New York City During COVID-19: A Bike Ride Through the Forbidden City - Rolling Stone
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The Forbidden City: Face-to-Face with New York in Crisis

What’s left when all of the city’s pleasures have been taken away?

March 29, 2020: The intersection of Broadway Avenue and Flushing Avenue, which runs next to Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, NY.

The intersection of Broadway Avenue and Flushing Avenue, which runs next to Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, NY.

George Etheredge for Rolling Stone

For the first time in its long history, New York City is silent. Fear is palpable in the air. You see it in the eyes of the workers in the grocery store, the pharmacy, and the corner deli. These are almost all people of color. They tell you they are thankful for the work but also know they are risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones by working. It’s a terrible calculus.

During this extended period of confinement, I’ve been biking all around Manhattan, trying to keep my distance, but also endeavoring to get some exercise and fresh air and take in what’s happened to my hometown. I was born and raised on the island, but the familiar streets are now empty and alien.

On one ride, I took the West Side bike path downtown, the same route where a terrorist mowed down unsuspecting cyclists with a truck a few years back. The fountains at the 9/11 memorial are not running; the plaza roped off. There are no grieving families and friends or tourists to mark New York’s last mass tragedy. The silence makes the sacred place even sadder. This city, so tough and resilient, has faced unimaginable loss before. The difference this time around, of course, is we can’t gather together in our bars, restaurants, or places of worship. We mourn alone.

The financial district, normally one of the busiest sections of the island, is a barren zone. Not one person was in the Occupy Wall Street park as I rolled by. The South Street Seaport’s plaza sits shuttered. Down by Battery Park there was a trickle of people heading toward the Staten Island Ferry to make the commute home. There are small hints of normal routine. A few parents were out with children. Seeing a dad playing soccer with his young sons sparks unexpected emotion. Empty baseball diamonds all over town are reminders that Little League season is lost for thousands of kids.

Still, despite more than 13,000 dead in the city, there’s a casual, arrogant, and foolhardy defiance by some. It’s hard not to feel rage at the joggers who still spit in the street, but easy to understand the cabin fever and the urge to move your body that takes over after being cooped up all day. But when I see a group of middle-aged men, sitting in a park together, sharing a bottle in a brown bag, smoking cigars, a smoldering fury rises. The breaking of the social contract we all have been forced to sign by those who decide to flout the new anti-social norms feels unforgivable. There’s suspicion and pain everywhere, especially when someone gets too close. This city was built on a casual acceptance of the stranger. To lose our cool indifference to the unknown is a breakdown of New York’s very essence.

The homeless in the city have been hit very hard. To be on these streets all day and night, devoid of the usual bustle and hum of the city, has unsettled the already marginalized. On Forsyth Street, I see a fist fight break out in Roosevelt Park. I don’t stop. A man in rags walks in the middle of Second Avenue, no laces on his shoes, his eyes glazed. Was he just released from prison to wander the city? None of this feels like the safe New York of the Bloomberg and de Blasio years. The city has the edge of the Seventies or Eighties — when crime and crack dominated life here. On First Avenue and East 14th Street, close to where I went to high school, a group of people huddle near a closed bank. One does the impossible heroin-lean, somehow not face-planting. This was a common sight every day I walked by that block on my way to class decades ago. The gravitational pull of certain places apparently unchanging even in a pandemic.

Leaving the house for a ride one afternoon, I see a man exiting Abingdon Square Park and spitting toward the half-dozen people sitting on benches enjoying the spring flowers. He’s screaming about the plague and white devils. It’s a horrifying act of violence during the pandemic. No one reacts to him. They just stare. This feels like a familiar New York response. He wanders uptown, ranting and unhinged. I keep riding.

Union Square. Chelsea. All rules of the road seem relaxed to an almost anarchic state. The speed limit no longer exists. Grocery stores are hubs of activity in every neighborhood. Every place else is block to block. An open takeout joint here and there. Some blocks completely shut down and vacant. Office buildings are totally devoid of human life, except for a security guard at the front desk.

Midtown is completely desolate. The Port Authority Bus Terminal and Madison Square Garden sit hulking, ugly, and useless. There’s a line outside Esposito’s butcher shop. Everyone six feet apart. The signage around town is especially depressing: “CLOSED DUE TO THE COVID-19.” A restaurant apocalypse is surely coming. I ride past Lucky Strike in SoHo, where I spent more than a few boozy late nights in the Nineties. The owner announced it won’t be reopening. We are going to lose so much that made New York unique. All of the city’s pleasures have been taken away from us.

The writer Colson Whitehead, remarking on the constant churn of the city, said that you know you’re a New Yorker when you remember places for what they used to be, not what they are now. After this pandemic, there will be too much relegated to the past to bear.

They’ve taken down the rims of every public basketball hoop. The tennis nets too. Uptown in Harlem, I see a couple hitting a tennis ball back and forth on an empty basketball court. Exercise freaks are among the few out on the streets. Dog walkers are out too, their canine charges oblivious to the plague, tails wagging, sniffing every fire hydrant.

It’s the old people I worry about most. This disease has laid bare so many of our inequities, but our treatment of the aged has been tragic. It was announced that 55 died at a nursing home in Brooklyn. Thousands have died across the country. There are reports of bodies being stacked in supply rooms. You see fear in the faces of the old and confused on the streets of New York. We won’t know for some time how many died at home alone. My parents are in their eighties. I don’t know when I will be able to see them again.

NYU and Bellevue hospitals were surprisingly quiet both times I rode by them. I remember a doctor friend telling me that on 9/11 they waited to treat patients, but they never came. You either made it out of the towers alive or died. We know the hospitals in Brooklyn and Queens are bearing the brunt of the virus. I ride by the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, remade as an emergency medical center. The National Guard troops outside look impossibly young.

The streets of Washington Heights are livelier than other neighborhoods, but still muted. I see a woman weeping as she walks by on Fort Washington Avenue. Her face in one hand, sobbing into her cellphone. I take Broadway all the way downtown. Normally the avenue would be too terrifying to bike on, but traffic is almost nonexistent. I regret the decision when a kid on a motorcycle turns uptown against traffic and I almost wipe out. He pops a wheelie and laughs. I curse into my face mask but ride on.

Museum Mile might as well be a ghost town. The mansions and fancy apartment buildings seem empty. The differences between the haves and have-nots in the city has never been plainer. E.B. White, in his celebrated essay “Here Is New York,” remarked that the city “will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” That’s never been more true, except now that gift feels like a curse. The strengths of the city — it’s mass transit system and density — made us so vulnerable to the virus. The massive public school system became a terrible vector, some 50 educators having died due to complications from COVID-19.

There’s life in Central Park, with joggers and cyclists getting in their miles around the loop and the reservoir. It’s a fraction of the usual crowds, however. Everything is diminished.

Except, maybe, the natural beauty of the city. Daffodils are everywhere. Industrious gardeners have planted thousands of bulbs all over the city, and there’s a riot of yellow and white flowers in nearly every patch of earth available. Trees are full of blooms and buds. The birdsong, usually drowned out by the cars and trucks, is loud and clear.

Each time I make it home, I wonder if the venture outside was worth it. Was I taking too big a risk? Who really gives a shit about cardio during a global pandemic? I lock up my bike, retreat inside, and feel a wave of incredible sadness for the city.

The death toll seems to be dropping, but the daily cost of the virus is still terrible to contemplate. But when the cheer for health care workers erupts at 7 p.m. each night,  I choke up and try to remember there will be a time when New Yorkers can all go out and gather again. What the city that we return to will be is anyone’s guess.

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