By Michael McDowell
If you stand near Wollman Rink at the southern end of Central Park at 7 p.m., when New Yorkers throw open their windows and applaud the health care and other essential workers who’ve been tending to the sick and keeping the city running, the aural sensation—surround-sound applause—is comparable to what a performer must experience on stage at Carnegie Hall, the Met, or Madison Square Garden.
The profusion of cheers, hoots, and hollers; the chorus of pots and pans; the honking of horns and fluttering of sirens—the occasional vuvuzela—all floating above a roar of applause, are more than a communication of profound gratitude: they are a reminder, for each and every one of us who has remained in Manhattan, that we are not alone. That our neighbors and friends are still out there.
What follows this daily celebration is silence. I hear it every night. It is the sound of an overwhelming absence, punctuated occasionally by the wail of an ambulance or the crash of a garbage truck hurtling down a lonely avenue.
Streets are empty. The momentary presence of an airplane is almost an event. Beginning last week, overnight service on the New York City subway was suspended for the first time in 115 years, bringing to an end the final rumbling reminder of the way things used to be.
Some neighborhoods are quieter than others. On a recent weeknight, a man on roller-skis glided down the middle of Columbus Avenue, on the Upper West Side. Near 83rd Street, he cast a quizzical glance at a group of men in folding chairs arranged a safe distance apart on the sidewalk, their bawdy Spanish rising above a recording of Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco’s “Cúcala”. The skier continued making his way downtown, disregarding a near meaningless series of red lights. The men laughed.
Nearby, a lone security guard patrolled the perimeter of Lincoln Center, which is barricaded, its fountain subdued and inaccessible. Weeks earlier, the Metropolitan Opera had laid off its orchestra.
Across Central Park, Madison Avenue is sepulchral, illuminated apartments the only indication of a human presence. Dusty letters are strewn across the parquet floors of empty boutiques. Sidewalks accumulate evidence of their disuse.
Fifth Avenue is entirely deserted. Solitary doormen in face masks observe ambulances traveling uptown on Fifth against traffic toward Mount Sinai. Once they pass the 65th Street Traverse, the ambulances often shut off their sirens, the glittering red of their lights collecting momentarily in treetops.
Glimpsed from Central Park, the Empire State Building continues to be lit in the pulsing red of a beating heart. On rainy nights, which have been frequent lately, the red glow radiates through thick clouds, and is particularly ominous.
It isn’t altogether so surprising that Midtown is deserted. But the hush of its empty canyons on these pandemic nights is far beyond that of the brief stillness of New Year’s Day, or of Christmas. Pausing to listen, one can hear the skyscrapers emit a faint hum, as if murmuring to one another, like trees in a breezy grove. Empty buses flicker in the distance, and emerge gradually, like the headlights of an approaching car on a rural highway.
In Times Square, a lone musician busked. A man took selfies in the middle of Seventh Avenue. Video advertisements played to an empty house, enveloping a few teenagers occupying otherwise empty picnic areas in a weird phosphorescence.
Toward 34th Street, homeless men and women appeared in the darkness. Some stood in line near vans, where hot meals were being handed out. Others were camped in front of stores and restaurants that may never reopen. Forlorn streetlights blew in the wind.
In Union Square, a mask has been affixed to the statue of Mohandas Gandhi.
More than anywhere else, downtown is an empty theater experienced from the inside of the set. Rubbish is audible as it blows along an abandoned Bleecker Street. Signs creak. Banners wrinkle.
The presence of other solitary walkers, rather than reassurance, induces dread. Parts of the Village, more than anywhere else, feel post-apocalyptic, and it is in the Village that the reality of New York is made most vivid. This place is nothing—nothing—without its people. It is a husk, it is a shell, it is a ruin.
There are, of course, many other parts of Manhattan, and many other parts of New York City. But the pandemic has enforced a localism, for those of us who are not essential workers, and any walk beyond the borders of one’s own neighborhood is a voyeuristic expedition. What’s the purpose of doing something so frivolous, after all? New York City is the epicenter of a global pandemic.
But it’s important to see it, to hear it, and to bear witness. What the city is experiencing is the result of the decisions of the representatives we entrusted to protect us, decisions that were made at the local level, the state level, and the federal level.
People may say that this was unpredictable. It wasn’t. They will say that they did the best that they could. They did not. Cities just as large, just as complicated, and just as chaotic have fared far better than New York.
By the time you read this, more than 20,000 New Yorkers will have died from COVID-19, out of nearly 200,000 confirmed cases.
In late March, Molly Jong-Fast wrote a compelling account of her decision to remain in New York City—for one with the good fortune to have such a choice—as it became clear that New Yorkers were about to experience a catastrophe unlike any other in living memory.
“What I’m mostly struck by is the newfound silence of New York,” Jong-Fast wrote.
In May, with spring flowers fading into the iridescent green of early summer, that silence is no longer newfound.
Until you are sick, or until someone you love is sick, an urban pandemic is a quiet affair, characterized by its silence.
At night, it’s the only thing you hear.