On the Last Night of Curfew, the Curious and the Restless Convene; An 82-Year-Old Tends His Orphan Tree

The Upper West Side after curfew, 6/6/20

By Joy Bergmann, photos by Michael McDowell

On Saturday, as the clock struck 8:00 p.m. [or was it 13?], WSR reporters went on a walk from Columbus Circle to 96th Street and back to 72nd. We wanted to see who was out after curfew and how locals and the NYPD were doing after a tumultuous week and a wearying three months of Covid-19 isolation.

The curfew, which was expected to continue through Sunday night, was abruptly halted by the mayor on Sunday morning amid criticism that it was raising tensions rather than reducing them. So Saturday’s curfew marked the end of a six-night experiment unlike anything city-dwellers have experienced in generations.

First, a couple of things we did not encounter during our three-hour trek: 

  1. Civil libertarians defying curfew solely on principle. In addition to essential workers working, we found several dozen people who simply wanted to be outside on a beautiful evening with their people, their pups, or — in the case of one gentleman — with their oak tree.
  2. NYPD officers in riot gear or arresting scofflaws. Plenty of police were visibly on the beat (and in unmarked SUVs and taxis), especially below 86th Street. But most chatted in small groups, looking relaxed. Several had covered their badge numbers with black stripes; the majority did not wear masks.
  3. Masks on the faces of many civilians as well. Outdoor strollers and sippers left masks dangling from chins or wrists or stashed away. There may be painful consequences later.

Outside Cafe Fiorello on Broadway & 63rd, couples were holding hands and each other’s gazes. Some patrons lingered over drinks, others waited for their to-go bags of Italian comfort food.  At 8:30 p.m., general manager Michael Vitanza had his staff start putting away the seating, preparing to close his kitchen at 9 p.m., a change from earlier in the week. 

Fiorello’s had just re-opened on Monday. When Tuesday’s 8 p.m. curfew was announced, Vitanza decided to close his kitchen at 6 p.m. “I didn’t want the employees to get harassed,” he said. He was okay with the curfew’s rationale at first, but after seeing inconsistent enforcement and the backlash against the NYPD for arresting an UWS delivery guy, he decided that Saturday he’d stay open til 9. “I said, screw it. They’re essential workers, end of story. I’m absolutely positive we did $3,000 more tonight because we stayed open past 6.” Just then a policeman entered the cafe looking for a restroom. “Sure. All the way back, right corner, officer,” said Vitanza. 

Cafe Fiorello across from Lincoln Center after curfew; NYPD seen at left

At 8:45 we found Andrea & Mark sipping Margaritas on a bench outside El Mitote on Columbus & 69th. Were they afraid of arrest? 

“Not really,” said Andrea, chilling out in her scrubs after a long day at a vet clinic. “We live two blocks away. We said hi to the cops and they were very respectful. It feels peaceful tonight. Everyone’s been very kind.”

A sidewalk birthday party was in full swing outside Polpette on 71st and Columbus. Guest of honor Jeffrey sat next to a small table bedecked in a red-checkered tablecloth, “Happy Birthday” balloons bobbing above his chair. “A huge outpouring of love,” said Jeffery, still enjoying pre-dinner cocktails at about 9:15. 

Presiding over the festivities while still managing delivery orders was Polpette’s owner, Nicky Meatballs. He’s grateful for customers like Jeffrey, who has ordered from the restaurant every single night since the March 17th lockdown. But Meatballs fears for the future of his 25-year-old spot, and every other restaurant in the city. 

“How are we supposed to pay for the past 100 days when the government shut us down? The banks have got to work with the landlords so that tenants can get help and survive this,” said Meatballs. “We’re doing the best we can.” 

As for this night, “we’re out,” he said. “If they don’t arrest people protesting at 10:30, why can’t we be out and have a drink?” 

Polpette proprietor Nicky Meatballs

Up near the Museum of Natural History, Billy, 75, felt echoes of his past marches.“I did the 60’s. I did Vietnam. You guys can do this.” His dog Zac, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever and part-time Ralph Lauren model, bounced toward passersby, hoping for treats. It was 9:24 p.m. and a serene Billy wasn’t in any hurry to leave his bench. “The 20th Precinct is cool. They’re just watching for groups.” 

Michael Walls, 82, says he’s choosing to ignore the curfew and instead focus on tending the eight little gardens he looks after in the area. We found him at 9:30 p.m., fussing over his favorite plot near 84th and Columbus. 

“When I first started cleaning it out, the weeds were two feet high,” said Walls, a former contemporary art gallerist who loves discussing the Emery Roth architecture of his building. “And that little tree? It’s an oak tree. The city had put a blue tag on it, meaning ‘cut it down.’ I saved its life. I call it my orphan.” 

Michael Walls with his “orphan” oak tree

As 10 p.m. drew near, we sought out the police roadblocks along 96th Street, “river to river”, as one traffic cop put it. Any driver wishing to proceed south of 96th had to present evidence to NYPD that they either lived in that area or were an essential worker doing business there. 

We observed officers from the CTTF [Citywide Traffic Task Force] approach several cars, most driven by men of color. One sergeant said that about 1 in 3 drivers have to be turned away, unable to justify their need to be south of 96th. Folks looking to use the tunnels to New Jersey had to detour over the George Washington Bridge. Taxi drivers were especially confused by the rules, he said, with some sympathy. “We don’t even know what the rules are.” 

When we started heading back at 10:30, the side streets were quiet enough to hear the rats before they skittered across our path. We walked faster.

A Bronx woman named Lois gave us a wave from her bench at 93rd and Columbus. Was she afraid? “We’re not doing anything wrong. We’re just talking. I respect cops, but we’re going through a crisis,” she said. “I’m a radical, a hippie, a survivor. I believe in love.” 

We’re willing to bet Charisma does, too. 

An energetic young woman working security outside of Fairway at 74th & Broadway, she had spent the evening saying, “We’re closed!” to customers who have counted on the market’s 24/7 hours, especially during Covid-19 restrictions. 

“I don’t like New York like this. It’s too quiet,” Charisma said. “The city that never sleeps is finally asleep.”

NEWS, OUTDOORS | 10 comments | permalink
    1. BronxBoy says:

      Nice piece.

    2. Linda says:

      Lovely reporting. Thank you.

    3. geoff says:

      WSR often publishes pieces and comments in which the authors use the term ‘pups’.

      Maybe it’s considered cute, maybe something else, but is it what is truly meant? Are people referring to puppies, like baby dogs?

      When I read it, I assume they mean baby dogs.

      Am I right?

      Why not simply state it plainly and commonly: ‘dogs’?

    4. ellen says:

      Yes, BronxBoy got it right. Story is a good example of rising to the local challenge. Well above average for WSR.

    5. Rwc says:

      Precisely what white skin Privilege is about .
      People with white skin never feel afraid of rules like staying out after curfew,

    6. Amelia says:

      Applause to the Rag for seeing us through all of this. Starting from a digital throwaway of ads and community photos, you have become an essential help through the pandemic and to the lives of Upper West Siders. I don’t know if there is a Pulitzer for local papers but if there were one you’d deserve it. Bravo and thank you to all of you for all of this!!

      • William Porto says:

        I walked my dog every night during the curfew.

        On the first night the streets were empty, reminiscent of the begining of the pandemic lockdown. I made sure to carry ID just in case I was stopped, but really – nothing was going on. It was a beautiful night, having recently rained and the air was cool and the asphalt was black and shiny – movie-perfect.
        I walked over to Broadway other than dog walkers, the streets were bare, I walked by one person who asked me for change and another one waiting for the bus, but that was it. Normally you run into a handful of people going their way, but not then.

        I walked by a men’s shelter and there were a few people on the stoop, but traffic – both human and automobiles – was nil. I stood in the middle of Amsterdam Avenue and took a photo, two cars far in the distance. It reminded me of snow-storm nights – no-one wanting to be out, preferring instead to be home, safe, and secure.

        On the second night a bar was open nearby (though you could only get in from a side-door). Others were hanging out, young “entrepreneurs” and their customers, fellow dog-walkers, and a woman running towards a liquor store that was just closing (the proprietor greeted her and let her in).

        The night before the curfew ended, I took my dog out around 10PM. A police car was circling the block, but not stopping anyone. There were groups outside, people walking about. And I thought to myself – what curfew? On my way back home, I spoke to someone I know who had been part of a group. He told me that earlier the police had arrested someone. The details were a little hazy – he said that comments were made by the officers that someone was going to go to jail; others protested. A neighbor filmed the encounter out of her window, and the cops took the man away. Maybe that’s why there was a police car circling the block, looking for repercussions? I don’t know – speculation. Where the altercation took place, graffiti had been sprayed, disparaging the police. Was it there before? I don’t think so.

        With the curfew over, last night seemed like a celebration. I went out around 9PM and a car with its stereo on were parked in front of a bodega, old and young sitting on crates and makeshift benches. Others were out and about enjoying the evening. Earlier that evening a protest had made its way down the same block – leaving in its wake people being themselves.

    7. Sally Campbell says:

      I was out in Riverside Park near the Soldiers and Sailors monument Saturday a while after 8PM and did indeed see lots of lovely fellow West Siders being civilly disobedient.

    8. Dan Ahearn says:

      Someone is damaging our trees on Riverside Drive.

    9. mric says:

      Thank you, Michael Walls for keeping our neighborhood beautiful! Your continued dedication is much appreciated!