Forty-eighth Entry



Sunday, May 3rd, 2020

Today I had an espresso, my first since the lockdown started. Served in a tiny paper cup less than 2″ tall, it probably contained the same amount of paper used in the meter-long receipt from yesterday’s hand sanitizer purchase. The espresso did the trick and provided a more worthwhile use of paper pulp, though I would have preferred a tiny ceramic cup.  

At midday, I went out for a run and headed east to see what may have changed along the southern end of the East River. Beat cops with seemingly little to do were out in pairs, they had masks and, of course, guns. At the vast Pier 36, I noticed an American flag which was not lowered to half-mast like others in the city. The limp stars and stripes hung just above a 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 plenty of space for everyone to maintain 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, but a prescient concept given the pandemic. Six elevated lanes of the FDR Drive provide ample cover for a long row of generic, indestructible looking, outdoor workout machines. No one was using them when I passed.   

The wide open, precipitation-protected landscape felt soulless compared to the old encampment. Years ago, local residents would have been grilling and listening to live music by early afternoon. My favorite part was their art gallery. I recall a wonderful exhibit of single gloves. An impressive array: colorful patterns, petite kids’ gloves, mid-size wool mittens, thick work gloves, and a few leather dress gloves were intermixed. Some were well-worn, and others were nearly new. All arranged to keep the viewer engaged and the eye moving. Each glove hung with the fingers dangling down a different heights. The exhibition installers discreetly wired the gloves to a twenty-five-foot section of chain-link fence. The fence, stretched with bits of rope, provided a wind-resistant, see-through, gallery wall. The compact riverfront neighborhood revealed an ever-changing, lively landscape distinct from other areas within this island’s grid. 

Since the mid-1990s, the perimeter of what used to be called Manhattan Island has been significantly transformed, after 30 or 40 years of very little change. The formerly bustling edge of the island drifted into temporary oblivion as airplanes replaced ships for long-distance travel. Bridges and tunnels inadvertently shifted the spring point for river crossings inland, away from the shoreline. Parking lots and homeless people populated the forgotten zones along the rivers which encircle the entire island.   

In the last two or three decades, the varied path around most of the island has been continually upgraded as the island’s perimeter has been rediscovered. One of the most dangerous and scary zones was eliminated with the addition of an elevated  foot/bike path over the Hudson River in the West 80s—a rare use of significant funds for pedestrians instead of cars.

One significant pinch spot remains along the East River between 14th and 15th Streets. No change since the 1980s or earlier. Since Covid, this area has become a social distancing disaster. I ran through the four or five-hundred-foot long narrow path, squeezed between the supremacy of the currently underutilized FDR Drive and the “belt and suspenders” operation of Con Edison’s East River Generating Station. I passed dozens of people with barely six inches of “social distance.” 

In the late 1950s or early 60s Consolidated Edison built a high-walled annex to their power plant to receive crude oil with the idea to maintain electricity production in case the supply of natural gas was disrupted. That was back when engineers still had a seat at the table, when thinking, and planning were still valued. At that time the public had no interest in being near the dirty rivers. But things change and the annex built right along the East River has become a seemingly unfixable problem.   

Back in the city’s grid, I watched a guy speed south in the middle of Broadway on an electric skateboard. He was south of Houston Street wearing a spherical black helmet that looked like a bowling ball. A small camera, mounted to the glossy ball, must have been capturing amazing images of the continually shocking emptiness. The footage zooming through the empty space, block after block without a person around, will likely convey a vivid sense of the somatic experience of being out on the city’s streets in these unfamiliar days.