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Charity’s Column: My weekend getaway

It’s been busy here on Shelter Island; normal for August, but it’s been this way since March, and it seems like some of that busyness is going to be permanent. 

For the first time in my memory, people are living in every house in my neighborhood all week long, and no one goes home on Sunday. Every day delivery trucks roll through bearing water, taking trash away and bringing repair crews. Oxford Avenue is like West End Avenue without doormen.

With the downstate COVID-19 infection rate down to 2%, I decided to leave Shelter Island for a weekend getaway to a bucolic place with the ambiance of yesteryear, a place away from lines of people and the hectic thrum of commerce.

New York City.

My mission was a new eyeglass prescription, but what I really wanted to see more clearly was what had become of my favorite city since March. We’ve all been through a lot.

First I stopped in Brooklyn to do some stoop-sitting with my son, who lives in Bed Stuy. We sat masked on the 6-feet-apart steps, drank tea, and were soon joined by his neighbor, Patrice.

We talked parking. The alternate-side-of-the-street regulations that were suspended during the emergency, were coming back in modified form, requiring a new set of space-finding strategies. “Those guys,” said Patrice pointing to the brownstone directly across from the stoop, “they have four or five cars, so they take up most of one side of Macon, and those spots will never be open. But if you can get back from work by 6 a.m. (my son works a night shift) I can give you my spot when I leave for work.”

It was a generous and neighborly offer. Patrice works as a meat wrapper at a nearby grocery store. She is strictly a wrapper, not a meat cutter as I discovered when I asked how the butcher business was doing in the time of COVID. It sounded stressful.

“The thing about being a wrapper is that people come up to you and want to take the packages from you while you’re trying to put them out,” she said. Patrice is getting close to retirement age, so she’s not looking for any unnecessary contact with customers.

My son told me the other day that she’s now looking for a new place to live. The landlord is evicting everyone in the building (including my son), taking advantage of the upended real estate market to renovate his building.

Next stop, Manhattan, where I found a parking space on 101st Street that was good for a week. Until March, finding long-term free parking on the Upper West Side was like hitting it big on the Double Diamond Deluxe at Mohegan. Although I didn’t intend to stay in New York for more than a couple of days, with a spot like that, I had to consider staying longer.

There are wildlife-watching opportunities in New York. I saw falcons hunting in Riverside Park, and the coyote who lives in Central Park was spotted near the Time-Warner Center on April 22. In the parks, wild animals are the only ones not wearing masks.

Sidewalk cafés appeared in front of every restaurant that was still open, and the people who remained came out of their apartments like seeds spilling out of dried chili pepper. Almost everyone wore a mask. The local diner where I used to edit textbooks on mechanical engineering while holding down a booth with a Cobb salad and a cup of tea, was now serving Greek omelets and hash browns to people seated at a table under an umbrella, adjacent to a well-used fire hydrant.

Walking down Columbus Avenue, I heard a guy sitting at a sidewalk table in the 70s say, through his mask, “I haven’t been south of 72nd Street since this started.” 

My West End Avenue ophthalmologist wrote me a prescription while describing the heartache he felt not being able to meet his first grandchild, born months earlier in Virginia, while he was stuck in New York. He and his wife were planning a road trip once they could figure out the right sequence of testing and isolation necessary to visit safely.

I needed new lenses, so I called an optician near Fifth Avenue in midtown who made eyeglasses for me when I worked near Grand Central, and to my surprise they were not only still in business, they were open.

I hopped on a Citi bike and rode down on protected bike lanes through light traffic with a lot of other bikers, most wearing masks as they pedaled.

The store looked exactly as it had 20 years ago, even the frames, which looked as vintage as the store.

Every retail business that was open seemed to be conducting a clearance sale. Once a shopping Mecca, Fifth Avenue was hollowed-out with scattered groups of shoppers homing in on the most expensive brands like speculators, betting that someday before that Armani jumpsuit is no longer stylish, there will be an event to wear it to.

In front of Saks Fifth Avenue, two well-dressed shoppers laden with the large rectangular bags that indicate high-end ready-to-wear ran into each other in front of Saks. “I can’t believe you’re here! How have you been? Everyone is healthy?”

My visit to Grand Central felt like a pilgrimage to the heart of New York, and although it was still grand, and always central, as a station it had lost some steam, since almost no one was going anywhere.

Its stores and restaurants were mostly closed, there were no lines at the ticket windows, and no cluster of tourists standing around the golden four-sided clock atop the information kiosk.

But the Main Concourse looked bigger, and more beautiful than I have ever seen it before, and I’ll never forget the hush, and the rush of emotion that filled my eyes, with what must be love for my wounded city.