A Different Summer in New York

New York is a party in summertime.

Hot air swoops down into homes and offices, driving the city’s residents outside. Feckless festivity pervades. Kids frolic next to fire hydrants. People day drink and lounge in folding chairs next to crowded streets during warm evenings. Clothes are short and traffic jams to beaches long. Parks and public spaces are performance spaces for artists. The city is overrun with tourists in ill-fitting cargo shorts and sweat-soaked t-shirts, dutifully instagramming their excursions to culture at Museum mile.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has emptied that party.

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Last weekend, I took a bus from Washington Heights to Midtown for a shopping expedition. The 10-mile route takes approximately one-and-half-hours and traverses through Harlem, Upper West Side, and Upper East Side. It is a journey through a diverse patchwork of communities, a glimpse into a vibrant kaleidoscope of humanity that make up this city.

But there were hardly any people outside last Saturday.

A plastic curtain partitioned the driver, and the front row of seats, from those of us at the back. Harlem was dreary and quiet, the neighborhood’s streetscapes and shuttered shops a smudge of their earlier self. Restaurants on the Upper West Side, generally teeming with Columbia students and families from the neighborhood, were empty. There were a couple of people, probably outsiders, on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum. They were masked and moved around uncertainly, as if they had strayed there.

Times Square was a ghost town of silent flashing screens selling products and celebrating Pride. To whom? I don’t know. At Dos Caminos, a couple dined on the sidewalk. They sat on a lone table placed below a moving screen that displayed images from Virginia’s beaches. The Red Steps were barricaded and a solitary female officer stood guard.

Embrace The Absurd, a New York motto in the best of times, exhorted an advertisement on West 50th street. The absurdity lay ahead, in a series of vacant streets decorated with fancy stores and a golden man (he was dressed and painted in gold) walking through them. In the horizon, a phalanx of Midtown buildings, probably unoccupied, rose out to meet the sky.

It was no different inside the stores. Cash counters were sealed in tape. Only credit and debit cards were accepted. Customers queued up outside Zara, waiting for their turn to go inside. They paced in front of Uniqlo’s plate-glass doors, waiting to pick up items ordered online.

Fitting rooms at H&Ms were locked. “We have to clean them every time someone uses them and we don’t have so many people,” said the sales associate. The move essentially translated to a lifetime return policy for purchased goods. (Note to self: I should have probably stayed home and used their website). The restrooms were also closed.

But they were open inside Macy’s with social distancing. That meant a long line for entry and rows of empty cubicles between two people. People inside the world’s largest department store took landscape shots of aisles, stacked with clothing racks and sales associates idling time because there was no one to buy them. Wait, there was a customer: a man wearing a T-shirt that stated “I Can’t Breathe”. Outside, I breathed deeply.

The tacky, the celebrated, the sublime, everything goes in a New York summer. No two are ever alike.  

One brief summer, I lived close to the  Romantic Depot in Harlem, which blared Justin Bieber at all hours to sell its profusion of pink sex toys. It was a short distance away from a feted Ramen spot and world-class jazz music. Another summer, I spent near a Michelin-starred restaurant that was close to construction rubble, drug dealers, and grocery stores that sold “organik” products in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.

It promises to be a different summer in New York again this year.


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