Almost every call I have these days contains some version of this dialogue:
Person (with the greatest amount of sympathy possible): So… how is life in New York City these days?
Me: Honestly? It’s kind of amazing.
Insert record scratch here.
I have been here for some very dark days. I saw the towers fall on 9/11 from my bedroom window. I delivered banana bread to first responders and cried myself to sleep in a changed world. Our power went out with a BOOM during Sandy. We cried when we saw the fires in Rockaway. It’s not with great pride that I admit to fleeing the city during the darkest days of March, April, and May. You can read about that here.
But, by July, we are tired of Splendid Isolation. We miss our friends, even from a “social distance”. We miss our things. We miss our rooms. We miss our smells. We miss our stores, and our parks and our hot, sweaty streets and sidewalks. We miss our life, even though it’s a life that has radically changed. In short, we miss our city. We miss our home.
And so, to the perplexity of friends and family alike, in the dead of summer, we leave a house that sits in a field of ripe blueberries, perched on a cool lake, and come back to New York City, in all its fly-buzzing, stinky, sweltering glory.
We’d been back in May and again in early July, just to see. In May, it was nearly as grim as it had been in April. Exhaustion was the prevailing wind, flattening people’s faces, tamping down their hair, uglifying the streets. But by July, as the numbers came down and the cruel virus smelled mask-less carrion on other cities, towns, and fields, New York started to do what she always does. She started to wake up. A boutique open here, a favorite restaurant there. But the vacant store fronts have multiplied; the street-level retail version of a graveyard.
Contact is established. Every morning, our children meet with a small group of friends, blankets set a healthy distance apart, in Riverside Park. It is quiet there; so quiet that one day a hawk lands on a bench near the kids and Edward loses his mind with joy. The babysitters and moms dream up crafty things to do (though I must admit crafts are not my forte); we make slime, and bead bracelets, and glue feathers to paper to make bird masks. For a week my fingers are an unholy purple after we tie-dye shirts. The kids squeal with pleasure to be so colorful and so wet. We call it (I call it) “Camp Quarantine”. The kids come home for lunch filthy and happy. It isn’t real camp, but it is something. And there are other kids.
In the afternoons, late, we take the bikes around Central Park through the halcyon evening light. The muggy air engulfs us as we stream up and down the hills; we own them, they are ours and we love them. For most of July and August, the park is as empty as I can remember. Even in the 90s, we flocked to the Meadow on warm days. The lack of tourists, while devastating for the city’s economy, is a magical boon for residents. We sail around and around and around, singing all the way, so alone, that masks are not needed. All of this iconic place is ours and we share it with our neighbors, human, canine. And we love them all too. People stop to ask Rob about his massive bike or smile and point at the children singing to the speakers in the back. The trees wave their old branches in the summer breeze.
We have picnics. Lunch picnics. Dinner picnics. Picnics on the ballfields of Central Park, picnics in the damp dust of Riverside Park, picnics in the cool corners of the Columbia University campus. We gingerly share food with our friends blanket to blanket. We make pasta with fresh tomatoes. We sip wine; the container laws are now lax. A craze for fireflies takes hold of the children; they compete to see who can catch more in a cup. William trips along behind the bigger kids yelling “Fi-fies! Fi-fies! I see dem dere!” He wants to touch them and does. We hear it is a hellscape here, and it surely was in March and April and May. But now? An orchestra of young people practices in Riverside Park. The playgrounds are open. Skateboarders are rumbling down the ramps. A hellscape? Certainly not. More like a dreamscape, but with an invisible predator waiting offscreen to pounce. For the virus is always near.
We stay close to home; we’re not sure about the subway yet. Rob takes his bike to run an errand downtown. He comes home glowing. “You should see the streets. The restaurants are all open and they’ve set up on the sidewalks. It’s amazing.” We take a risk and go. It is magical; it feels like life again, to sit at a sidewalk cafe, sipping wine and eating lobster rolls. We are alive and so is this town.
William starts school and its as usual. Three days a week, he leaves us behind for three hours. He walks very slowly but with great purpose, his tiny hand encased in his teacher’s, his head bowed and serious. He runs out, filled with joy, so happy to have been there and painted and eaten his snacks. “Gweenhouse!” He says. “Gweenhouse!” He leaps, pulling up his chubby knees as he walks, a happy skitter step.
Edward is at school less and it is lesser. His teacher, a young woman of great energy and the patience of a saint, somehow manages to spin the plates of the zoom calls. The children sit at attention, fingers poised to press “unmute” and bravely call out their answers at her behest. We write her love letters; we know we are lucky. The best days are when he gets to go to school and see his colleagues in person. At first he fears it but, quickly, he looks forward to it; a cat let outside to frisk in the leaves. He comes home older, smarter, wiser. He uses his “voice of authority”. It’s deep and it knows things. “Mom, do you know about ‘eni, meeni, minni, moe’?” Do I? According to him, I don’t. On those days, he goes to bed and sighs with happiness as we kiss the top of his dark shaggy head. The worst days are the zoom days when it rains. He bangs against the walls of the apartment, a banshee of energy and need. What will happen to his great big brain? He is learning but what is he learning? On non-school days, he is conversely extra clingy. He talks to his stuffed bunny, Tunny, and has an imaginary friend, Lucy, who is a coyote. She eats him, digests him, and excretes him, and he likes it.
The zoos and the museums are open now too. I thrill to the new system, which requires reservations. The museum is utterly empty. We gallop through the halls, past the bears and the bison and the antelope. Past the squid, and the walrus, and under the giant blue whale. We look up with awe and we are awestruck that this is still ours. We share it with our neighbors. William roars at the elephant seals, frozen for all time in midbray.
William gets a sniffle. There is no fever. What to do? We keep him home and take him for a test. Edward, fortuitously, gets randomly tested in school that day. I get a rapid test, as does Esperanza, who also gets a sniffle. We are all negative. We heave sighs of relief for this is new normal. We don’t take those sighs for granted, we feel our breath in our lungs, deeply in and deeply out.
And now we settle in and wait. We are not crouched down though the next tsunami may yet engulf us. We have a supply of masks, a Netflix subscription, and dreams about the future. We get tested when we can. And yet, we do wait. But we are home.