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Home: A place I’ve never been before

| Wednesday, April 1, 2020

On March 16, I sat on the tarmac in Detroit destined for Newark, New Jersey, with my final destination being my home in New York City. I was one of 30 passengers on a plane with a capacity for over 100. Despite the barren airport and dire headlines, many things about my travel experience that day were perfectly routine: I arrived at the airport far too early (as usual), I wrestled my bag into the overhead bin and toggled through a mix of news and social media as the plane roared to life around me. In yet another routine scroll through Twitter, I came across a lyric from John Denver’s song “Rocky Mountain High,” which reads, “Coming home to a place he’d never been before.” The quotation served as a timely reminder that I was returning to a place experiencing hardship that I could only begin to comprehend.

I read this in Michigan, with the plane beginning to crawl along the runway, and I was intrigued, yet skeptical. I was unsure as to how something even as omnipresent as COVID-19 could change the very fabric of a city I thought I knew so well. For many, life in New York is a paradox. With a population density of over 27,000 people per square mile, closeness is a fact of life. Even from my apartment on the 16th floor I am constantly reminded of my 8.5 million neighbors through the blaring sirens and the constant cacophony of voices, horns and church bells below. However, in this state of constant proximity, I find myself, along with many of my fellow New Yorkers, going about our day to day doing everything we can to distance ourselves from those around us. Whether it be walking with headphones in, averting my gaze to oncoming passersby or contorting my body to stay within the beveled confines of my seat on the subway, I exist so close to so many people, and yet manage to be so utterly disconnected.

As I arrived home and began to adjust to my new normal, I came to the following realization: COVID-19 has brought the city of New York to its knees. With over 50,000 reported cases and counting, resources are becoming scarce, and prospects are looking increasingly grim. During times of tragedy and uncertainty, a call for strength often dominates, a quality essential for overcoming tough times. In New York, with such strength has arrived a beautiful softness. I’ve seen countless displays of vulnerability and compassion among a population that is continually defined by its stoicism and grit. Such displays occur in the grocery store, where I watched a man make absolutely certain nobody else in the aisle needed the last package of pasta he was about to put in his cart. I pass couples holding hands, the sentiment permeating the gloves they both wear, and an elderly man carrying a large bouquet of flowers from our local bodega — the only way to sense his joy is the upward motion of the smile lines around his eyes. I pass a stranger in the street, as he sees me carrying my coffee he notes, “We all need a caffeine drip nowadays,” a comment producing genuine laughter from us both.

While these few encounters can hardly be emblematic of an entire city, they echo the compassion that has embraced New York City’s residents in the midst of shared fear and suffering. Rather than distance themselves from others, I see my friends and neighbors fiercely trying to connect, even from six feet apart.

As the number of unmasked faces in the street continues to dwindle and the city that never sleeps is lulled into a reluctant quiescence, I am afraid. I fear for the medical workers, grocery store clerks and countless others that continue to work everyday, despite the risk. I fear for those who are no longer working amidst the pandemic and lack financial security during this time. I fear for the elderly and immunocompromised, whose risks associated with COVID-19 far outweigh my own. However, I take great solace in the fact that fear and hope are not mutually exclusive, and my hope for NYC remains paramount. I have faith in the wake of such tragedy, uncertainty and loss, that New Yorkers will not only survive, but triumph. As normalcy returns, I hope to find myself in a crowded subway car yet again, where we all curse under our breaths as we press together to make room for one more, this time a little more cognizant of the privilege that is a routine trip on the 1 train. Ultimately, I disagree that I arrived home in a place I’d never been before, but rather believe this facet of New York City and its people has been here all along.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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