I woke up last Saturday to a peculiar feeling. I’d felt it before: this mix of expectation and excitement that makes it easier to think something good is coming around the corner. I had no real plans except to wish a friend happy birthday and spent the rest of the afternoon pouring most of my energy into a low-sodium but highly tasteless brunch. Shortly after wrenching that up, I got a text from one of my oldest friends, the Professor. A companion from deepest childhood, the Professor had moved to teach at a small college some hours from New York, but because of things like the pandemic and my inability to drive an automatic car, we haven’t met in years despite our proximity. He was texting to say that he had caught a last-minute ride down to the city, and ask whether I was free that day.
I usually take new visitors to the city to the cobbled streets of Soho. The area – made popular by the movie Ghost and a million transition shots from Friends – is what most people imagine when they think of New York: pastel fire escapes, filigree rich buildings, designer stores, high-end eateries and dozens of rats fighting over a single pizza box.
I noticed something was different the moment I left my dark apartment building. It was a bright, sunny day, yes but there was something else. Someting…new. It took me six blocks to realize what: people! Living, breathing (behind a mask) people! They were in hand-holding pairs strolling in front of shop windows, they were in groups of five having bottomless mimosas off brunch menus, they were buying artisanal ice cream wearing layers of linen. They were everywhere.
I felt refreshed and energized in a way I find difficult to describe because no one wants to need people that much. But clearly, we do
As I approached the outdoor table that I’d booked on the busy streetside, I saw the professor already seated, his mouth open wide in silent ‘o’.
“There are so many!” He said the moment we locked eyes. “How are they so MANY?”
Apparently New York had entered a new phase of opening up but no one told me. Places who could only house 25% capacity had now been allowed up to 75%. That, plus the glory of a late spring weekend, had brought the masses out for the first time since this pandemic began. The Professor – usually confined to his massive home next to three cows in rural upstate – was relishing the overheard conversations and runway models even I had forgotten what the New York streets offered. We both sat there dumbfounded at suddenly finding ourselves in a world that had disappeared over night. Just to confirm this wasn’t a fluke, we took a walk through most of downtown. People in parks, people in ice-cream stores, there were even people exiting the subway.
It felt wonderful to see them. So much of the energy of urban centers is made up of the steady hum of activity. Proximity to that pulse is why people move to places like New York and I have missed it terribly. It helps that I have been vaccinated and can rely on statistics that most other Americans are on their way to the same. The change was obvious: holding open the door to a store no longer feels like a death trap; I didn’t start amending my will whenever someone sneezed near me; in an act that was the equivalent of biological terrorism 13 months ago, I even struck up a conversation with a stranger in line for ice cream. Later in the evening we went to meet my birthday friend for dinner outdoors with some more vaccinated people and the night ended late but beautifully. I felt refreshed and energized in a way I find difficult to describe because no one wants to need people that much. But clearly, we do.
I must admit that a part of me doesn’t want the world to return to the same normal
I’ve been reflecting on that glorious Saturday ever since, both in hope and fear. Hope that one can resume those little things that make up a life well lived again: a good meal with friends, eating ice cream under a hot sun, finding a shirt in your new pandemic proportions. But I’m also anxious. Lovely as it was, it took me longer to recover from spreading ny energies that fast that wide.
I must admit that a part of me doesn’t want the world to return to the same normal. I don’t want to wait in line at indoor restaraunsts, I don’t want to go to offices, I don’t want to ride crowded trains, I don’t want to go back to the rat race of working in order to holiday for a mere two weeks, I don’t want to resume the revolving door of socializing and fakery that painted so much pre-pandemic life.
I don’t want to go back, but I also do.
So where does that leave us?
“Its leaves us with ice cream,” the Professor told me. “So just shut up and enjoy it for once.”
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