The streets of New York City are so desolate now that you half expect tumbleweed to blow along the pavement where cars and cabs once clustered. There is barely a plane in the sky. You hear the wheeze of an empty bus rounding a corner, the flutter of pigeons on a fire escape, the wail of an ambulance. The sirens are unnervingly frequent. But even on these sunny, early-spring days there are few people in sight. For weeks, as the distancing rules of the pandemic took hold, a gifted saxophone player who stakes his corner outside a dress shop on Broadway every morning was still there, playing “My Favorite Things” and “All the Things You Are.” Now he is gone, too.
The spectacle of New York without New Yorkers is the result of a communal pact. We have absented ourselves from the schools and the playgrounds, the ballparks and the bars, the places where we work, because we know that life now depends on our withdrawal from life. The vacancy of our public spaces, though antithetical to the purpose of a great city, which is defined by the constancy and the poetry of its encounters, is needed for its preservation.
And so you stick your head out the window of an apartment that you haven’t left in days and look down and around. You wait awhile before you see a single scurrying soul, her arms full of groceries. She’s wearing a mask and walking with the urgency of a thief. She crosses Broadway, past blooming magnolias on the traffic divider. She quickens her step and heads toward Amsterdam Avenue. Like all of us, she is trying to outrun the thing she cannot see. You close the window and wash your hands for the fourteenth time that day. “Happy birthday to you . . .” Twenty seconds of it. Never less.
“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy,” E. B. White wrote, in the summer of 1948. But these queer prizes are now a public-health requirement. Because New Yorkers are not medieval monks, we mostly chafe at the imposed solitude. We do our best to overcome it through technologies that White would have had a hard time imagining: We text. We Zoom. We send one another links about virology. (We are all immunologists now.)
We watch televised briefings that are as long as art-house movies. The politicians review the bullet points of the day, nearly all of them ominous. The reporters sit at least six feet apart, when they do not phone in their plaintive questions, asking, in sum: Do we have the medicine, the equipment, the food we need to keep going? When can we go out again? And then you ask yourself if you need more liquid soap. The hours are as long as evening shadows.
But then something happens. Joy comes at seven. (Or is it sheer catharsis?) Every evening, in many neighborhoods across the city, cheering breaks out, the way it would when the Yankees clinched another World Series title. It spills from the stoops and the sidewalks, from apartment windows and rooftops, for all the nurses, orderlies, doctors, E.M.T.s––everyone who cannot shelter in place and continues to go about healing the people of the city.
We take out our smartphones and record the roar outside: the clapping and the whooping, the tambourines and wind chimes, the vuvuzelas. The guy across the street is a master of the cowbell. Before it all dies down, we’ve sent off the recording to a loved one who works as an E.R. doc—and to others who are sick in bed or out of range of our anxious, canyoned city—the city described every minute on cable news as “the epicenter.”
What’s being applauded at seven is the courage of professionals, many of them working without the protective gear they need. Some have seen their salaries cut; some have fallen ill, others soon will. We’re applauding the likes of Anthony Fauci, who must spend nearly as much mental energy trying to finesse the ignorance and the ego of his Commander-in-Chief as he does in assessing the course of the novel coronavirus. We’re cheering researchers in labs all over the world who are at work on antivirals and potential vaccines. We’re cheering everyone who makes it possible for the city to avoid the myriad conceivable shortfalls and collapses: grocery clerks and ambulance drivers; sanitation workers; pharmacists and mail carriers; truckers, cops, and firemen; the deliveryman who shrugs off the straps of his knapsack and jabs the intercom buzzer with a gloved finger; the community of artists, dancers, d.j.s, musicians, and actors who have lost paychecks and jobs but are posting paintings on Instagram, FaceTiming soliloquies, singing into iPhones. And we’re thanking those who are providing straight information, lobbying Washington for medical supplies, looking out for the most vulnerable among us, and making critical decisions based on the scientific evidence, no matter how unforgiving. We know the limits of this release—there is a feeling of helplessness reflected in it, too––but it’s what we have in a dark time.
And there is no question of the darkness. Last Tuesday, President Trump presided over a two-hour news conference at which he fleetingly appeared to bow before realities that he had airily dismissed for so long and at our collective peril––the most chilling fact being that, even with effective strategies of social distancing, perhaps one or two hundred thousand Americans could die in this pandemic. “As sobering a number as that is, we should be prepared for it,” Fauci said, as the President stood nearby, seeming, for once in his life, humbled.
These next weeks and months will be demanding in ways that are hard to fathom. If New Yorkers are in hiding, the virus has shown a knack for seeking. But, with time, life will return to the city. Our city and your city. The doors will open and we will leave our homes. We will meet again. We will greet our friends, face to face, at long-delayed Easter services and Passover Seders. Children will attend class with their teachers. Sidewalks and stores and theatres will fill. Remnants of the crisis—a box of nitrile gloves, a bag of makeshift masks; containers of drying Clorox wipes—will be tucked away, out of sight and out of mind. We’ll forget a lot about our city’s suspended life. But we will remember what, and who, we lost. We’ll remember the cost of time squandered. And we will remember the sound of seven o’clock.