Coronavirus Chronicles: A view from the epicenter


The streets of Manhattan are eerily quiet these days, but at 7 every evening that all changes. It often catches me off guard. Hours — like days of the week — are hard to keep track of right now. I’ll be busy washing dishes or reading a book, when suddenly I hear my neighbors cheering, banging pots and pans, and generally making as much of a celebratory racket as possible for two minutes, often a little bit longer. It’s the sound of New Yorkers thanking health care workers and first responders for holding up the front lines in this time of crisis.

I live in a neighborhood of the city called Hell’s Kitchen, the midtown west area of Manhattan that includes Times Square. I moved here from Harlem about a year ago. Generally the area is teeming with people. My block is just west of the hub where the streets are always congested and noisy — at all hours of the day and night. This is the same neighborhood where I spent the first few years of my life and where I lived during much of my 20s and early 30s. However, at that time, Times Square was very different than it is today. The sex shops and drug dealers have been replaced by walking cartoon characters and places like the M&Ms store — just one block east from my home.

Now New York’s tourist central has emptied out. One of the things that marked the beginning of the lockdown for many people was the shuttering of the Broadway theaters. Some of them kept their marquees lit up until just a few days ago, but it’s bizarre to walk by these landmarks without having to step off the sidewalk to skirt the crowds of theatergoers. The electronic billboards of Times Square are still flashing ever-changing images and messages to the handful of people who now roam the nearly empty streets. However, in many cases the larger-than-life advertisements have been replaced by PSAs reminding people of safety measures and thanking essential workers.

Although in better times I often had no choice when heading to the subway, I generally tried to avoid this densely populated few blocks as much as possible. Most days now I head right over to the heart of the Times Square area — the blocks of Broadway from around 42nd to 49th Streets, where there are large pedestrian-only plazas. It’s very easy now to socially isolate in the area where once you had to walk at a snail’s pace and barriers with signs like “Pedestrian Flow area” kept the chaos to a minimum. Times Square just a few weeks ago always abounded with tourists with cameras and bulging shopping bags and all types of characters — both people in Disney costumes and some less innocuous NYC “celebrities” like the Naked Cowboy and the women in nothing but g-strings, pasties, and body paint. Now you can quickly navigate the area, rarely having to even wait for a Walk signal to cross the street.

The cartoon characters and all-but-nude women have vanished. There are no tourists to hustle money in exchange for a photo. A couple of times I’ve spotted the Naked Cowboy (who wears just boots, a cowboy hat and a pair of tighty whities while strumming his guitar) and there are still a few guys around who run the CD scam — handing you a copy of their “original music” CD and signing your name on it before insisting that you now have to purchase it. Aside from that, I generally see maybe 100 people during my outings in an area where I previously would have had to fight my way through 1,000s, maybe 10s of thousands, just to get to the subway.

Just a few blocks farther west of me is the Hudson River and the location of the hospital ship. I walked over to see it on the day it docked there, next to the Intrepid. The area is fenced off, with military personnel walking around on either side of the fence. It doesn’t really look like a boat at all — more like a floating metal building painted white with red crosses on all sides. I didn’t go in the morning when the ship was docking and a crowd showed up to welcome its arrival. I waited until later in the day when there were only a few people peering through the fence and snapping photos.

I’ve taken the subway twice during lockdown. The first time was about a week in when my phone quit on me. I don’t know anyone in my immediate neighborhood well enough to ask to borrow a phone. Nobody wants to get near their neighbors, much less allow them to handle anything of theirs. The Verizon insurance agency’s live chat was not working, and I also had to call around to find an open Verizon store.

I made my way down to the East Village, where one of my best friends lives in a doorman building. I wasn’t allowed to even enter the lobby. The building was closed down to all but residents — no house cleaners, no dog walkers, no plumbers or electricians. My friend met me out on the street where we spent about an hour arguing with the insurance company to no avail. It turns out that only two Verizon stores are open in Manhattan. Luckily one is on 34th Street, not far from my home. They were only allowing one customer in the store at a time and the customer area was restricted to the front of the store. I purchased a new phone but was told that the employees were no longer allowed to activate new phones in the store.

More recently, I braved the subway to visit a friend from my old neighborhood who was just diagnosed with terminal cancer (because all doctors are on emergency duty, she can’t even get an appointment with an oncologist until May). I had a subway car all to myself during the first leg of the trip on the local train. The express was a bit busier but still very empty compared to what I’m used to. I met with my friend in a small keyholders-only garden that is technically supposed to be locked up right now, but she has gotten in the habit of taking her dog there every day to sit in a quiet unpopulated spot. She is in the at-risk group because her immune system is compromised, but friends visit with her in the garden — sitting on benches on opposite sides.

I decided to take a Fifth Avenue bus back downtown. You can now ride the bus for free, because you have to board through the back door since the front of the buses, nearer to the driver, are roped off. For much of the 80-block trip, I was the only passenger. With hardly any traffic and no stops to make, the bus sped downtown. I enjoyed the trip along the park, where people were still out enjoying the sunny day and the flowering trees were in bloom. Then I spotted the hospital tents — stark white against the green foliage — a reminder that despite typically gorgeous New York spring weather, things are far from normal.

The back of my apartment faces a playground. Even in the winter I generally hear kids playing outside my window every day. One of the first things I noticed, before the city went into complete lockdown, was how quiet it had become. No more Saturday night revelers, no more kids in the playground. The little community garden near me was shuttered pretty early on. Then the small park nearby with a playground and basketball and tennis courts was locked up. I started sitting in one of the public concrete plazas in the area. Eventually some of these — including Rockefeller Center — were closed off with police tape.

Because I live in a tourist-dense area, the stores near me are not crowded at all. Friends tell me about waiting in line to get into the supermarket where crowd control is enforced. My local food stores are no more crowded than usual and the pharmacies are ghost towns. I went to pick up a prescription from a huge two-story CVS the other day and I was the only customer in the store. There were about 30 employees, all of whom moved aside to give me space. People really are very aware of, and thoughtful about, social distancing. The exception is homeless people, many of whom have gotten very aggressive since there are so few people to panhandle from. A woman recently walked up to me and demanded $2. When I refused she said, “Give me your credit card and your pin number.” I had to beat a hasty retreat as she was starting to get right in my face.

Saxophone player Sweet Lew, a fixture in Times Square since the 80s, has become my new best friend. Every other day or so I head over to his regular spot on 44th Street and watch him play, then we sit 6 feet apart and chat. Although there are very few people around, most stop to listen, snap a photo and drop some cash in his sax case. One woman with a French accent gave him a buck and then called out, “The voice of New York.” I’ve gotten into the habit of referring to Lew as the biggest hit on Broadway right now. We talk about everything — his years as an actor, politics, restaurants, the “old Times Square,” baseball. There’s plenty of time to enjoy long conversations.

I got a head start on the rest of the world when I was forced into isolation after I underwent foot surgery in early January. I live on the third floor of a walk-up building and couldn’t leave my apartment for a month, then had some very limited mobility for another month thanks to a knee scooter. Mid March was my anticipated recovery date and I couldn’t wait to get back out into the world. Then, well, you know what happened.

I started trying to adopt a dog about a month before the shut down, once I knew I would be able to walk again. Unfortunately, it is now impossible to get a dog. People who are temporarily working at home are snatching up all the dogs. Hopefully they will still be able to care for them once they go back to work. So, for now, I’m all alone. I have seen none of my friends for weeks now. I’m just glad I’ve made a friend in Sweet Lew. His music and his companionship are two things that are keeping me going.

Yes, I know people who have gotten sick and people who have died, but I have also seen acts of kindness everywhere and, in general, New Yorkers have maintained a positive attitude. I’ve noticed that people are very respectful and more apt to say a quick hello to the few neighbors out getting supplies or walking their dogs. I often stop to talk to dog owners, who are happy to chat. I’ve seen people laughing. I still see people handing over money or food to the needy. I’ve seen food bank trucks parked at strategic locations and people waiting patiently in line to receive some groceries. The day before they closed up shop one of the many Thai restaurants on 9th Avenue set up some tables out front and gave out free produce to passersby. Most of the restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen are closed up tight — no takeout or delivery — because they, too, depend on the tourist trade. Restaurants in other neighborhoods are generally still operating on some level.

In the beginning, before we went into full on quarantine, I considered coming up to the Vineyard — my year-round home for 20 years before I became a part-timer. A few friends very kindly offered me a place to stay and even encouraged me to come. However, I made the decision to stay put and stand by my chosen hometown, support local businesses and hang together with other New Yorkers. Granted, I don’t have a family to consider. Some folks need to worry about older parents or kids who are dependent on their support. Some families, I’m sure, have chosen to gather together with college kids and other young adults to shelter in one place. It’s disheartening to hear the backlash against summer people who have made the tough decision to transplant themselves. Perhaps we could just ask these folks to make sure they are supplied when they arrive and consider making a donation to a local organization like M.V. Community Services. I’m sure there are many organizations who rely on the public’s generosity.

I’ve discovered a few new distractions. My friend Sheree, who lives in Brooklyn, suggested that we each write a short story a day and share them. After I wrote the first story, I expanded on it over the next few days and I have now written a whole episodic story about a cockroach. Sheree and I talk on the phone just about every day and when it was obvious that the conversations were pretty much all about what we each ate that day, I suggested that we each tell a story about our past during every phone call. She’s always prepared. I generally have to wing it. This has been fun, and I think we’ve learned a lot about each other.

I have started brushing up on my algebra because I hope to start tutoring kids soon. I was doing it for a while as a volunteer when I lived in Harlem and I’d like to renew these efforts — more prepared this time around.

My other coping strategy may not work for everyone, but I’ve found it very helpful. I selected a random future date — June 13 — as when I think things may be back to some semblance of normal. I drew a calendar right onto my bedroom wall with a Sharpie, and I cross off each day. By my calculations, we’re now a third of the way there. The date I selected is by no means a prediction. It just helps me to have some sort of tangible goal to reach for. Even if your destination is a mirage, every step you take towards it is still a step forward.

In the meantime, I listen to Gov. Cuomo every day, follow stay-at-home and social-distancing directives as much as possible, and try to distract myself and stay positive. Be safe everyone!