When the pandemic became a new word, fear seemed inevitable. To some, the grim reaper remained in the background. For many, this mythical image was paramount. Many familiar places have closed. Their massive store graphics for rent advertised empty space. We mourned their loss. Dreams were blown away in this unimagined time.
Locked down and sheltering in place were two phrases with different meanings. Locked down sounded like living forever in a prison cell, a rigid space, a punitive punishment. The accurate interpretation conveyed a direct threat, such as to a nearby active shooter. Sheltering in place sounded almost comforting, like a cottage in the alps where the world was surrounded by soft snow. The phrase meant seeking comfort at home during a storm.
More than a year later, cars screech their power. Buses shout their blue colors. Sun-bright yellow cabs form a non-moving line, then the street traffic starts again. The construction worker’s drill is the realization that this once sleepy city is rebounding. Dog owners guide their pets with city sophistication, and yes, almost a swagger. Even solo walkers move to their own unheard rhythm. Children rush down the streets to discover destinations they once remembered. Parents and their babies are ever-present in all different kinds of strollers. New stores and restaurants open to transform empty space. Pop-up eating sites have emerged. Busy blocks feel almost like a celebration. City dwellers dodge bike riders who curve in and out of the street. Slow and fast residents wear flower colors.
Libraries with their lonely signs stating closed have opened their doors. Their bounty of books is available to all. Computers are waiting for us. We will soon hear the old and young clicking the keys, like the sound of castanets. I am waiting for St. Agnes, my local library, to be available with its diverse programs. A block party near its location meant optimism with its festive booths.
I am sitting in a metal chair at an Upper West Side cafe. A small table serves as my writing desk. The sound, color, texture, and even the city’s aroma are beginning, as fresh as bakery bread. Everything is slowly starting to feel new. Other neighborhoods are not so lucky; the owners and their small stores struggle to survive.
Soon I will be off to my indoor swimming pool, which has finally re-opened. In the water, everything seems normal; the cool water welcomes solitude and silence. The pool’s broad windows are like expanded postcards of a born-again New York. Bold buildings stretch to reach the sky. With my blurred vision without my glasses, the view looks the same, though life has been shattered this past year. My movements in the pool provide resiliency and strength as I move into a swimmer’s fluid dance. I gain speed with a new intensity. Swimming combines athletic power and silent reverie.
My city has begun its new wake-up call. My life, like others, was once a black and white movie. Soon technicolor possibilities will bloom. This once forlorn city is now in the heat of a sultry summer, but our script will be changed. New dialogue will start with a burst of new energy surging.
Some locals provided quiet and consistent help during this time of Covid. In the ever-changing five-borough world, many gained awareness of the vulnerable and the powerless. Those who lived in affluent zones of influence suddenly noticed those who were invisible before. The rich begin to know the counter staff at the deli and the newsstand vendor with the rainbow array of candy.
“Twelve Gates to the City” is a spirited gospel song based on biblical imagery that fits these new days. This song’s jubilation came to mind as I enjoyed a recent June afternoon. The twelve gates represent an image of heaven. Everyone is included. These optimistic lines may finally feel accurate after these endless pandemic blues. “Oh, what a beautiful city, oh what a beautiful city. Twelve gates to the city. Rich and poor, you’re welcome to the city. You and me we’re welcome to the city.”
City leaders carry on. Politicians practice the ease of sparkling speeches, like clear water. After their victories, their phrases feel as flat as warm soda. These leaders are all articulate but may not know how to use their wheels of power to help all those in need. Yet the day is bright with the blue sky to covers us all. The sun will shine with its warmth and strength.
Constance H. Gemson’s article “In the Spaces of Strangers” was recently published by the magazine Month to Years. She is a long-time Upper West Sider.