People of the Pandemic: empty streets, schools and subways in NYC
May 13, 2020
I started this project to learn more about people’s experiences of the pandemic around the world. Having had quite a dramatic entry into lockdown myself (which you can read about here), I was keen to hear of other peoples’ stories. While my initial idea was to interview people who are far from home (like me), I couldn’t resist but to reach out to people in the places I have called home in my past. I spent five months in the USA in 2016, the majority of that time in NYC. I was delighted to speak to a long-lost friend about the current state of the city, and what daily life has become.
Peculiar and wonderful things happen on a daily basis in New York.
I first met Stephen in Manhattan, over three years ago. A cousin of a family friend, we hit it off straight away. As we caught up over the phone last week, we found ourselves reminiscing about the city and its oddities. The first night we met, we ended up on a midtown rooftop, having a drink with a friend of a friend, and her pet lizard (she was fondly referred to throughout this conversation as ‘lizard girl’). When we spoke, I was brought right back to my summer in Manhattan. To the hustle and bustle at the heart of the city, and the craziness at its core.
It was quite shocking, then, to imagine New York in its current state, which Stephen describes as ‘apocalyptic’.
“Have you seen I am Legend?” he asks, “because I feel like I am in that movie”. Our conversation was punctuated by laughter, but the current state of NYC is far from funny; the city has been hit hard by the virus, and has suffered the loss of over 14,000 inhabitants. In terms of how this translates into urban life; Stephen tells me that in late March/early April, he was regularly the only person out and about, aside from cops and homeless people – and he lives only a few blocks from Times Square. His neighbourhood, Hell’s Kitchen, was once a mecca for foodies, but is now a shadow of its former self. Many restaurants have shut their doors, and some smaller places have sadly lowered their shutters for good.
One thing that he finds confusing is the inconsistency of advice in the media; specifically, in terms of new regulations and restrictions. I ask him what the rules are in terms of allowed numbers in a group, and he isn’t sure if the ‘maximum ten’ rule still applies or not; “I feel like some weeks, we find out that specific things are banned or restricted, and then the next week they are lifted or changed, or re-announced – as though they are a new measure and not something we were already doing.” I ask him how he deals with this, to which he replies; “I just kinda do the best I can”.
He lives alone in a studio apartment so does not have to worry about interactions with flatmates, but others may suffer more from the lack of clarity. And then there are those who completely ignore the social distancing advice. One example he mentions, which caught a lot of media attention, was the funeral of a rabbi in Williamsburg. The gathering drew a large crowd, many of whom were not adhering to safety measures, which caused much public outrage.
He commutes into work early each morning on the subway, in half-empty carriages.
Anyone who has taken the NYC subway knows that this is far from the norm. Previously, the majority of Stephen’s fellow commuters were construction workers, but they have now stopped their labour. He would also travel alongside homeless people, who had taken to spending the nights in the quieter carriages. He tells me that hygiene conditions were slipping; it was getting pretty filthy, and it was rare to see people wearing face masks or gloves. But now, the city has introduced a rare disruption to its 24/7 service. As of May 6th, the subway will close from 1-5am every night, for deep cleaning. This is due to continue until the end of the pandemic. The move has caused tension surrounding the displacement of the subway’s homeless population, but Stephen tells me conditions are noticeably better.
Stephen is one of the lucky ones; he has managed to keep his job.
He is part of the custodial staff at a Special Education school in Long Island City (which is in Queens, I discovered, and not Long Island as the name would suggest). However, his role has changed slightly. The school closed its doors to students on Monday March 16th, and teachers stopped coming in later that week. When the school was operating normally, he would go in at 6am, to open the doors and do some safety checks before the arrival of other staff members. From the start of March, when coronavirus was becoming prominent in the media, he had some extra morning duties, like disinfecting door handles and railings.
Things really ramped up when his boss and his ‘boss’ boss’ started coming in, inspecting the cleanliness of the bathrooms. Since the school has closed, Stephen and two other staff members are responsible for the annual deep clean of the empty building. This is usually a summer task, but has been expedited this year due to the pandemic.
He is no stranger to intense coronavirus-related cleaning.
He tells me that he spent the evening of St. Patrick’s Day in a hazmat suit. He had to disinfect the entire fourth floor of a building in which a positive case had been identified – not the usual celebratory activity of an Irish-American in NYC. His boss called him while he was cooking dinner and asked him that coveted question; “you wanna make some money?” He threw back his pasta and wine, and headed straight over to the problematic building. He met his fellow disinfectors for a briefing before entering the ‘danger zone’, and couldn’t resist taking an obligatory selfie (above). The team’s energy was intense; “taking the elevator up, we all had action movie theme music in our heads and felt like we were in Chernobyl or something. That’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but really, it just seemed that things were escalating so quickly.”
His co-workers spend the day debating when things will go back to normal. He has grown weary of this discussion, especially as it involves a lot of misplaced advice. A few weeks ago, one of them spent ages lecturing him on the importance of wearing gloves – then ate his sandwich without removing them. “People have suddenly become experts on what to do and what not to do”, he says.
What else has he discovered since the start of the pandemic?
“I feel like the increase in time alone is a good way to learn more about yourself. I liked me-time before, but now I’m drowning in it”. Is he finding it hard to cope? “I probably shouldn’t have said drowning. It’s not a negative thing. It was hard to get used to, but now it’s fine. Maybe I was just a closet hermit before.”
As meeting friends isn’t possible now, he finds he has grown more attached to his phone. His mobile is the gateway to speaking with everyone he cares about. But he definitely misses real human company too; “I miss being nagged by the teachers to get various jobs done. Even the nurse, who always complains about the temperatures in different rooms. Yup, I never thought I would say this, but I miss her asking me to open and close the windows.”
One of the most interesting takeaways from the pandemic will be the impact on people’s personalities. “I reckon we will have a new generation of germaphobes”, he explains. When asked what he would like to do most when this is over, he answers without hestitation: “travel.” To where? “Arizona.” He was supposed to go there with his dad and brother for spring baseball training.
Unsure whether there will even be a baseball season, he reconsiders and comes up with a new destination: “Southbend, Indiana. My dad, brother and I have always dreamed of going to see a Notre Dame football game. But I’m really down to go anywhere.” Somewhere that is not ghost-town Manhattan.
His final words on the matter? “We better friggin’ do this when we next get an opportunity”.
When the City That Never Sleeps wakes up from its nap.
Do you have a unique perspective on the pandemic? If so – I want to hear from you!