Seeing the streets of New York deserted disconcerts me. The effect unsettles me most when we walk through the 42nd Street underground, in this case, when we’re transferring from one train to another. At any and every hour I’ve passed through this station before, travelers streamed along the dense web of passages and nexuses, Port Authority, various points on the major streets above, myriad stairways and escalators to countless trains. From rush hour to 3am, this underworld has always been packed with people in a hurry.
But not now. An hour ago, we were in the thick of a warm, springtime weekend in Central Park. Out there, the trails around the reservoir were packed enough to make navigation awkward, although we’ve been exhorted to get out outside to avoid close quarters for sanity and exercise. The real space is to be found here in the tunnels, though: The most traffic-prone passages are empty. Vendors absent. Travelers, commuters, and tourists number few to none. Electric/fluorescent/neon lights burn brightly, eternally, but silence pours through the cavernous hall. The handful of folks walk uncharacteristically slowly, and almost all wear masks covering the bottom halves of their faces.
After living in this city long enough, it becomes apparent that the city does, indeed, sleep. Some establishments do stay open all hours, sure–but not all, by any means. Unless you’re insanely rich/connected, you can’t get most things you want whenever you want, wherever in the five boroughs you happen to be. There is, however, a continuous flow of something, someones, in most of the extended, interconnected city. Many of our trains run all night. Most sidewalks get at least a little traffic from at least a few night owls.
These days, though? Even during the hours that should be busiest in any city–in the cosmopolitan arteries that were continually clogged with humanity, there is absence. Quiet–silence, almost. Little to no activity, even in solid daylight.
What makes this phenomenon all the more strange is the awareness that people actually are around, everywhere. Much as the city may resemble a post-apocalyptic landscape straight outta Hollywood, the inhabitants here are still alive, still present. They’re just hidden–cocooned in the tiers above us, nestled in nooks in the vertical spires all around, instead of on the sidewalks and streets, where we’re used to meeting. Pretty much everyone’s just…home. In the evenings, I look out from my fire escape, and more lights than ever gleam from the residential neighborhoods, houses and high rises that used to regularly stand at half capacity. Everyone’s bundled in, tucked away, closed off to each other, the virus, the world.
For us, here at least, the plague is less of an abstraction: The number of people who have gotten the virus, who have sickened, who have died, affects me differently depending on everything, but only a fool could see our numbers as insignificant. We are not yet Wuhan, nor are we Italy, yet. But we are no longer thousands of miles away from danger. It is here.