The day Governor Cuomo announced lockdown orders for New York City, I considered fleeing — from my Bed Stuy apartment to my family’s in Park Slope.
My mother tried to lure me over with the comfort of their evening routine: Rummikub before dinner and a movie after. That night she was making a pot roast, I should come — but if I came inside and ate the pot roast, she made clear, I could not leave.
I stayed in my corner of Brooklyn, in a five-bedroom duplex now populated only by me and my one un-fled housemate, but I regularly walk to my childhood home. My father, mother, sister and I all sit on the stoop, six-feet apart. Sometimes one of them carries the dog out, too.
In Midwood, my grandparents are unenthusiastically sheltering in place (until my aunt read them the riot act, they continued going about their business around the city). My Nanni, who spent two years hiding in an attic during the Holocaust, complains to me that she’s never been more bored. A member of my grandfather’s shul contracted the coronavirus early on, so now he and his fellow shul members daven together from their porches.
My grandparents also try to lure me inside with food when I walk over to wave at them from out front, but I explain that this is not currently kosher.
An entire genre of “Why I Left New York, Pandemic Edition” personal essays has been published by those who found a New York stripped of Broadway, nightlife, restaurants, bars and events no longer preferable to cheaper, easier and less populous pastures with more parking and at-home laundry. In other words, anywhere else.
For those who considered New York a playground, for the tourists and even the commuters, it’s true, their New York has been forced into a medically-induced coma from which it may never wake up.
But for those who live here because they have fallen hopelessly in love with the life force of NYC, the manic energy and humanity born of the same dense landscape which perfectly aids the spread of disease, the pull of the city feels as strong as ever.
For many, though, that pull is gone. On Instagram, my friends who’ve fled NYC post from their new shelters — they are going on hikes, enjoying nature. Social distancing looks easy. In the background of their Stories, I hear no sirens, see no body trucks or neighbors being loaded into ambulances, no clusters of candles in front of building walls taped with a picture of the now deceased.
New York is not very Instagrammable at the moment. When I go on socially distanced walks with friends, our faces are masked, the streets are empty and we fear to sit, in case the bench or ground is contaminated. We just keep walking. We cross the street to avoid long, distanced lines weaving far beyond the entrances to supermarkets, banks, check cashing chains. We pass endless shuttered shops bearing paper signs announcing their closing, rarely mentioning any hope to reopen, but often thanking the neighborhood, telling their customers to be safe out there.
But being together with my friends — a refrigerator’s-height apart, speaking through fabric, in constant motion down once-familiar blocks which now feel like empty movie sets — bring me unprecedented amounts of joy. We do not hug hello or goodbye, but they are there beside me; I am seeing and hearing them in person, not through a screen. They, too, cannot imagine weathering this storm anywhere but here, in its eye.
Love grows roots, and right now everyone’s roots are showing — and not just in their hair. Many are now where they consider their real home to be.
In this moment of global crisis, I am grateful for the places I have visited, out of this country, out of this state, but I am most grateful for the community I have built around myself in NYC, a community which is here with me now, within walking distance, less than a phone call away — I can just go scream at their window. They’re probably inside.
And despite it all, there is street life in lockdown. It is easy to write from a distance about how cities will never recover from this, how wounded New York in particular is, but last weekend I distance danced while a group of drunk dudes played Meatloaf’s discography in Maria Hernandez Park and I enjoyed a bagpipe performance from some guy playing in front of a boarded up store on Dekalb. When he finished, the few people on the avenue loudly cheered, and some stuck their heads and hands out windows to clap as well. Strangers continue to talk to each other on the street. This is not the kind of entertainment which keeps an economy afloat, but it is the heart of this town, and it’s still beating.
While there can be no doubt that New York is currently trapped between incarnations, I’d still rather die here than live anywhere else.
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