I remember when leaving my apartment and walking the three blocks it takes to get to the PATH train was routine. It required no thought, only muscle memory to slide my metro card through the turnstile and descend the giant escalator to the platform where I would wait for the next train. But not today. Today was the first time in over 100 days I would travel under the Hudson to my beloved Manhattan.
It all felt a bit foreign, as if I was suddenly one of those tourists, trying to pretend they knew where they were going when they really don’t. I walked slower than my usual I am a New Yorker in a hurry with people to see and places to go pace, but then I walk slower a lot since walking involves wearing a mask and trying to keep a respectable six feet away from anyone. I allowed for twice as much time as I needed to travel the 1.7 miles from my apartment to my doctor’s office in Tribeca, another sign that I was out of practice. Plus I was a little nervous.
It wasn’t the doctor’s appointment. That was routine, at least as routine as a COVID antibody test is. The uneasiness was how I would feel to see my city, the city I had lived in for twenty-two years until last September when I moved to Paulus Hook. I hadn’t missed it, really missed it until the pandemic changed all of our lives and a four-minute train ride under the Hudson could put my life in jeopardy. I may not live on the island of Manhattan anymore, but it is and will always be my city and my city has been through a lot.
The PATH train leaves me in the Oculus, this magnificent piece of architecture that had been built after the destruction of 9/11. I knew the stores were closed, but I still wasn’t fully prepared for the eeriness of walking past the darkened windows of the Apple store. This was the same hall that at Christmastime was filled with holiday trees, pop-up stores and people pushed up against each other, no one worrying about a virus that in just a few months’ time would wreak havoc on our lives and kill over 110,000 people in the U.S. alone.
When I got outside and looked up, the sight of the World Trade Center against a bright blue sky and the Ron Perelman Arts Center still under construction looked familiar – almost normal. But then I remembered it was a Friday in June and normal used to mean that this very spot would be swarming with tourists making their way towards the 9/11 Memorial and Battery Park City. There was no normal anymore.
I walked up West Broadway counting up the masks and wondering if the occasional person I passed without one could see the dirty look they were getting from behind my sunglasses. I took it all in as if I had never walked this way before – the Chambers Street Subway, the boarded door with Black Lives Matter written on it, the sign congratulating the Class of 2020 in the park, the rainbow chalk on the sidewalk that proclaimed Welcome Back Tribeca and Here Come’s The Sun, another sign hung from the trees thanking all our heroes and helpers across the street from a boarded-up store. #NewYorkTough
I was stopped at the door of the Weill Cornell office with a squirt of hand sanitizer and what I was sure was a smile behind the nurse’s mask as she checked my name and escorted me into an examining room to have my temperature checked. New Yorkers. They know how to get things done and get them done quickly and easily.
When I was finished I walked down Greenwich Street, taking it all in. It felt so good to walk somewhere that was not the same five-mile radius I had been confined to since March. Then I did something I had not done since the quarantine started. I took a pair of plastic gloves out of my purse and walked into Whole Foods. The last time I had been in this store was right as the pandemic was crashing in around us and there was desperation in the air. It was in this Whole Foods when I walked down the pasta aisle and saw the shelves were almost bare that the reality of COVID-19 had become clear. But not today. Today the shelves were stocked, the produce fresh and nobody was in a panic.
Could it be that life was really starting to get back to normal? If a plexiglass shield separating me from the cashier at the checkout is normal, the answer is yes.