Last week, we drove back into Manhattan to start our first week of school. As I wrote about previously, Mazzy is going back to school remotely and Harlow will be attending a new school in-person. Harlow’s first week was virtual, with an outdoor meet-and-greet that Wednesday, so after six months at our house on Long Island, it was time to head back.
To be honest, I was dreading going back to the city. At the house, we’ve been able to spread out, have time to ourselves, run around outside, take bike rides around the neighborhood and social distance with a small group of families who were in our COVID bubble over the summer. Our apartment is small and if the added benefits of New York City living are no longer safe (like parks, restaurants, museums, theaters and sidewalks full of people), I wasn’t sure how much I would want to be there. People who live in NYC have always sacrificed personal space for the life and energy that exists outside our tiny apartments. Would that life be available to us anymore? We’ve always told ourselves that we live in “the best city in the world,” like it’s a universally accepted fact, so there’s a strange sadness knowing that this sentiment is now in doubt. Would I still feel the same about my city if everyone I knew left? On the other hand, what if my priorities had shifted too? What if we had it wrong and living in a house in the ‘burbs is actually preferable at this point in our lives? Every discussion I see online about whether NYC is dead or not always comes back to the same pissing match— namely, who is a real New Yorker. Could I call myself a real New Yorker when I left in March and had the means to stay away? Why is being a real New Yorker so important to me, anyway? These debates always get so heated that I’ve been wondering lately if my desire to identify as a real New Yorker is, in fact, a character flaw. And I say this as someone who is from New York!
I’m writing this post from a very privileged position. I know this. Not quite as privileged as Jerry Seinfeld writing his ode to New York City from his $32 million mansion in the Hamptons, but privileged just the same. But I write about my life and I always want to be honest about what I am feeling. On Instagram, someone asked me why I was so sad about NYC— was it because I was recognizing the glaring wealth disparity between those who left the city during the pandemic and those who stayed? The question was either rhetorical or facetious, but I answered anyway.
We send our kids to private school. Back in March, almost everyone we know fled the city to rented or second homes and scattered all over the place, ourselves included. Many of them are not coming back. Either moving for good or remaining remote from wherever they are. My kids haven’t even been in the same state as some of their closest friends since March. This pandemic made me realize how many of our NYC friends are actually transplants from other states and countries, with the ability to go back home. It made me realize that our community revolves around a private school across town instead of our own neighborhood school, so that when we go back to our apartment, we don’t see anyone we know on the streets around us. I am sad because I am feeling the loss of our community. I fear that this year, if we stay in the city, we will feel alone.
In the weeks leading up to our return, Mike and Mazzy expressed the most trepidation. Mike was really worried about all four of us existing in such a small space all day long. Mazzy wished she could just stay at the house, where she had already gotten used to remote learning in the spring. Our bubble friends (which includes one of Mazzy’s best friends) were remaining at their house and going back to NYC meant we were leaving our bubble. “Why can’t I just stay with them?” she asked.
Harlow was the main outlier. She missed our apartment, her friends, and the city itself. Over the summer, when I told her we were going back for a dentist appointment, she was so excited. “Can we stay overnight???” She wanted to sleep in her own bed and wake up there in the morning. She wanted to sit on her favorite window spot over the heater while she ate breakfast. The day we went back, it made me so sad to see how dark and quiet it was at night, and how many shops and restaurants were shuttered. I saw that our old muffin shop had closed down, along with the pizza place on our corner and the bank. We hated that pizza place and don’t belong to that bank, but still. It was sad to see them empty. I think in the suburbs, you can be in your house or your neighborhood and pretend for a moment that everything is okay. But in Manhattan, evidence that we are in the middle of a global pandemic can be seen all over the place.
Harlow doesn’t see it though. Even in a mask. On the day we went back, we had an hour to kill between my doctor appointment in midtown and her dentist appointment downtown. We walked around TriBeCa, looking for a place to eat breakfast but everything was closed. There were very few people around too. With each empty corner we turned, I got more depressed. Then Harlow said out of nowhere, “You could see something new in NYC every day of your life and still not see all of it!” I looked up and realized that while I was focusing on street level, she was taking in the Freedom tower, the Jenga building and all the skyscrapers looking down on us. I nodded and said, “Yes, that’s one of the things that makes NYC amazing.”
Before our big move back, I decided to reframe my thinking around it. I told Mike that I wanted to pack as little as possible. Being in our apartment is more bearable with less stuff. We could think of the house as our main space and pack for the city as needed, the reverse of what we used to do. We also realized that since Harlow only had one in-person activity, the Wednesday of the first week of school, we could come on Labor Day, stay until Wednesday afternoon and then go back to the house to finish out the week. We also discussed the possibility of Harlow and I going to the city on our own for the second week, with Mike, Mazzy and Frankie staying at the house. Everyone seemed to like that idea. When we finally got in the car with our limited amount of stuff (Mazzy literally took two t-shirts, two pairs of shorts and a brush), I felt pretty good about it. We were keeping things open and fluid. We were lucky and privileged to have options.
Driving back into the city, it felt much more normal than the two times we went over the summer. There was more of the usual traffic and more people in the streets. Even walking into our apartment felt better. I think because we had done some cleaning and purging the last time, to make sure it was ready for our return. We renovated two years ago (which you might remember was a huge disaster that dragged on forever), but now the space is finally well designed and livable.
The only room that was still cluttered was Mazzy and Harlow’s bedroom, so we spent the afternoon purging their toys, neatening their shelves and clearing their desks.
Mazzy has a few shelves above her dresser that have been housing her Lego set builds for years. They have all collected so much dust, but she has refused to get rid of them. When I told her those shelves were going to be her Zoom background and that if she cleared them, she could put whatever she wanted there, suddenly she was on board. Their room has never looked so neat.
We went out to eat in our neighborhood that first night. Harlow was singing and dancing in the streets; to the Hamilton soundtrack no less— “Everything is happening in New York!!!” She was so happy to be home. She kept pointing out the “pretty new set-ups” that had popped up at every restaurant for COVID-friendly dining.
We got our favorite Italian at Frank (no wait whatsoever for a prime outdoor table) and our favorite ice cream at Davey’s.
There was even a new pretty tea house that just opened on our block that was all decked out in pink flowers and white balloons for their grand opening. Almost everyone we passed on the sidewalk was wearing masks and respecting social distance, but smiling and nodding at each other in solidarity. I’ve never nodded “hello” to so many passing New Yorkers in my life.
It occurred to me that New York City having less people is NOT A BAD THING.
For the last few years, my friends and I have mourned the loss of the old NYC we knew and loved from when we were in our 20s. The one where you could eat brunch without waiting in an hour long line, easily get a seat at a trendy bar after work and take a photo in Rockefeller Center at Christmas time without waiting for hoards of tourists to take their Instagram selfies first. Maybe now New York City would actually belong to the “real” New Yorkers?
On Tuesday, after virtual school was over, I took Harlow to see her friend Clara. She had been begging me to see her for six months. I don’t know what’s going to happen this year, but this first week back (before in-person school starts) seemed like the safest time to do it. Clara and Harlow won’t be in school together this year and this reunion was badly needed. Their hug was heartfelt and overdue.
On Wednesday, Harlow went to her outdoor meet and greet (she made tie-dye masks with the teachers) and then on the way home, we decided to stop at the new teahouse for a little celebratory dessert. She ordered a huge waffle with Nutella and I ordered the Boba brown sugar crepe cake. Definitely not something one can find anywhere near our house.
Mike and I had thought we would want to hightail it back to the house by Wednesday afternoon, but in a family decision, we decided to stay another day. We went to Ruby’s Cafe for dinner, my fave neighborhood spot. I say “fave” but we’ve only actually been there twice. In pre-pandemic times, Mike never wanted to go because it’s walk-ins only and the line is always too long. We were seated right away, at a four top between two pieces of plexiglass.
Then on Thursday, we took Frankie to the dog park for the first time. She has been loving exploring the NYC streets (so many things to smell!) and the dog park took it to another level. It’s a whole new social scene for us too, since we have never been dog people before. Frankie spent most of the time sitting on the bench next to us, but I imagine in a few more visits, she will start to explore and make new furry friends.
On the way out of the park, we saw a salsa band playing with lots of people dancing. At first glance, it made me nervous that there were so many people, but as we got closer, you could see that every person or couple was socially distanced from one another, living their lives in the new reality, adapting like New Yorkers do. When we got back to the apartment, we ordered Joe’s pizza for dinner and decided to stay until Friday afternoon. Mike and I were happy in the city, way happier than we thought we would be. It felt like we were home.
I don’t fault anyone for leaving, but I don’t think NYC is dead. I see a people and place that is adapting to a new reality, and doing pretty great at it. Who knows what the coming weeks and months will bring. Maybe there will be a big spike again and everything will close. Maybe all the restaurants that survived this long have no hope to make it through the winter. Maybe the entire city will go bankrupt. Maybe all those things will happen and NYC will still feel like home.
That night, Mike conducted his regular Thursday night zoom call with his college buddies from our balcony. I got texts from a few friends who were also back in town, even a few who had told me they were staying away but had since changed their minds. One family we know who was supposedly getting rid of their NYC apartment had suddenly gotten their landlord to give them a deal that compelled them to stay. They wanted to arrange an outdoor get together next week. I talked to Mazzy about whether or not she would want to come to the city the following week or stay at the house to do remote school from there, like we had discussed.
“I want to come back to the city, ” she said. “I like my zoom background here better.”
She was talking about her shelves in her bedroom, but my eyes drifted to the window and out to our balcony, where Mike was facing a computer, laughing heartily with a glass of bourbon in his hand, the lights of the Empire State building glittering behind him.
I like our background better here too.
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