Upper East Side, Manhattan

by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.

I’ve been hunkered down in Manhattan since we buried my mother in Boston in the middle of February. By the time I felt sufficiently restored to venture back out into the world, it was March and a virus was headed this way from the heart of Asia. Then the city shut down.

I live on the Upper East Side. Everyone who had access to a country house fled. Of the twenty-four units in our building, four had people in them. The neighborhood was deserted, shuttered, and silent. It was so silent that sometimes, between the ambulance sirens, you could hear church bells.

Out of nowhere appeared an existential question. It was a version of one of those thought experiments: “If there was a fire and you had to take just one thing from your house, what would it be?” This one was: “If there is a catastrophe, where do you want to be?” Assuming one might be locked down for months, for an unforeseeable future, which place is your true place? In mid-March, everyone was scrambling to get where they wanted to be before the music stopped: before borders were sealed, flights were grounded, quarantines went into effect, and the toilet paper was gone.

While our nearby hospitals seemed less overwhelmed than the ones in other boroughs, late March and early April were terrifying here. Not just mounting deaths and a sense of emergency and dread, but pervasive uncertainty. And mass graves. Drone shots of rows of unclaimed white coffins getting buried on Hart Island looked a lot like satellite shots of rows of shrouded bodies getting buried on the outskirts of Qom, Iran. The Navy sent a hospital ship. A field hospital went up in Central Park blocks from us—like the ones set up in war zones by Doctors Without Borders.

In conversations with my friends who had left the city, I heard about them driving here and there, doing errands, getting boats launched and gardens landscaped, having people over for a socially distanced drink. It was clear they were living on some other planet.

Now summer is here, and the city is coming up for air. Things will be the same and different. Some people will come back. They’re New Yorkers. They love New York. But here is not the where they chose. It will feel like talking with people who missed 9/11: You have no idea.

Published on June 17, 2020