Manhattan is eerily quiet. There’s almost no traffic, to the point that a man and his son stood in the middle of Ninth Street kicking around a soccer ball on a weekday afternoon, as if they were in an empty suburban cul-de-sac. As I walked my dogs past the “The Cage,” the Greenwich Village basketball courts, late last Saturday night—on a corner normally bustling with tourists, hustlers, and kids looking for fun—the silence was broken only by a distant clop-clop: three cops on horseback, emerging from the dark like heralds of nothing good.
When the city lockdown began, and the bars and restaurants closed, the panhandlers around MacDougal Street got confused and panicky. Outnumbering their marks, they fell into a parodic scene of begging from one another. In Washington Square Park, the dope and crack dealers have thinned out only slightly; they rush potential customers with a new spirit of competition. A buyer’s market, these days, it seems.
Birdsong has emerged from the silence. I suppose it’s always there, baffled by the background noise of cars and trucks. But now, at 3 a.m., I hear—is it a robin, a thrush, a nightingale? It chirps a pretty little dirge. And then, a harsher two-note song: the whine of an ambulance siren.
It seems like no one is around, like in a zombie movie, especially late at night, when I go grocery shopping. “Is all the world asleep?” shouted King Lear. Those who are out slink past, some masked or muffled, everyone hugging walls or stepping into the gutter to stay at least six feet, and preferably ten or 20, away from others. Other signs of human life show, too: the firelight flicker of Netflix from streetside windows. Desultory delivery guys on bikes bring food to someone’s shelter-in-place.
I got a haircut a day before the barbers were shut down. My barber, from Montenegro, opened his shop two years ago, and it has become so popular that you can’t just walk in anymore. He still attends his shop, alone; maybe he’s looking over his books and counting the days until he’s bankrupt. I ought to go and pay for a few haircuts in advance.
About a week ago, I was sitting in my apartment, enjoying the golden light of early evening, when I heard cheering and whistling and clapping. My first thought was that some team had won a big game, but I remembered that game-watching parties are forbidden—and there are no games now, anyway.
The next evening, I heard the same thing—cheers, cowbells, whoops. Someone with an amp and a guitar bounced into the opening chords of “Franklin’s Tower” by the Grateful Dead. I saw on social media that it’s become an evening ritual: at 7 o’clock, people cheer to thank health-care workers and others who serve during this dark time. I’m naturally skeptical and generally dislike public displays or group activities. I joke that I’ve spent my entire life in training for quarantine—staying inside, avoiding people, sleeping odd hours. The 7 o’clock salute at first struck me as corny.
But this is no cheering mob. These are people stuck inside, alone, standing up to show their appreciation for the front-liners who are breaking the six-foot rule because it’s their job to stand over the infected, diseased people the rest of us run from, and try to make them better—or, if that doesn’t work, at least ease their final pains. Toronto, London, Delhi, Singapore, Milan, Paris—everywhere that this insidious virus has spread and forced people indoors, people push back in a gesture of resistance and solidarity.
This time of trial is inflicting costs on all of us, but for some, the costs are total. A rumor spread that the city was planning to dig temporary graves in parks for the mounting piles of corpses. (Not true, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.) Those working in hospitals, who assume the risk of getting sick because it’s their duty to do so, are owed a debt by all New Yorkers—at the very least, the debt of gratitude. I’m privileged to stand at my window every night at seven and clap and hoot for these heroic souls.
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images