smelly hell of her morning walk to work at Rockefeller Center. Now she misses it and cannot wait to dive back into crowd and turn her commute into a battle again.
“It was like being part of a community — even though I hated all those people,” she said. “The blob is a microcosm about how we feel about New York: You love it, you despise it, you need it, you don’t want it, it makes you feel better, and it’s just so real.”
Gossiping While Cutting Hair
Valentino Gogu, hair stylist
For 35 years, Mr. Gogu, 72, has been cutting hair at Astor Place Hairstylists, the renowned East Village haircut factory. He misses getting up at 7 a.m. and walking up the Bowery to work.
“I cut maybe 15 customers a day and talk to them all day long — socializing, gossip, news,” he said. “The days flew by. Now I have nothing to do. My days are dead.”
“All my life, I never watched TV,” he added. “Now, all day I watch westerns. It’s John Wayne all day long.”
A Talkative Neighbor
Taddeaus Beals, tailor and fashion designer
In the before times, Mr. Beals would run into his neighbor, John, outside their Brooklyn apartment once or twice a week and after the usual salutation — “Hey, hey, my man!” — would get the low down whether he wanted it or not: the work John was doing, the women he was seeing, the choicest gossip of Graham Avenue.
Mr. Beals doesn’t even know John’s last name, but he was a familiar face and voice that the virus has simply swept away. “We had funny little conversations, usually about nothing,” Mr. Beals said. “But we don’t have them anymore because we’re not outside all day.”
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