“Where are the people?” one of my friends asked when we saw West Side Story at the Lincoln Square AMC a week before Christmas. We knew the Spielberg musical was tanking at the box office, but we thought that a theater sitting on the actual terrain of the movie plot might be a draw. It was a rainy Saturday night, and I had to assume that the old people—the only viable audience for entertainment set in 1957—were staying away because of that and Omicron. Even with Tony Kushner as screenwriter, these aficionados of the late, great Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (1981-2018) could not be coaxed out.
But then you could ask “Where are the people?” about anywhere in New York. When there’s a void of crowd, an emptiness, you sense that the would-be masses are off together doing the same thing. But what—hunkering down or partying hard? Regardless, they were doing it outside the five boroughs.
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree has historically claimed the whole of December as far as tree media goes. Last year’s conifer drama wasn’t related to COVID but to a tiny saw-whet owl that came as the tree’s unintended plus-one. “Rocky” was described as being “rescued,” as “clinging to the branches,” as a “stowaway.” A Syracuse paper had the most Onion-esque headline: “Oneonta owl found in Rockefeller Christmas tree inspires a children’s book.”
Though there was no Oneonta owl this year, the 79-foot, 12-ton Norway spruce made its customary hyped appearance with the Daily News and the Post dutifully amplifying the fact sheet bullets: more than 50,000 multicolored lights! a 900-pound star with 70 spikes covered in 3 million crystals!
Back at the start of the pandemic, one strain of the thinking internet’s insatiable need for copy was served by warnings against making a metaphor of the coronavirus. Forget that it came from China, that it was happening in an election year, that Trump had dismantled the National Security Council directorate charged with protecting us against such threats. Don’t take the bait.
Most of these exhortations were against casting COVID-19 as payback from some unknown dispensary of karma. Paul Elie in the New Yorker reminded us that Susan Sontag in the New Yorker had the final word on illness as metaphor in 1978 and again in 1989. She poked massive holes in this human impulse, so we mustn’t narrativize the pandemic as we narativize our individual lives.
It’s hard to believe our COVID summer is already over. In New York, the weeks failed to coalesce as a season, and most people got sick of being told they should be either buying a house far away or pining for Italy while stuck in a state park. The New York Times offered beautiful photos of empty Italian streets but also an update on how businesses in Capri and other Italian tourist destinations miss “the interaction, the energy, the optimism, the shopping style” of rich Americans. (Funny thing: New York City’s small businesses miss “the shopping style” of rich Americans too!)
Early in COVID lockdown this spring, America’s viral diversion of aw was watching penguins subvert their societal role as aquarium attractions to temporarily become commanders of the gaze. First they waddled the halls of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium to have a gander at their fellow marine life. Then another waddle from the Kansas City Zoo ventured to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for a look-see.
Suddenly we thought a lot about animals captive in zoos because we had ourselves become captive. The parallels could not be starker: the primary complaint of zookeepers is the incessant drudgery of shoveling out feces; our own obsession at that time was hoarding toilet paper.
During the dark hours of what is now a previous crisis for America but an ongoing one elsewhere, Queen Elizabeth delivered a message of uplift. She sought to remind her people that “the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humored resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterize this country.”
In the context of hopelessly toxic Twitter feeds, that hyphenated “fellow-feeling” arrived like a Beatrix Potter bunny hopping across the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.
The only thing that Americans can say about fellow-feelers is that we have two warring factions. This discord is our national tragedy. New York City, on the other hand, has always managed to pass as a cunningly diverse (if spectacularly unequal) assemblage of fellow-feelers, whatever the scale of crisis.
At a time in this crisis that now seems ages ago, Masha Gessen, a New Yorker columnist whose essays I admire, wrote about why she was not a bad person for leaving New York City during a pandemic.
Her daughter had asked if the family was going to be like “those people”—the “rich white people who leave the besieged city because they can.” Her mother’s justification on March 30: “If we got very ill, we wanted to be those people who were not stressing this already overtaxed city, taking up hospital beds that were needed by people who didn’t have the option of leaving.”
The family’s destination was Falmouth, Massachusetts, landing at a time when local residents on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket were asking fleeing New Yorkers to stay away and not infect them.
“Too often,” said Fiorello La Guardia, “life in New York is merely a squalid succession of days, whereas in fact it can be a great, living, thrilling adventure.” I thought about my city as “a great, living, thrilling adventure” when I went to check out the throngs in Washington Square Park trying to hear Elizabeth Warren speak on September 16.
These were the faces of hopefuls, of progressives—the flash foot soldiers, many of them students who could afford to be hopeful by virtue of youth (regardless of a climate going to hell). Yes, it was a predominantly white audience, and, yes, there was a smattering of those whom Republicans love to label “the elite” and we locally will willingly stereotype as Upper East/West, Brooklyn, or maybe Tribeca moms. But for the most part, this was a group that could not afford a lot—maybe because there seemed to be more women.
My father’s mother was an old lady when I was born. My first memory of her house is a pair of large pink candles—one shaped like a “7” and the other a “9”—adorning the dining room buffet. She had turned that age at a party sometime in the past, and she liked to turn the “7” upside down to make it look like a “2.”
She was a young woman in the 1920s, but the era she fetishized—as an Irish American who married an Irish American—was the first years of the twentieth century.
She banged out bad chords on an upright piano and was always singing sad songs about dying children—“I’m Tying the Leaves So They Won’t Come Down.” Everybody died back then, when she was a girl in Elmira, New York. One of her brothers died of pneumonia—in bed at home, just like in Dickens. Her best friend, Loretta Meade, died as a young teen because she walked in the rain “during her monthly.”
U2 may have advanced the theory that “midnight is where the day begins,” but most of the world’s songbirds don’t clock in till dawn. The famous exception is the nightingale. Unattached males will sing through the night to attract a mate, while males in general sing during the hour before sunrise as a chest-puffing exercise in defending their territory. Keats believed that the nightingale has never known “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” of groaning men. But singing all night for a mate and then continuing on to maintain your turf has to be a slog. The bird might as well be holding a boombox over its head.
As a resident of North America, I didn’t think much about the night part of nightingales until I heard birdsong at 2 a.m. It was strange to gradually register the lone trilling piercing through the temporary void of urban acoustics north of Boston. The solitary voice was both beautiful and sad. I knew it couldn’t be a nightingale—most of all because it sang like a mockingbird.