Tag Archives: new york city

the value of normal

One week ago, I had a day that felt like a normal day. It was a Tuesday. I woke up early (not by choice), did a live Peloton class, showered, blow dried my hair, and went to work. I worked in my office for a few hours, then walked up to Sweetgreen for my lunch salad. I left work at 6:30 for drinks with my friends at a bar in SoHo, after which we walked to a bar on the Lower East Side for a nightcap. It felt like the kind of day I could have had any any point before 2020, and I came home energized from it.

Since March of 2020, we’ve all learned to place a high premium on “feeling normal”. In New York City especially, I think we have a heightened appreciation for the idea of normalcy. So many of the things that we associate with this city have disappeared or been radically changed by the pandemic: the subway, the arts, restaurants. Even the most basic of New York necessities, the public space, has changed. All of those third spaces that we used to go to when our tiny apartments closed in on us, have been rendered inhospitable. Whether it is the privately owned coffee shops or the publicly owned libraries, a workspace or a bar, the idea of shared indoor space is gone, and with it, much of our lives in the city.

After ten months, the idea of returning to any of those third places is intensely appealing. There’s a sort of muscle memory to normalcy, the feeling of being in a non-pandemic world that goes with a presence in a third place. While I am home, I am constantly reminded that my son and I have both compressed our lives into our apartment, with Ben doing remote learning from the couch, and me constantly trying to replicate my office a few feet away. When I am at the office, even though it is empty, it feels like a normal workday. And more importantly for me, it also feels like I am there to be my working self, not trying to stretch between two identities, dividing myself constantly between my personal and professional existences. That was the work/life balance I was used to before the pandemic: being able to exist in one state or the other, based on the physical location I was in.

So last Tuesday, I worked a full day. (Okay most of a full day, as I also spent an hour chatting with a woman on the office maintenance team about our teen kids and how much Biden seems like a far nicer person than the outgoing president.) Then I hopped on a J train and booted it up to the Bowery to meet my friends at Feliz Coctelería. We had booked what is being referring to as “mezcal cabins” for a ninety minute seating. “Mezcal cabins”, fyi, translates to “backyard greenhouses with holiday decor”.

You can rent a private mezcal cabin in Nolita for the holidays
This is the most of the exterior of the mini-greenhouse I could find in any promotional photo

I applaud the creativity of New York City restaurants in creating individual spaces for households or other integrated COVID pod groups to sit in! There are bubbles, yurts, tents, all sorts of structures throughout the city. But the most popular does seem to be the suburban backyard sized greenhouse, that square structure, usually about 6 x 6, that just holds a party of four at their table for their adorable holiday hot drinks:

Hot toddies and one carrot–and-mezcal cocktail in the snowman (mine)

After we were done with our cabin, we wandered the Lower East Side for a while, looking for another open bar with decent options. Of course, it was deserted: the combination of cold and COVID on a Tuesday night does not exactly encourage nightlife. After ten minutes of wandering though, we stumbled upon Attaboy, where my friends were able to order another round. (I am old and therefore stopped at one-and-a-half cocktails rather than dig myself a hole for Wednesday). But even without ordering myself, I was able to vicariously enjoy the experience of going to a bar, telling the bartender what you enjoy, and having a drink mixed to your taste. Even sitting outside, in a wind shelter, it still felt like we were at a bar, in that shared space. It was an experience that, while chillier, greatly resembled a pre-pandemic night out.

We finished our drinks (I had a club soda), and then walked to the B line and went home…but I was practically giddy when I walked in the door. I had had what felt like a normal day. I had a day in which I went to work, accomplished actual work, and then went out with my friends. I left the house for well over twelve hours, during much of which I was able to forget that there is still a deadly pandemic happening around me, and the price of mine & my fellow New Yorkers’ safety is to have our lives reduced to fragments of what we used to have in this city.

Such is the value of normal right now. I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to see more normalcy as the rates come back down again, as vaccinations go up, and as the city re-adapts to the post-pandemic world. Normal once would have sounded boring. Now it sounds inspiring.

a change of scenery

At some point over the last couple weeks, my beloved apartment became claustrophobic. Instead of the just-right sized space it’s been for the last five and a half years, it became too small for the three people that live inside of it. I am fond of pointing out that we have nothing to complain about; my ancestors on the Lower East Side would have had three families crammed into the space we have, and probably a boarder or two to boot. It’s likely that the women in the family wouldn’t have even left the house, but would have stayed home sewing piecemeal work in sweatshop conditions. I should not be so quick to kvetch, and yet, I am. I love my husband and son dearly, but I am also used to leaving them on a daily basis, and I have not done so for over two months.

One of the key factors to the need for space is my renewed commitment to writing. I am intensely private when writing, and will instinctively hide a page I’m working on, which in turn breaks my flow of words. I may eventually publish whatever it is I am working on, but I may also be unable to spin out the concept into a full post, and may not be able to articulate my ideas. When I am working on my art, I am very protective of it, and will even raise my hackles at my beloved husband. This may be a fear based reaction, the old fear of ridicule that haunts many people from childhood, but it’s a reaction I honor when writing.

Over the last few weeks, even outside of my protective sense for writing, I’ve felt myself getting more and more prickly about space, both physical and mental. I feel as if my brain is overfilled at any given time with thoughts that are both superficial and overwhelmingly numerous. It feels as if my brain is overcrowded with short fragments of thoughts, all of which are too truncated to be braided together into a cohesive pattern or narrative, resulting in chaos. Adding in the mental spillover from two other people makes it even worse, a maelstrom of individual pieces, none of which I am able to focus on. I am overwhelmed not only by my personal and professional obligations, but also by the thoughts of my son.

I therefore decided to pick up one of the inexpensive mid-range hotel rooms in Manhattan, the sub-$100 rooms that are now common throughout FiDi and Times Square, where the demand for business hotels has fallen through the floor. After all, without business travelers, and without even the typical amenities of common space and lobby lounges to draw visitors in, hotels are merely trying to literally keep the lights on. I would reserve a room, I decided, and then I would settle in with my Chromebook and my planner, a glass of wine and a takeout salad, and write. I would continue to plug away at my steampunk novel. I would write blog posts, like this one you are reading now (how very meta!). I would be alone with only my own thoughts for an evening.

Over the past week, this ideal also evolved to include a walk to the hotel in question. I decided I would walk to the DUMBO ferry dock and take the ferry across the East River, and then I would walk home via the Brooklyn Bridge in the morning. I would return to that sense of adventure I love so much, setting out with a backpack in a city. Perhaps in the morning, I will go for a sunrise walk through Manhattan. It struck me as time I could re-connect with this city, which I love so very much, which I have not grown tired of exploring in the eight years I have lived here.

I set out this afternoon with a sense of adventure. I felt more like myself again, listening to Tiesto, loaded down with a backpack, walking past the boundaries of Prospect Heights. Except to drive to Central Park last weekend, I have not left the confines of my neighborhood since March, and like my apartment, my beloved neighborhood even feels too small as a result. I walked past the familiar reopening coffee shops and restaurants, heading northwest on Flatbush. I passed the Duane Reade and the UPS store, my most frequent errand locations. It wasn’t until I got to Atlantic Avenue that my steps slowed a little, as I passed the Modell’s with its bankruptcy announcement (although that is pre-pandemic), and then continued to pass store after store after store that was closed, each with a variant of the same note, dated March 22nd, in their window: “To our customers, we are closing to keep you and our staff safe during this global pandemic. Visit us online and come back when this is over.

This should not have been a surprise, and yet, I’m shocked at the emotional impact that this walk had on me. Upon reflection, I believe it was because I am used to my own neighborhood being closed, but seeing the next three neighborhoods in the same condition gave me a more realistic sense of scale of the disaster that has befallen New York City. It is one thing to see a microcosm of the economic devastation in my neighborhood, while reading about it in the abstract in the Times. It is an exponentially harder impact to walk two miles down one street, and see dozens upon dozens of independently owned restaurants and shops closed. Each one of those shops and restaurants had its own story, a possibility brought to life by brave owners who brought their passion to food or wine, art or hardware, clothing or housewares. Each one is now deeply at risk of being gone by the time the world starts up again.

I finally reached the end of Atlantic, where it hits Pier 6, where the ferry to Governors Island remains closed, along with the playgrounds on the pier that Ben loves so very much. I walked up Brooklyn Bridge park, past the piers, past the soccer fields of Pier 5 being used for practice still, past the forest at Piers 3 and 2, past the lawn at Pier 1 where I saw The Importance of Being Earnest (gender bending edition) last summer. And I tried to process this immense amount of sadness that seems to be pressing more on me than it has for weeks as I slowly walked the last half mile to the ferry.

What this feels like to me is a combination of grief and fear, that neither I, nor most of my generation in North America, have had to experience. I am grieving for the loss of New York City as I knew it, the city that represented this ultimate in intellectual sophistication to me. This city has centuries of being heavily invested in the arts in a way that the Pacific Northwest cities cannot replicate at this point in their history. It is a city where so many people are unique that being different seems to be the norm. It is a city where every individual is encouraged to have their own narrative and story and perspective, with none of those being identical or repetitive. I cannot bear to see this city choked to death by bankruptcy, by economic circumstance (even though it has lived by economics and capitalism its entire history). I cannot bear to see New York forced to accept chain stores and the monotony they bring, and I cannot bear to see a city that has so prized individual narratives forced to accept repetitive stories out of fiscal necessity. I fear that the city may not be able to rebuild in a meaningful way, and that the tapestry of New York City may be irreparably damaged.

The only consolation to this sadness is knowing that it will resonate strongly with many people, and that so many of my friends and neighbors will be able to understand everything I’m saying. As a person with a mental health condition, I have always assumed that my emotional responses are different than everyone else’s. I often describe my brain as being wired a little differently, as having pathways and connections that either fire in atypical ways, or that, on extremely bad days, do not fire at all. (I assume that the rest of the world is able to feel positive emotions consistently, that everyone else is able to receive those little rewards of happiness that are received throughout our existences for even the most mundane of activities. )

I am therefore surprised to realize that I am sharing an emotional experience with others. How strange it is to feel as if one is typical! I am disturbed because this is a case of mass sadness and disappointment, a circumstance created by disaster, but I am still comforted because it is an experience that so many people seem to be able to understand. I can speak of my grief and my fear and have others say “yes, I understand what you miss, and I understand your fear for our city.” We all have not just empathy, but a true understanding of each other’s emotions. That connection seems rare to me, outside of this kind of shared traumatic experience.

Being here, alone, in a hotel room, I do see that there’s a strange juxtaposition: I wanted my head space back so I could muse on sharing that head space with the rest of the city. But I really wanted my head space back so I could process this sorrow, this grief, this fear, this anxiety. These are the dominant emotions that make up my thoughts each and every day as I worry for my fellow citizens. I fear for all the individuals in all walks of life who make this metropolis so very vibrant. Today, I am more aware than ever of the devastation of the measures we have had to take to contain this virus, and how long and hard the road back to recovery will be.