In 1919—with the twin horrors of the Spanish flu and World War I in America’s rearview mirror—F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of his new home city, “New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world.… There was gala in the air.” As I biked uptown last Sunday, the great glass-and-stone cereal box that is the U.N. building looming vacant over First Avenue, I couldn’t help but think of that Fitzgerald line. It comes from a collection of essays I’ve never actually read but have always admired for its title: My Lost City. Yes, in the wind-tossed mists of First Avenue, the city seemed to be as lost as I felt.
Loneliness is endemic to New York City, the way that sunny days are to Los Angeles. If you think you’ve lived here and escaped the feeling, think again: dollars to doughnuts, you were actually in New Jersey. It’s not worth talking about why New York is lonely, because the theme has been so thoroughly explored in writing and film. Suffice it to say, if you live here now or ever have—or perhaps even been an aware visitor—you already know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you’re welcome.
When a disease invades a city, it frays the tapestry of life. It also upends whatever conventions of normalcy you’ve built and gives you a stark reminder that Yes, that’s right, I am alone. Actually, the intermittent nature of loneliness in New York isn’t unlike price gouging, which always seems to hit people at their most desperate: You’ve got some troubles? In that case, here’s a gentle reminder that you’re flying solo in a city of eight and a half million people. Oh, and have some rain as you pedal your fat ass up First Avenue.
If I seem crazy, just picture one of those hot summer afternoons when you had to carry an armload of groceries home, trundling down the subway stairs, your tears of strain and frustration joining the tributaries of sweat that take up residence on every New Yorker’s face from April until cold weather rolls around in November.
The intermittent nature of loneliness in New York isn’t unlike price gouging, which always seems to hit people at their most desperate.
Listen, New York can be wonderful too. Why else would anyone live here? There are times when no city on earth compares. If you’ve ever walked the streets on a crisp autumn day, eaten a heart-clogging meal with good friends in a packed restaurant at four a.m., or watched someone scream at a cabdriver—“Look where you’re going, asshole. Don’t you do this for a fucking living?”—after almost getting run down while illegally crossing the street, you know what I’m talking about.
Now that you have a sense of the status quo as it existed before this giant ratfuck of a pandemic, you can begin to envision how bad it is right now. The city is, in every practical sense, shut down. Nearly 90,000 people have tested positive for the virus and are either convalescing at home or fighting for their lives in a crowded hospital. Many who didn’t catch the virus caught something else: the next plane, train, or automobile out. People have left the city in droves hoping to avoid what has become the epicenter of a global crisis. For their sake, I hope they do.
And now? So much of what gives this city life—restaurants, shops, movie theaters, and, yes, even the strip clubs—is shut down and, in some cases, boarded up to prevent vandalism. A smattering of restaurants still manage to deliver, but by the time the food gets to you, it all too often resembles congealed slop because the brave fellows who bomb around on their bicycles are so oversubscribed. Those of us who can muster up the courage to head out to the grocery store increasingly feel like we’ve gone through some strange time warp to Moscow circa 1971: every shred of toilet paper, every loaf of bread, every bag of frozen vegetables (God forbid), all of it gone.
And those who remain here and are in good health either cannot or will not leave the city. It’s a twisted thing to stick around when the excrement hits the fan, but there’s a certain beauty to a place whose only remaining inhabitants are the ones who must be there, whether as victims of circumstance or staunch champions of the realm. These are the real New Yorkers—not the tourists, not the hedge-funders who commute in each day and have now absconded to various island-based enclaves up and down the Eastern Seaboard, not the people who drop in for a year or two to leave a greasy fingerprint on a city that will sure as hell wash it away the day they depart.
Those of us who can muster up the courage to head out to the grocery store increasingly feel like we’ve gone through some strange time warp to Moscow circa 1971.
Non–New Yorkers often mock the territorial pride with which New Yorkers talk about their city. But I’d like to remind them that we’re not comparing it to any other place, and they shouldn’t feel threatened. There are things that don’t bear comparison, and New York is one of them.
I can say with certainty that if the rest of the world were here right now, they’d feel what I felt last night. I was walking back from the bodega, that blessed purveyor of government-sanctioned vice, carrying a pack of cigarettes and a pint of mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, and trying to figure out in which order I’d satisfy my twin habits when I got home. My feeble, off-pitch whistle of Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil” floated through the quiet street as I turned onto my block—and suddenly realized I should have crossed to the other side of the street. You see, about three weeks ago, a group of eight or so crackheads planted their flag under the scaffolding on the southeast corner of Bleecker and Sullivan. If you’ve lived in this city for any amount of time, you quickly learn that you don’t want to linger around a group of crackheads. Not just because you might succumb and finally gain the company you so desperately crave, but also because they might take your ice cream. But last night was different. I decided to man up and stroll right by. So, clutching my pint, stroll I did, and as I came upon the group one of them—a guy who looked like he could have been 18 if he didn’t look 80—locked eyes on me. The moment, fraught with uncertainty, hung there. Then he nodded and said, “Hey, brother.” I nodded, too. “Hey, brother,” I said. When I got to my door, I paused. I realized I not only felt bound to humanity once again, but that somehow things are going to be all right.
It’s hard to believe that New York will ever be back to normal. And even when it is, the balance will only be struck for a moment until the next crisis. But the reassuring thing about that Fitzgerald quote is that he probably thought the same thing before he mustered up a phrase that declared a fresh start for New York. More than 100 years on, the city is still standing. After this, it will go on, and so will whatever magic it is that makes us want to live here in spite of everything. And if you don’t like it, you can get the fuck out.
Nathan King is a Deputy Editor for Air Mail