Sunday May 3, 2020
Today I had an espresso, my first since the lockdown started. It was served in a tiny paper cup less than 2″ high, probably made with the same amount of paper as my useless meter-long coupon/receipt from yesterday’s hand sanitizer.
At midday, I headed out for a run, wanting to see what might have changed along the lower East River. Beat cops with seemingly little to do were out in pairs with masks and, of course, guns. At the expansive Pier 36, I noticed an unusual American flag, not lowered to half-mast. The limp stars and stripes hung just above the black POW-MIA flag, which has flown in all public places, at least in New York, for decades – impressive staying power for a single cause.
People were out. Near the river, there was more than enough room for everyone to keep their distance. The site of the early 1990’s homeless encampment, just north of the Manhattan Bridge, has become an outdoor gym – not quite Venice Beach, California, but a prescient concept given the pandemic. Six elevated lanes of the FDR Drive provided ample protection for a long row of generic outdoor workout machines; they appeared indestructible, although no one was using them when I passed by.
The wide open, precipitation-protected landscape felt soulless compared to the old encampment. In the past, by midday, there would have been grilling and live music. My favorite part was their art gallery. I recall a wonderful exhibit of single gloves. An impressive array—petite kids’ gloves in different colors and patterns, mid-size wool mittens, thick work gloves, and a few leather dress gloves were intermixed. Some were worn and others nearly new; all were arranged to keep the eye moving and the mind engaged. Each dangling glove hung fingers down at a different height, neatly wired to a twenty-five-foot section of stretched chain-link fence—a wind-resistant, see-through gallery wall. The compact riverfront neighborhood revealed an ever-changing, always lively landscape totally unlike any other area within the city’s grid.
Since the mid-1990s, the perimeter of what used to be called Manhattan Island has transformed considerably—after very little change during the preceding three or four decades. The formerly bustling edge of the island drifted into temporary oblivion as airplanes replaced ships for long-distance travel. Bridges and tunnels had already moved the spring point for river crossings inland and away from the shoreline. Parking lots and homeless people abounded in huge forgotten zones along the rivers.
Over the last two or three decades, the varied path around the island has been continually upgraded and expanded as the perimeter has been rediscovered. The most dangerous and difficult areas were eliminated; a walk and bike path was constructed over the Hudson River (in the upper west 80s) at significant expense—a rare use of funds for pedestrians rather than cars.
One significant pinch spot remains along the East River between 14th and 15th Streets. It has not changed since the 1980s and is currently a social distancing disaster. As I ran through it, dozens of people continually passed well within six inches of each other as we all squeezed between the supremacy of the currently underutilized FDR Drive and the “belt and suspenders” operation of Con Edison’s East River Generating Station. ConEd built a high-walled facility to receive crude oil for electricity production in case the expected supply of natural gas were to be disrupted. That was back when engineers had a seat at the table, when looking ahead, thinking, and planning were all valued.
Back in the city’s grid, I watched a guy zoom down Broadway on an electric skateboard. A spherical black helmet transformed his head into a bowling ball. The small camera mounted to the glossy ball must have been capturing amazing footage of the emptiness. No one was around. Video of moving through the empty space, block after block, probably conveys a vivid sense of the somatic experience of being out on the city’s streets in this rarefied time.