You know what felt very weird? Walking across Second Avenue in Manhattan, in the middle of a workday.
Normally, that street is thick with cars, yellow cabs, swaying buses. To successfully cross you’d better at least be at the crosswalk (though no need to wait for a red light), and if you want to just go rogue and cross in the middle, you’re expected to behave like Frogger.
But in March 2020, you could cross the major street easily, lazily, at your own pace.
I was headed to CVS to see if they had restocked antibacterial hand soap. I wore sunglasses (to protect my eyes), a surgical mask, and bright green surgical gloves. And I just remember that it was eerily quiet. And I remember thinking, suddenly: I have to call my dad! He always complained that when I called him on walks through the city, he could barely hear me over the impatient honking, never-ending construction, or roaring of a bus as it started up and drove past.
I held up the phone to the street: “Listen,” I said.
“What am I listening for?”
“I’m outside. There’s nothing. No horns.”
He wasn’t as impressed as I thought he’d be, which tells me that maybe all of that complaining on the phone was an exaggeration, posturing to get me to move back to the Midwest or maybe it was less about him being able to hear me, and more about making sure that I could hear him (God forbid I miss a punch line). But the quiet stayed with me, and I found myself moving slower and looking around, waiting for a car horn, listening for a yell. Nothing.
Two people crossing the deserted avenue in N-95 masks (how did they get those?) made a joke that we were living in a simulation. That it was like we were in a video game or something. Now, having watched WandaVision, I think it’s more like we were living at the edge of the Hex, Wanda’s powers not quite reaching us and leaving everything lifeless and dull. Either way, any comparison you made got the idea across: It was unsettling. We were missing something. We weren’t supposed to be there.
Without New York’s vibrating energy, there was nothing to distract you from the unfolding situation. There was no one to capture your focus on a crowded subway train; no couple’s break-up unfolding on the corner in front of the fancy restaurant; no quirky dogs or smiling babies; no spontaneous art performances; no one asking you “if you had just a minute to save the dolphins?” There was nothing to do but focus on whatever would get you to the next day: the soap, the beans, the masks, the chicken for the freezer. Thin walls went silent as people fled the city, poorly-insulated windows let in the overwhelming absence.
Even in the grocery store, there was no commiseration. There was a hum of shopping to survive, but there were no shared smiles or one-off recommendations for a particular brand of beer or eyes rolled at how crazy it is that the line is around the block. There was quiet and fear and the sense that the woman down the aisle would fight you to the death for that can of white beans, but that you shouldn’t get too close because we don’t understand how we’ll get sick. And so, from opposite ends of the canned foods aisle, there were blank stares and silence.
That’s mostly what I remember from the first few weeks. That I walked outside late at night to get some fresh air, hoping to avoid people, and realizing that there was no one to avoid. That the streets were empty, the bumper-to-bumper traffic had dissolved, that the buses were like ghosts, carrying one blurry body to work.
The city has bounced back, as everyone said it would. It hasn’t rebounded entirely but last night I was kept awake for three hours listening to an impromptu concert on the sidewalk below our apartment. I didn’t know the songs, but I was grateful for the noise.
This essay is in response to the Pandemic Reflections writing prompt. You can read more about it here: