What We Might Have Lost

Can New York City be New York City without chance encounters?

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The former Morgans Hotel paused in renovation
The former Morgans Hotel paused in renovation

Among the glass towers and brownstones in my Manhattan neighborhood, there are older buildings still guarded by phantasmagoric creatures and formidable animals. A legacy from the castles of kings, these guardians cannot protect us, never could really, especially now from a tiny virus, a speck of RNA, so simple it consists of merely 29 proteins. But these architectural details, no matter how inconsequential in the time of a pandemic, still mark New York as special. Looking up at the owls and eagles on what was once The Morgans Hotel on Madison Avenue fills my heart with a love for this city and a mourning for what we might have lost.

New York City is not a cold, impersonal place. It is a city of chance encounters. Well, not for the very rich who avoid ever leaving their bubbles—fortresses into black cars into restaurants where no one else can get a reservation into private planes. The rest of us New Yorkers are bikers, subway or bus riders, or walkers.  I’m a walker whenever I can, or more accurately, whenever I could. Because New York City is under a mandatory “pause”: stay inside except for essential work and to purchase groceries. Even our exercise on a bright spring day like today is discouraged because there will be just too many of us craving to be outside among the blossoms, the breeze, and the smell of new growth. Instead I walked on my roof early this morning. Alone.

Wearing a face covering and standing six feet apart makes chance encounters nearly impossible or dangerous if they happen at all. In New York, despite its reputation, it was never extraordinary to have a woman who was not crazy, compliment my shoes, and from there, a conversation would ensue that lasted for blocks. Or the time I offered a younger man a space under my umbrella during a sudden downpour. That gesture led to his flirtation that he was curious to sleep with an older woman! And how a late night crosstown bus trip from the theater afforded me the opportunity to discuss basketball with a UPS driver on his way home from a shift. It turned out that he is related to Michael Jordan who regularly shows up at the annual family gathering down South.  

And the farmers market on Union Square provides a familiarity that eventually grows into conversation. There are those of us who arrive at the market when it first opens at 8:00. We arrive with the chefs and the buyers for the restaurants so that we can get the first ramps or field greens, the long asparagus, the spring garlic, the fiddleheads before they vanish to the next phase of the growing season. Since the pause, despite the arrival of spring greens, I cannot go to the farmers market. I am over 70 years old and the caregiver for a vulnerable husband. I have to rely on deliveries made to the front desk of our apartment building. No chance encounters. I miss chatting with the vendors, commenting to someone vaguely familiar about the quality of the new crop of baby bok choy, meeting people I really do know at the mushroom stand or at the goat cheese seller.  

In a city that pretends to be cruel and heartless, and often is, as we can see from the Covid-19 fatality figures, skewed by race and poverty, and the newly homeless men and women, I wonder if we will ever return to being able to smile at a stranger, compliment a colorful scarf, answer a query about the most pleasurable way to get to the Lower East Side, so that New York settles back to a city of surprises, of spontaneous touches of humanity, overseen by dragons and birds of prey.

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