A year ago, I walked up and down Manhattan for the final time. I wish I had known it was the last time I would be able to walk those streets for a while, or else I would have done it every day before I had to leave New York City. It was right before the pandemic wiped the streets clean before everyone ran away and everyone claimed that “New York Is Dead!”
I regret not walking around New York as much as I should have. My work was in Midtown and my apartment in Brooklyn, so I did what many people did and took the subway the whole way home. It was rare I got to walk very long distances except on the weekend. Like a typical New Yorker, I was too busy to make my daily commute any longer than it needed to be. The train ride was usually 30-45 minutes depending on traffic and involved me being squished literally face to face with a huge group of strangers in a small train car. Sometimes I couldn’t even reach to grasp onto a handlebar, so I hoped that the bodies pressing against me on all sides would hold me upright when the train screeched to a halt. But it was efficient, so I took that subway every day.
How weird it is to think I was so close to that many people every day, with no masks and little regard for hygiene or germ spreading. Well, maybe I thought about it when I would grab onto a pole and it would feel slimy from the person holding onto it before me (yes, this happened often). I started to become uncomfortable with the idea of taking the subway at the beginning of March. I was working for a fashion company so I’d been hearing about Covid for several months now since much of our production was in China. It didn’t seem real at first though, just something that was a far away inconvenience.
Until cases started popping up in the US. Suddenly, I was put in charge of sanitizing every surface in my office multiple times a day, in hopes that would somehow protect us from this mysterious virus. Soon, all of my friends’ offices started closing and moving to remote work. Mine held it off as long as possible because remote wasn’t really an option for us, causing me to go into work in fear every single day. It got to a point where I decided I just couldn’t take that dirty subway to work anymore, so I got up extra early and made the almost two-hour walk back and forth to work for almost a week.
The interesting thing was I learned more about the city in that week on those walks than I had in almost an entire year of living there before that. I walked streets I never knew even existed, I saw stores and restaurants I’d never heard of, I saw people I’d never met and will never get to meet again. I walked over the Williamsburg bridge for the first time and stopped by the market at Union Square that I’d never gotten to. I took pictures of things I never bothered to before this, which I’ve added throughout this article. I studied the streets, the buildings, the people, the little things more than I ever had time to before because I was always in a rush to be somewhere. I felt closer to the city than I ever had before; and as the streets got quieter and quieter each day as people started staying in their apartments, my walks became more sacred.
I’m not alone with my story, I think that everyone has vivid memories of their last outings before lockdowns began. Perhaps the only interesting part of mine compared to many people I know is that I happened to be in NYC, where everything started to get scary first. But as the year anniversary of quarantine comes around, everyone is seeing their Snapchat memories from a year ago today and everyone is reminiscing on what the past year has done for us. Our lives from before the pandemic can sometimes feel like a distant memory. We cling to our memories from the weeks leading up to it like they were a dream.
There’s a huge joke among New Yorkers about the people who moved back to their parents’ houses during the pandemic. New York natives say that the pandemic got rid of all the fake New Yorkers, the weak ones. And it was true, it made me feel so weak to have to be one of these people who escaped the city. I ultimately felt like I failed at the NYC dream, I had moved there to finally do all of the things I wanted for my whole life and then it all fell apart under me. I was forced to adapt to a different reality when I moved home so that my NYC life didn’t seem like a reality at all anymore.
I had no job, no money to pay my rent, and no one to support me if I stayed there. The premise of New York that is so appealing to so many people who move there-- the opportunities, the money, the parties, etc. were all removed from New York when the pandemic came around. All of that glitz and glam went away. On my walks to work during that last week, I felt like I started to see New York get cleansed down to its bare bones. The tourists started going away, the lights in Times Square were flashing for no one, the subways were stopping and no one was getting on or off.
By traveling on foot, I was learning the normal, the average, the mundane parts of the city that most people overlook when they’re there. I learned that the people of New York are really just people, not just the rich and famous like everyone thinks. I learned that maybe, New York is just like any other city after all when you take away all of the shiny things. New York wasn’t dead, it was just real. So instead of looking at my last memories there as a sad thing, I now am happy that I got to slow down and meet NYC for what it really is at its core, even for a short time.