At 7:00 PM every night, my two children, ages 5 and 1, bang pots and pans and yell (read: scream), joining a chorus of ruckus-making voices applauding front line medical workers during their shift change. The 7:00 PM salute to healthcare workers has become New York City’s new ritual, the sounds of our appreciation drowning out the near-constant emergency sirens that have inundated the city since it became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the ritual has also made me feel closer to the neighbors now that I can no longer hug or stand close to them (or even speak to them from a distance without wearing a mask).
And while the gesture is meant to express the gratitude that we very much feel for those healthcare workers, I’ve realized this evening practice is as much for us as a community to do something that makes us feel a little less alone. We’re not just giving thanks to the people who’re caring for the sick and knowingly exposing themselves to a coronavirus. We’re saying to one another, “Hey, I’m here, too. I’m here with you. We’re here together.”
To live in New York City is to exist shoulder-to-shoulder with people you hardly know and, at best, infrequently talk to. I’ve lived in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, for four years in a four-story apartment building and could only tell you three of my neighbor’s first names. At most, when I do speak with the people I live directly beside and under, we make small talk about the weather or the failing metro system or the latest political blunder; I may answer questions about my two incredibly loud children they surely hear every single day; maybe I’ll ask how their work is going or if they passed the bar. There’s a special type of anonymity and tranquility one experiences when you’re one of 8.39 million people. This alone togetherness is a feature of living here, not a bug. Ask anyone who lives here: It’s part of New York City’s allure.
But now that the city has been devastated by COVID-19 and, as a result, we’ve been sheltering in place for over two months in an attempt to mitigate the spread of a virus that has already claimed the lives of over 18,000 New Yorkers and put healthcare workers to their limit, I am no longer able to exist shoulder to shoulder with the people living their lives parallel to mine. My shoulders and theirs are staying apart to keep each other safe. And while I can’t say we were close prior to this public health crisis, I can say that I miss the infrequent moments of small talk; the smiles and waves as we leave our building and walk toward the train for our sure-to-be hectic morning commute; the way we acknowledge one another in person, even if it’s semi-dismissive.
I moved to New York City, in part, so that I could feel connected to and become part of a group of this community. The way it functions is steeped, at once, in fierce individuality and also notorious mutual protectiveness. In the worst of times, New Yorkers come together, even if imperfectly and even if it’s just to fight with each other about what we should and shouldn’t do about the circumstances that brought us together.
But now, in order to protect one another, we have to stay away from one another. And it just feels… wrong.
Which is why I have, perhaps selfishly, started looking forward to 7:00 PM every evening so I can hear my neighbor’s voices and wave to them from our open windows and questionable fire escapes. When I hear my upstairs neighbor repeatedly bang a wooden spoon on a pot and yell at the top of her lungs for our city’s healthcare workers — the neighbor that, at one time, took my 5-year-old for an afternoon to bake cookies and play “Operation” and “Uno” so that I could focus solely on my 1-year-old — I know that she’s OK. She’s here. She’s with us.
When I hear the husband and wife across the hall — the same couple who, after I had accidentally locked myself and my two children out of our apartment, took us in for hours while we waited for my partner to return to work with another set of keys to let us in, coloring with my then-4-year-old and rocking the baby to sleep — I know they’re healthy. They haven’t left the city. They’re here.
When I see the family across the street — their children waving to my children, their voices growing louder in competition with my own — I remember that I am not alone, though the isolation of sheltering in place can certainly convince me otherwise. There are countless families, just like mine, doing their best to facilitate working from home, e-learning, the care of young children, and the stress and trauma of this crisis. They’re still here. They’re with us. And we’re with them.
It’s impossible to know what New York City is going to look like, feel like, and sound like once this crisis passes. It certainly will not look the same. But when 7:00 PM strikes, and we join our neighbors in a cheer of gratitude and solidarity, I am reminded that, one day, we will go back to rubbing shoulders on the subway, making small talk on our way to work, and feeling the comfort of being just one in a sea of 8.39 million. We’ll get to be close again, and perhaps, finally, we’ll start to feel like ourselves again, too.