New York City is the only place I want to be.
Preface: As I write this I am painfully aware that there are people in New York City — in the borough of Manhattan — who do not have even a moment to be circumspect. To contemplate gratitude. I’ve been in more than a few dire situations in my life, not the least of which is that I was the lead reconnaissance driver for the Red Cross in the city of New Orleans in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina. Every single day someone’s life — their actual survival — rested on the choices and decisions I made. So do not for a moment assume that, merely because I am taking the time to contemplate joy, solitude and gratitude, I do not know what is happening in Emergency Rooms all over this city right now, on this beautiful day.
Furthermore, if anyone chooses to diminish or minimalize the critical work of first responders and essential workers in this situation, I will light your asses up right now. I am white trash from the Redneck Riviera whose lived in Manhattan most of my adult life: when I go all ‘redneck’ by way of NYC on your ass there is no coming back.
While we all understand the necessity of travel to New York City by the curious from other parts of the country and the world, tourists — mostly from other parts of this country — have ruined midtown Manhattan for New Yorkers. Not all travelers, as there are world travelers who visit other lands and, as the ancient scribes direct, ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do.’ Meaning that when you go to someone else’s ‘home’, try to be humble and respectful of the locals by deferring to their culture and traditions, and just don’t be a dick.
But in the 1990s, when then Mayor Rudy Guilliani decided that the way he would save the decaying tax base was to level the then ‘gritty’ Times Square, replacing the historic 42nd Street with what amounts to ‘Disney East’ to cater to the bizarre infantile fetishism of some middle Americans, he destroyed the core of what made midtown Manhattan recognizable to New Yorkers.
Most New Yorkers stay out of midtown now except to go to work. The crowds are crushing and there’s no good reason to be there anymore other than the occasional Broadway show. We’ve adjusted, because that is what we do. That’s just the way it is.
Time Square is vacant today except for a few essential workers and rogue New York City souls and observers. And while it is poignantly surreal, it is also rather lovely. Like there is finally room to catch our collective breath. The only time over the decades I’ve been here that I have seen the streets even remotely close to this calm was in the hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve before the millennium celebration: December 31, 1999. That was only for an afternoon, not for weeks as yet undetermined.
The ‘bridge and tunnel’ crowd is gone. Those are the professionals who would usually come into the city — mostly to Manhattan — through the network of bridges and tunnels from primarily New Jersey and suburbs north of the city; some as far away as Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Without even the folks crossing the rubicon from Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island to work in ‘the city,’ Manhattan is left to the serious natives. Nothing like that has happened since the days after 9/11.
And Manhattanites are — by and large — a somewhat different breed. There are lots of single adults and childless couples of all ages here, and children on this island generally function as miniature adults in a way that doesn’t happen anywhere else. Manhattan is decidedly a place for grown ups or those hellbent on existing as grown ups as soon as they legally can.
There’s been no crazy: no mobs or gangs or unsupervised kids roaming the streets. No looting or even general rudeness. A handful of people roam the avenue looking for open groceries and pharmacies, or carry-out food cause keeping restaurants and bars afloat is a priority. There’ve been no food shortages, and I can get toilet paper at will at the 99 cent store in Washington Heights, though they did jack the price from 59 cents to 99 cents. That sort of spastic terror of ‘lack’ runs much deeper, I think, than an irrational anxiety about toilet paper — a real head scratcher — and speaks more to a deeper existential fear around survival that seems to coalesce in the ‘burbs in mass. Whatever. We have sufficient toilet paper.
Folks are really loving the ‘social distancing’ thing cause there’s nothing a Manhattanite likes as much as we like boundaries. Loves me some boundaries.
And of course, not to be forgotten, are all those college kids who live in the city for at least some their critically formative years. Probably the contingency whose absence I lament most because there is a vitality and eagerness about them that keeps the city humming. Between New York University, Columbia, Fordham, the City University of New York, various medical schools and residual programs, the Fashion Institute, Juilliard, the list goes on, there are a lot of young people, spread all over the country and the world, who’ve abandoned the city to spend this period of solitude and reflection with their families. And since they were strongly ‘encouraged’ to clear out their dorms, as those may be converted into extra hospital rooms for COVID-19 patients or used to house essential workers so they don’t have to commute home to potentially spread the virus to their families, it’s looking like those crazy, arty kids may be gone for a while.
Miss me some struggling actors cause they are so ‘enthusiastic’ and so ‘passionate’ about absolutely everything.
The flip side of all that youthful exuberance, however, is that they are also just discovering their sexuality and their politics, and honestly, they can sometimes really wear out their welcome with all that youthful ideological fervor — like a dog with a bone he just won’t let go of.
All things being equal, the calamitous circumstances at the hospitals and the treacherous political machinations of the criminal reprobate — Donald Trump — require all hands on deck: the undivided attention of all able minds. So the relentless distraction of the young people’s abrupt epiphany that ‘the world isn’t fair’ and that some people really are just soulless opportunists driven obsessively by ego and self interests — and that too many of these psychopaths and narcissists rule the world… Well, that is just too much noise when thousands of lives hang in the balance.
But “we the people” will get back to that.
So for the first time in all the decades since I first arrived at the then newly christened Port Authority building on 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, Manhattan is occupied only by New Yorkers. And by now, I am one of them.
Some who come to visit the city expecting — for reasons that I will never comprehend — that it will throw a party to welcome them or ease up on the relentless pace — the ‘attitude’ that defines this place — are bothered, even outraged, at our general disinterest in them. They go home and say, ‘Well, those people are just rude.’
I’m from the South, a place where dissembling and subterfuge, a sort of underlying strain of disingenuousness is just way people roll. And there’s some real shit up here to be sure. But most ordinary New Yorkers are extraordinary people who just want you to state your business and get on with it. They are tired much of the time. They work hard and a lot while being confronted daily by tourists who stretch out across the sidewalks, look straight up at the tall buildings and meander while natives are trying to navigate. Other people’s kids follow pedestrians down the sidewalk demanding attention so they can tell you why they are right and they know who you just have to, really you just have to vote for. Or why they must tell you that the planet is melting and we have to stop that right now; it never occurs to them that maybe — just maybe — you’ve been aware of this since the 70s. And everything’s always under construction and the subway is only marginally reliable. This is everyday. Everyday all you want to do is get home.
Still, if a stranger needs directions, just ask. Just tell us what you need, we are happy to help, just tell us what it is, we will do what we can and get on with it. Be well, travel in peace. Just don’t waste my time.
Now, owing to this pandemic, this COVID-19, the governor and the mayor sent everybody back from whence they came. The hospitals are overwhelmed, medical supplies are so critically short that first responders are wearing trash bags and reusing single use face masks for days running. The institutional failure that has magnified these apocalyptic circumstances will be studied and lamented for decades to come.
We don’t have time to take to discuss it. Or assuage anyone’s butthurt feelings. People are dying right now and we don’t get a redo on that.
New Yorker singing out window told to 'Shut the f-k up!'
While musicians performing from their balconies in Spain and Italy have gone viral, this singer in New York City got a…
I am deeply saddened by that. But I am not a first responder this time. I do what I can in my network and social media universe to forward as much accurate, fact based data as I can — cause I am very good at that — to help people reach out and seek resources.
This time, though, I get this space to observe my city: the tip of the spear in this crisis. The city that those guys who weaponized jets to take down buildings thought would break, would be demoralized with a single abhorrent gesture… The city that came back in less than a year because New Yorkers just do not play that shit.
The most direct, unflappable people on the planet live at the crossroads of the world because we like it that way.
My job right now is to stay healthy and to stay out of the way. And if — this time — I get to observe the sheer power of humanity with purpose — unsung super heroes with a mission — in a place where everybody knows their jobs and stays in their lanes and does it well, I am good with that. But I want everybody to watch, because what happens here is coming soon to a city near you, a hospital, a community you know. So y’all need to get it together.
And to be able to be in this very quiet space alone with other New Yorkers doing what we can to help those people struggling right now, that is a gift. I feel nothing but gratitude and deeply humble to be in a position to simply observe for now. Because realistically, that little pearl of brilliance in this cataclysmic experience is unique — exceptional — and it will never come again in my lifetime: the singular gift of being old enough to know that in real time.
So New York City is closed for a minute, y’all come back now.
About the Author:
Gayle Leslie is a writer, political consultant, published author, actor, and policy wonk publishing extensively on Medium and other platforms. She is a native Texan, graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and Circle in the Square Theatre School in NYC. She wrote her serialized memoir, Dwelling in the Vast Divine Vol. 1 & Vol 2. You can follow on Twitter at @gayleleslie7