How a City Comes Back to Life
Lara had a hard pandemic. Many members of his family fell ill and an uncle died. But he never doubted the city’s resilience. “It doesn’t even seem there was a transition—it’s like a switch flipped and New York was open again, from one night to the next,” he said. “What I don’t get is people saying New Yorkers are rude and arrogant. When the pandemic hit, we stood in our little one-bedroom apartments and didn’t go out. We did it for society. It’s funny, I had some road work during the pandemic, and, when I travelled in the cities that have these huge homes with land and pools, they’re, like, ‘We can’t stay indoors!’ New Yorkers sat in one-bedroom apartments for a year and just said, ‘O.K.’ We got hit the hardest, and I kept hearing, ‘New York is dead.’ I was just, like, ‘Of course New York will bounce back.’ This is not like some . . . pop-up city that’s just becoming trendy.”
Of all the arts, singing is perhaps the most ominous to an epidemiologist. In that imaginary diagram of aerosolization, a comic would be expelling dribble, but a fine, full-out singer would be a toxic fountain, misting the virus deep into the tenth row. (One of the first documented superspreading events in this country involved a choir rehearsal.) Singers wondered for a desolate year if they would ever return to work. Plexiglas shields and distanced audiences have been tried, but the real cabaret night-club experience—the singer there, turning emotion into vocalese; you here, receiving the fluttering air and translating it back into emotion—had been denied.
The experiment was at last being tried on a Saturday night at a previously obscure club, the Green Room 42, hidden away on top of a Times Square hotel. Alice Ripley, the Tony-winning star of “Next to Normal,” was coming back to sing with a small, Carole King-style band of piano and acoustic guitar. It was not exactly a return to tradition, however. Where once at the Copacabana or the El Morocco there were ashtrays and de-facto dress codes, with Walter Winchell making mordant notes and cancelling careers, the crowd tonight, mostly in the new uniform of shorts and T-shirts and baseball caps, was ushered in two by two, all masked, and placed in strict semicircles around naked tables. There would be no water, no drinks, and no food; the masks were to stay on all the time. (A few rebels in the back lowered theirs.)
And then the air-conditioning collapsed, defeated by the late-spring humidity: the people packed inside and facing the musicians in front were not merely perspiring but in many cases gasping for water, or relief. The experience had less the feeling of a New York cabaret than of a life raft with night-club tables on it, set adrift on the ocean, with the suffering audience waving ripped shirts at distant ships.
Yet when Alice Ripley came out and began to sing, with her big, belting voice, the atmosphere altered. Ripley, dressed in a pink gown and sneakers, was perspiring and making jokes about it. But within five minutes her devotees were en extase, applauding, cheering, living again.
Ripley is the kind of performer who violates the basic premises of her craft with such authenticity that you start to doubt the premises, not the violations. Instead of singing familiar chanteuse numbers, Gershwin and Kern, she sings pop power ballads of the eighties and nineties—Phil Collins songs, Foreigner songs—which she treats as though they were by Harold Arlen. Hearing “I Wanna Know What Love Is” sung as though it might be “Last Night When We Were Young” is an education in creative transformation. Ripley turned James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face”—“Whenever I see your smiling face / I have to smile myself”—into a kind of tribute to what she expected to be the unmasked moment, which she saw, looking out, hadn’t quite arrived.
All the same, nobody ducked or avoided her as she sang. People seemed to bathe in the common sweat and spit. Where the comedy audience felt still halfway in the unease of the pandemic, the cabaret audience, despite the pandemic precautions weighing on their pleasures, was just done with it. They were an audience kept from being an audience, dreaming of being an audience again. When Ripley performed, phones flared on, hands were clasped, tears fell, applause greeted even the bridges of songs. Couples who had never met before had been placed alongside one another, in the thrifty New York way, and forced—still masked and without the small protective armor of a glass with a drink in it—to acknowledge their too-present presence. But the music brought everyone together, on one beat, and tables danced—the upper bodies danced, at least—in unison. Often, it seemed as if every couple at every table were watching the show through their iPhone cameras, listening to Alice even as they kept Alice for later, for good.
“It used to bother me,” she said afterward. “Now I just hope that when they put it on YouTube I look O.K.” Ripley regarded this night in the spirit of a preview, rather than an opening. “I guess I’m still singing to masks,” she said. “Soon, the air-conditioner will be working. Soon, you will be allowed to drink water. We’ve come a long way, with theatre. But it’s been so strange, this weekend, the way everything just hatched. All these people! It’s as if they all just popped out of little cocoons.” (Since her performance, the Green Room 42 has begun serving food and drinks, and vaccinated concertgoers can go maskless.)
Ripley described the experience of walking through Times Square when the city was largely shut down: “It was a cardboard cutout, a piece of scenery. We lost an ice-cream place—I felt that it’s my personal duty to eat as much ice cream as I could. People asked, Why are we trying to save a restaurant? But it’s not a restaurant—it’s kind of like a church.” The gospel of resilience was very much on her mind. “The one good thing we singers all learned is that we have to make our own music,” she went on. “We were so dependent before! Waiting for bookings, for someone to smile. For a year, we sang for each other on StreamYard”—Zoom for performers, basically—“and we learned, hey, we can always book ourselves.”
At the end of the evening, the audience filed out, masks still on, eyes alight with elation at having finally heard a show. Outside, on Tenth Avenue, from Forty-second Street right up to Fifty-seventh, every seat in every outdoor dining shed seemed taken, an uninterrupted vista of bare faces feeding.
A discarded mask looks eerily like a dead rat—at least if it is black and has long ties and has been thrown aside on the paths of a park. The city bicyclist, racing around the Central Park loop, closed to car traffic now for years, sees a cast-off mask ahead and swerves. The road is suddenly filled with these discarded masks, as though people, having been told that they were not absolutely essential, made a chorus-line gesture of tossing them extravagantly aside, in some common ecstatic striptease of relief. The repopulation of the parks by raccoons and other, less romantic rodents was an easily overlooked story of the pandemic, though it seemed rare for any New Yorker, in any borough, not to report an alarmingly close encounter with a budget-sized creature roaming through bonus-sized trash bags, apparently brought about by the combination of more trash and fewer people on the streets. This made the confusion of abandoned masks with run-over rodents worryingly plausible.
The “great bike boom” was a happier feature of the pandemic year; the count of bicycle usage (and rentals, and sales, and thefts) multiplied. It wasn’t just a bike boom, though: the Central Park circuit got crowded with e-bikes and motorized scooters, not to mention those weird balance-beam motorized unicycles. The pandemic seemed to double the self-propelled traffic in the Park, and has brought to mind Winslow Homer’s Civil War-era woodblock prints of mobs of New Yorkers on skates tripping over other New Yorkers.
We’re reminded that the city got turned inside out during the past year, in the specific sense that sidewalk dining and parkgoing became central to urban life; the outdoors became indoors, and the indoors outdoors. This may have extended past recreation into the more hazily poetic sense that the first became last and the last first—with an altered sense of who was and was not an essential worker, and what was and was not essential work. It is hard to turn a city inside out without turning its citizens’ consciousness around, too. We did not change our lives, but the hope persists that, by redefining our space, we may yet remake our essence.
And yet the ebbing pandemic leaves in its wake a curious absence of exultation. “Absence of Exultation” could indeed be as much the motto of the reopening as “Abundance of Caution” was of the closing. The end of plagues in great cities has sometimes been celebrated by erecting buildings—as with the most beautiful Baroque church in the world, the Santa Maria della Salute, in Venice. In New York, no one would expect Baroque exuberance in architectural form, but we might seek more in behavior.
Yet the overcharge of information that governs our time—the knowledge of variants and mutations that previous generations who suffered worse plagues than ours were unaware of—has left us with the permanent jumps. And so our deliverance feels merely like a detour. Exultation in our time is a private emotion, shared at most with a room full of perspiring cabaret enthusiasts. “Glad to be alive” is perhaps the loudest form it can decently take, and surreptitiously throwing aside a mask in the park may be the one satisfying ritual that the ending offers.
“We note the signs of better times, slyly, as a mother notes the progress of a child,” E. B. White wrote cautiously in another turnaround summer, that of 1934. “We see cafés overflowing, hotels gay again.” And he added, “Essentially, the American depression was not a plague, scourging and chastening the people, but a problem in bookkeeping, irritating and unbalancing them. Its most notable effect was the election of a President who would be glad to redistribute wealth if there were any way, constitutionally.” Our great change, the pandemic, was a problem not in bookkeeping but in public health, which could be resolved by a solution in public health, and produced its own kind of unexpected politics, which may or may not be sustained.
On East 163rd Street, Dwayne Johnson packed another Styrofoam box of ribs and greens, added mustard sauce, and then placed it inside a black plastic bag. Like many small food merchants, he is dealing with a sudden rise in the cost of wholesale goods. “Three months ago, it was two dollars and five cents for a pound of ribs—today, three dollars and forty-five cents,” he said. “When the pandemic started, it went from one-eighty-nine, to two-twenty-five, then it came back down to two-oh-five. It’s supply and demand. Eventually, when things come down, it will come round.”
What hasn’t changed is his hours. “I’m always here from 8 a.m. to nine-thirty at night. It’s my choice to hang around. I love this neighborhood. It took care of me and my family for sixty-seven years. I have the responsibility to show the young people you have choices.” He added, “My father gave me the building, not just the business. You have to do that in the city, own the building to keep the business.”
On a whiteboard near the cash register, his daughter Stacia likes to write timely maxims and aphorisms, which she changes every day. A typical one might read, “Detachment is power: release all things and people that no longer serve you.” Highest and seemingly most recent on the current list is “The good always outweighs the bad,” and then, beside it, almost as an afterthought, a small salute: “Thank God.” ♦