“Dear New York, I hope you’re doing well
I know a lot’s happened and you’ve been through hell“
We were told to work from home—perhaps for a couple of weeks—to “flatten the curve.” I tossed the notebooks in my backpack but left photos and other corporate mementos in my cubicle while people around me were coughing and sneezing. Times Square started to feel like a ghost town.
Our favorite downtown restaurant’s closing party was our last hurrah before the lockdown. When we arrived, everyone was hand-sanitizing, social distancing and elbow bumping. By the end of the evening, the place was packed. There were babies on portable bassinets on top of the bar. People were tasting each other’s wines and taking cheek-to-cheek selfies.
Like Bill Murray’s Phil Connors in “Groundhog Day,” we soon were stuck on the same day of back-to-back Zoom meetings and bizarre presidential press briefings. Dinner was the highlight of our day, as was joining our neighbors on the building’s rooftop to salute healthcare workers.
We fell sick. Was it the last days at the office or our downtown soirée? Despite a shortage of tests at the time, we knew it was COVID when a loss of smell and taste was declared an official symptom. Luckily, we didn’t develop the dreaded shortness of breath that would’ve landed us in the hospital, where makeshift morgues in the way of refrigerated trucks started to crowd the surroundings.
Three weeks later, with our energy back, we left the house to encounter a world where you could hear birds chirping during rush hour. Grand Central Station, Madison Square Park and other city landmarks’ film aesthetic had turned post-apocalyptic. The Big Apple was eerie and unrecognizable without her huddled masses.
And yet, there was a budding sense of hope. We started to meet city friends for outdoor dining. As a post-911 New Yorker, I learned that how the city was pulling through this new crisis paralleled how it came back after the horrific terrorist attacks.
Things would take another wrong turn. I, like hundreds of thousands in the city, got laid off. Civil unrest, triggered by the murder of George Floyd, became the new normal. There was looting resulting in permanent police presence and the boarding up of businesses for months to come. We fell asleep and woke up to the sound of choppers. Was this Kabul or Manhattan?
Equidistant between Union Square and Washington Square Park, we had a front-row seat to the daily action. It started around 5 PM with what looked like students chanting against police violence. As the night fell, a different crowd emerged, welding bicycles and skateboards like weapons and provoking the cops by breaking glass and setting trashcans on fire.
With a contentious presidential election nearing, New Yorkers restored a temporary sense of normalcy by donning their Halloween costumes and marching on Greenwich Village. The iconic parade didn’t occur, but that didn’t stop aliens, harlequins, vampires and witches from making the most of it (refreshingly, there weren’t either pandemic or politics-related costumes).
After a global pandemic, the de facto militarization of the streets and a toxic political campaign, America would elect a new president. In hindsight, expecting a different administration to usher in a new era in this politically polarized world feels naive. The nation would witness more troublesome events, chiefly the insurrection at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021.
But at least for a day, when the networks called the result, a sense of joy and catharsis descended upon New York City. Unseasonably warm and bright weather provided the perfect backdrop for people to take to the streets for the first time in months not to protest but to celebrate turning a corner in this Year of Discontent.