New Yorkers who fled are finding they miss home

As a transplant to Manhattan back in 2001, I’ve heard many a tale from those who thought they could leave the city and live happily elsewhere. Without exception, those who had been here awhile rather than just flitting thru, determined they’d made a huge mistake — and almost immediately. If they were foolish enough to have sold their apt or given up a favorable lease, the cost of returning was a huge price to pay to return, but they did. For those who love it, NYC simply can’t be matched anywhere else.

Seven weeks have passed since New York City, fleeing the coronavirus, put up a collective closed-for-business sign and locked itself away inside the strange, timeless bubble of the shutdown. The crisis, by any standard, has been costly: More than 19,000 New Yorkers have already lost their lives, and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands more have lost their livelihoods.

But the fabric of the city, too, has suffered harm as our attempts to stop the spread of disease have infected the streets and subways, the great public spaces and the secret little hideaways with a kind of festering emptiness. Social distance, for all its benefits, is a plague to places like New York, laying waste to the churning rhythms, the cherished rituals and the millions of spontaneous interactions where, in normal times, the city lives at the level of its cells.

With New Yorkers in retreat from New York, it seemed appropriate to ask a few what they missed most about their home as it was just months ago. Some missed the big things: the daily tide of bodies swirling around the clock in Grand Central Terminal. Some missed the small things: the two-tone chime of a closing subway door.

“There’s a complicated chemistry the city uses as eight million people go about their lives together,” said Ric Burns, the documentary filmmaker perhaps best known for his PBS series on New York. “It’s an infinitely delicate attraction-repulsion mechanism that help us negotiate our density, and it’s been put on hold.”

“It’s like our language has been taken from us,” Mr. Burns said, “and we’ve been silenced.”

Credit…Lucia Buricelli for The New York Times

Having spent his career in front of crowds — whether the huge ones that spill across the Coney Island boardwalk for the Mermaid Parade each summer or the small ones that show up daily for the Coney Island freak show — what Mr. Zigun longs for most these days is a live audience.

“The laughter, the applause, looking at people’s faces — without all that, I don’t know what to do with myself,” he said.

With no one to perform for, Mr. Zigun has been spending time at home, eating, smoking pot and watching a lot of television, and the silence has left him feeling rattled.

“Not having that regular audience response means that things are echoing and hollow for me and for other people in the arts,” he said. “It’s like we’re suddenly in the Twilight Zone.”

Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

Ms. Niou misses the bustle of Chinatown, now mostly silent. She longs for the waft of food that once filled its streets. Gone is the smell of spices and freshly caught fish, of hot pots, pastries and dumplings spewing from kitchen vents.

She misses the pork buns from Mei Lai Wah on Bayard Street that made her stop dead in her tracks.

“It doesn’t smell like Chinatown,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like Chinatown. It doesn’t look like Chinatown. I’ve never seen it this quiet before.”

Only a month ago, Ms. Markon used to spend hours every day doing laps around her classroom, stopping to peer over her students’ shoulders as they worked. Just by circling the room, she said, she would often hit 10,000 steps on her fitness tracker by noon.

But that little walk-and-lean dance, repeated by New York’s 75,000 teachers countless times during a school day, does not translate to remote learning.

And Ms. Markon misses it fiercely.

“My Fitbit is like, 9,000 steps short right now,” she said.

Mr. Sharpton, the street preacher and organizer of protest marches, has always had a love of public spaces — none more than Times Square, he said. He recalled “being in heaven” coming into the square as a child from his home on New Lots Avenue in Brooklyn and strolling through its pulsing crowds as a young man with his surrogate father, James Brown.

But now, Times Square, like so much of Manhattan, is a wasteland.

“I have an office on 40th Street,” Mr. Sharpton said, “and every day when I come down to work, there’s nobody out — nobody. To me, it’s a horror movie, like the world came to an end. I just want it back.”

Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

Mornings for Mr. Sliwa have always meant the same thing: a hot cup of coffee, a twice-toasted bagel with cream cheese, his nine cats and his four favorite newspapers — The New York Post, The New York Daily News, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

But with businesses shut down because of the outbreak, Mr. Sliwa, who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has been having trouble finding copies of the papers. The kiosks in his neighborhood are closed. The local grocery stores might have one or two, but not the others. Do not attempt to tell Mr. Sliwa that he could find what he wants on the internet. Reading the news online is not the same, he said.

“I love going through the papers by hand — the feel of them, it fulfills me,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter how many bill collectors are chasing me or how many ex-wives are screaming for support, when I hold the papers, I’m the king of the world. And now they’re gone.”

Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Mr. Baldwin starts nearly every day of the week at a coffee shop, Madman Espresso, a small, cabinlike space on University Place in Greenwich Village. It’s almost always packed, and if he shows up with his wife, Hilaria, and four children, holding up the line, he will often signal to the owner, Marco Vacchi, that coffee for the entire place is on him.

“I buy everyone coffee while my kids are munching on their banana bread,” Mr. Baldwin said. “In New York, a great neighborhood restaurant or coffee shop can be like home. I miss home.”

Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

For a musician who is often on the road 250 days a year, Mr. Bell has always found a special sort of intimacy in taking his three sons to school whenever he is at home with his family in Manhattan.

Shortly before 8:30 a.m., Mr. Bell — in normal times — would accompany his twin 10-year-olds, Samuel and Benjamin, to Special Music School near Lincoln Center, connecting with them by playing trivia games and coming up with limericks.

With schools closed, however, his little morning ritual is impossible.

“Seeing my children off in the morning is very special in that, as they enter their classrooms, I catch a glimpse of their lives independent of me,” he said. “And seeing them blossom in that way just gives me a lot of joy.”

Ms. Cohen misses family meal most. The large, communal meal is a tradition in almost every restaurant, when the front and the back of the house staff gather together in the dining room to relax before the rush of the night.

“After working in restaurants for 25 years, it’s still my favorite time of day,” said Ms. Cohen, 46. “It’s such a fundamental part of restaurants.”

Around 4:30 p.m., her staff would gather to eat and talk. They’d talk about whatever mischief happened the night before — an exploding stove, a sick customer, a particularly memorable date between two diners. They’d just relax.

“It was a marker of time,” she said. “It was a moment to pause and really divide those two halves of the day.”

Now, she is trying to apply for insurance and save her restaurant from a long stretch without revenue. She is cleaning her home. She’s playing Candy Crush.

“I don’t feel like any of our lives are very spontaneous right now,” she said. “That’s fine. That’s exactly what we’re supposed to be doing right now. But it’s not an adventure.”

Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Ms. Ruffin used to hate it: the miasmic sea of people clogging Sixth Avenue and making a smelly hell of her morning walk to work at Rockefeller Center. Now she misses it and cannot wait to dive back into crowd and turn her commute into a battle again.

“It was like being part of a community — even though I hated all those people,” she said. “The blob is a microcosm about how we feel about New York: You love it, you despise it, you need it, you don’t want it, it makes you feel better, and it’s just so real.”

Credit…Annie Tritt for The New York Times

For 35 years, Mr. Gogu, 72, has been cutting hair at Astor Place Hairstylists, the renowned East Village haircut factory. He misses getting up at 7 a.m. and walking up the Bowery to work.

“I cut maybe 15 customers a day and talk to them all day long — socializing, gossip, news,” he said. “The days flew by. Now I have nothing to do. My days are dead.”

“All my life, I never watched TV,” he added. “Now, all day I watch westerns. It’s John Wayne all day long.”

In the before times, Mr. Beals would run into his neighbor, John, outside their Brooklyn apartment once or twice a week and after the usual salutation — “Hey, hey, my man!” — would get the low down whether he wanted it or not: the work John was doing, the women he was seeing, the choicest gossip of Graham Avenue.

Mr. Beals doesn’t even know John’s last name, but he was a familiar face and voice that the virus has simply swept away. “We had funny little conversations, usually about nothing,” Mr. Beals said. “But we don’t have them anymore because we’re not outside all day.”

Reporting was contributed by Luis Ferré-Sadurní, Corey Kilgannon, Amelia Nierenberg, Sarah Maslin Nir, Derek Norman and Eliza Shapiro.

I didn’t want to leave the city.

If the thought had entered my head in early March, I wasn’t aware of it. But CNN, The Times and NPR were in agreement: New York would be the next epicenter of the pandemic. Neighbors suddenly crowded the hallway with packed valises for “weekend” trips to their summer places. Even friends in Europe, New York-lovers all, were nervously Skyping me about my plans.

But it was a late-night phone call from my son that did it. He urged me to get out with an authority that I hadn’t heard before. In a split second, the generations had shifted, and the 30-something was in charge. I’m in my 70s. It was the first time I truly felt old.

I knew that I was joining an exodus of the privileged. David, one of the porters in my building, looked at me wistfully the morning I left. “Don’t desert us!” he said, only half-kidding. David’s neighborhood in the Bronx would probably be a lot harder hit than the Upper West Side.

But the worry in my son’s voice was unavoidable; like it or not, I was part of the high-risk group that would soon be filling hospital beds around the city.

It has been two months since I fled. I’m living an hour north of the city in the most luxurious hide-out any fugitive could desire. My ex-wife and her husband invited me to hunker down in a large, light-filled room that she uses as a painting studio; they couldn’t be more generous. It may not be the strangest ménage a trois in these strange times. As my daughter says, “It’s a divorced child’s dream: all three loving parents under one roof.”

But I miss the city, deeply. As a native New Yorker, I’ve never been away from it for this long. I miss the comfort of the absolutely familiar — knowing that my college friend lives in the building across the street, my cousin directly across the Park, and that my feet can find their way to the diner even in my sleep.

I try to give my hosts the privacy that they deserve. After our years together, Lone, my ex, knows my habits: there’s a good supply of dark chocolate in the house.

Otherwise all is unfamiliar. Out here I’m like a baby rattling the bars of his crib, frustrated that he hasn’t learned to walk. The other day I had to get something from the Walgreens down the hill. I lost my way and came puffing back. I felt like my brain was saying, You’re not where you’re supposed to be.

Like so many New Yorkers, I’ve been lured by other cities, but always realized in my gut that I couldn’t leave. Manhattan’s claustrophobic grid drew me to Paris’s winding streets. Skyrocketing rents made me yearn to live in a cheaper but no less intellectually stimulating city like Berlin. Los Angeles seemed so wildly eccentric that maybe it was a place to start a new life.

And then there were the rural settings that made the pollution and daily costs of the city seem absurd, even offensive. Yet all the other places seemed unreal. For better or worse, New York is my reality.

I’m not the only one. I had a friend who hadn’t stepped off Manhattan Island in 30 years. “You can have the rest of the world,” he’d say. “If it even exists.” Which is a strange thing to say, since historic buildings are torn down in the city at the drop of a developer’s checkbook. By the age of 30, most native New Yorkers have begun to realize that the city where they grew up doesn’t exist anymore, except in their imaginations.

But it’s right there in the individual imagination where the real New York resides. There are as many invisible networks — geographical, empathetic, practical — as there are people in the city. These networks take patience and cunning to construct, and in a real sense are the city dweller’s major achievement, his way of carving out of the chaos a small, personal sense of order. Only with a network can one track down the best physiotherapist or computer repair-person, know where to get real Danish butter or a decent egg-cream.

At first it was the anonymity of the city that drew me down from the Bronx, where I grew up, to Manhattan, where I could reinvent myself. I had my Bohemian Period, my Bourgeois Period, the Desert Island Phase, where almost everybody I knew left for the suburbs.

But being away from New York for this long makes me aware that the web of human connections that took me decades to construct — Rosa and Ivanka, the motherly waitresses at the coffee shop; Ivan the pharmacist, who fills my prescriptions without being asked; Diane, a homeless woman on 96th Street, whose witty stories of urban survival are testimonies to her resilience — has kept me warm in what could sometimes be a cold setting.

After I left in March, I pored over news accounts of exhausted health care workers and grilled my friends who had stayed behind to get a sense of how New York had changed. I envied the 7 p.m. orchestras of clappers and pot-bangers. I fantasized about taking hikes from one end of a becalmed Manhattan to the other the way I did on Sundays when I was a boy.

But I’ve also felt guilty. Not about finding a safe shelter — as far as I can see, it was the wisest move for all concerned — but about having to leave my friends and neighbors.

Now I want to reclaim my citizenship, which at its deepest level means caring about other people.

I should be sitting in my overstuffed one-bedroom, worrying as ambulances scream by, or nodding a restrained thanks to police and firefighters as I walk past their twin stations on 100th Street. I should be cracking jokes with David and the other porters in my building, and joining neighbors in the lobby to mourn when an elderly resident dies.

New York’s reputation for being tough and unsentimental is well-earned; connections between people are tenuous, provisional. But in a time like this, it becomes clear that we’re united by emotions that, 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy aside, are not usually touted in New York: helplessness, fear, bravery, self-sacrifice.

The other day I spoke on the phone with a dear friend who works in the city for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. I told her that I was feeling guilty about leaving New York even though I wasn’t sure that the city needed my guilt.

“Oh, but we do,” she said with practiced New York irony, “we definitely do.”

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Where New Yorkers have fled to requires maps and graphics. So click thru to this:

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