Pandemics and protests can’t dim my city’s spark….
Abandoning ship (and a friendship with roots)
I woke up nervous. It was the middle of June and I was heading to my office in New York City for the first time since March 12th. That was the day my life changed in major ways without me even quite noticing.
Back then this pandemic thing seemed overblown, but we were being sent home from work for an indefinite period of time — perhaps an entire two weeks until the end of March! I walked several blocks through the crowded city to my car, seeming to hear the word coronavirus on everyone’s lips. It was surreal. I was clueless I was probably walking through a hot zone of the same virus everyone was talking about.
I began working from home 72 miles outside the city and became proficient at Zoom and making my husband sick of me. As two weeks turned into three months, I began worrying obsessively about a jade plant I had left behind that was a gift from a coworker. Why hadn’t I thought to bring it that last afternoon I was in the office?? I remembered a terrible story about Hurricane Katrina where two dogs were found dead at their front door faithfully waiting for their owner to return and feed them. That story haunted me. Was my jade plant waiting for me as it slowly died of thirst? I’m sure Keith will come back, to water me, I imagined it saying. We’ve been together nine years.
I cared about that plant, but I suspected it represented a lot more. The truth was, everything in my world was feeling totally out of my control.
Two weeks ago I got a notice the lease was up for our office building in midtown Manhattan, and because of Covid-related delays we wouldn’t be able to move into our new space until at September at the earliest. Each employee was given a strict two-hour window to come pack up our things. Only a few of us were allowed in the building at a time, and wearing masks would be strictly enforced. My time slot was one of the first.
As I drove through the Lincoln Tunnel, I thought about the first time I had come to New York City, with my Ohio college theatre department. I had only known Manhattan from montages in TV shows and movies. Nothing prepared me for what assaulted my senses as the bus emerged from the dark of the tunnel on that gray November mornings so many years ago.
The energy that hummed from the sidewalks was so powerful I felt more alive than I had in my entire life. Even though the sky was overcast, the city still had an incandescence from the signs that were lit up even during the day with names such as Panasonic, Coca-Cola, and Suntory Royal Whiskey. Nestled between them were huge billboards advertising Evita and Howard Johnson’s and Castro Convertibles.
I sat at the edge of my bus seat transfixed by this new world outside my window of yellow taxis incessantly honking horns as they wove through lanes vainly trying to go fast in the impossible gridlock; and the people of every color and hue darting through the cars and walking down the sidewalks dressed in suits and jeans and furs and exotic saris as they passed hot dog vendors and stepped over manhole covers where steam shot towards the sky from some mysterious world underground.
This was not Ohio. I could feel the vibration of the city and it matched my own. I had found home.
But nothing prepared me for the men. They were quite obviously gay, and I was flabbergasted they could be so bold about it. They wore tight pants in bright colors, and shirts open to their navels showing off their chest hair. When I walked down the street, they turned their heads to look at me, sometimes stopping in their tracks and spinning all the way around to watch me stumble shyly in the opposite direction — red-faced, flattered and wanting to die all at once. I was completely unaware that being 19-years-old and fresh off the Ohio bus was like catnip to the seen-it-all New Yorkers.
Flash forward to the land of hangry rats
A lot has changed since then.
New York isn’t my home anymore. It’s only where I work since I moved away three years ago. And it has been awhile since men turned around to get a second look at me.
But had it changed even more since I last saw it in March? I was curious how the city had held up after several months of lockdown followed by almost two weeks of marches supporting Black Lives Matter and protesting the murder of George Floyd. From news reports and social media, I pretty much expected it to be deserted and boarded up. I had even heard the rats were starving from the lack of people leaving uneaten food around and had become terrifyingly aggressive.
But as I drove through the heart of Manhattan, I was surprised to see it looking pretty normal — a little less crowded maybe — like the city on a summer Sunday morning when most New Yorkers are at Jones Beach, Fire Island, or The Hamptons. I did see a few boarded-up windows, but it was a functioning, still-alive city. I could feel that magic vibration, even if it was less intense — I just hoped it wasn’t a stampede of vicious rats I was sensing.
I looked forward to revisiting my familiar haunts, but as I walked toward my office I discovered my favorite coffee place was still closed. For the last ten years with only a few interruptions, I had coffee every day at 3pm with my friends and co-workers Jamie and Sara. We took those fifteen minutes very seriously.
When I met them after starting my job, the three of us were single and living in rented apartments. Over our decade of daily catch-ups, we each got married (not even a legal possibility for me when we first met), they both had children, and we all bought our own homes. I had even officiated Sara’s wedding and walked with Jamie to the jewelers the day he was going to propose to his future wife. As I looked through the window of the dark and deserted space, I realized the next time we’d all see each other we’d be in a new building in a new part of town. I was certain we’d find another coffee shop. This pandemic couldn’t break the bond that had grown between us. But the truth was I wasn’t ever sure we would realistically see each other in person for the rest of the year.
It was the end of an era without any fanfare.
Returning to the scene of the crime
The inside of our office looked like it had been raided by a SWAT team. The kitchen had yellow police tape blocking the entrance as if it was the site of a homicide. Footsteps taped to the floor showed me which direction I had to walk. But when I arrived at my office I couldn’t believe my eyes.
My jade plant was alive!
Barely. Time was definitely of the essence. I grabbed a thermos off my desk and headed to the kitchen.
Oh right…the kitchen was sealed off.I turned abruptly around and followed the footsteps on the carpet which took me in the opposite direction of the bathroom that was the other source of precious water. I finally made it there after circling the entire circumference of the empty office. Almost ten minutes later, I returned with a full thermos. I am pretty convinced that plant was literally one minute from totally giving up the ghost.
Don’t stand so…
As I finished watering, four hired movers rushed in and offered to bubble wrap my posters and lamps. They were quite friendly and eager to help, but kept pulling down their masks to talk to me up close. I wanted to back up, but my office wasn’t big enough. My only option would have been to ask them to keep their masks on and not stand so close to me. I’m codependent so that is hard enough, but compound that with the fact that I’m white, the movers were black, and society’s nerves were frayed because cops who look like me couldn’t seem to stop murdering people who look like the movers. I became self-conciously vigilant that I not say or do the wrong thing.
I had marched in my own peaceful protest back in my hometown (mask on and doing my utmost to keep six feet from everyone), but I knew things could easily be taken the wrong way. I had already had an awkward moment when the movers first walked into my office. One of the guys tried to fist bump me (I guess that’s safer than a handshake?) and when I clumsily tried to return the gesture, I somehow accidentally punched him right in the stomach. It wasn’t a hard punch, but still….
Now I considered what I could possibly say that wouldn’t come out sounding wrong. “Can you not stand so close to me — not because you are black, but because one of us might have Covid?”
No, that wouldn’t work at all.
I was baffled. Was I racist for even thinking about this, or was I just being culturally hypersensitive? And was being culturally hypersensitive a form of racism? I felt very guilty, and very white.
I dove in, packing up my office alongside them with my mask on and doing my best to keep socially distanced when i could.
But that feeling of life being confusing and out of control welled up in me stronger than ever.
Don’t count us out yet
A few hours later, I was heading back out the Lincoln Tunnel with my office belongings crammed in the car and my jade plant sitting on the passenger seat noticeably perked up and enjoying the sun.
I saw the iconic Empire State Building in my rearview mirror and smiled for the first time in a while.
I realized New York City was a lot like the plant at my side.
They had both seen some hard times, but had bounced back and were looking ready to thrive again.
I decided that maybe they were an omen of hope for the rest of us humans. Maybe we could also figure out how to bounce back and even thrive together in this world.
I wasn’t completely convinced…but maybe…
About the Author: Keith Hoffman is a writer in Lambertville, NJ. You can reach him any time by Zoom except from 3 to 3:15 when he is having virtual coffee with his friends. He still hopes to turn heads on the street every once in awhile…as long as they don’t stand too close and are wearing masks.