My girlfriend and I are holed up in Harlem, just south of its epicenter at 125thand Lenox Ave, a.k.a. Malcom X Blvd. Since there are no delivery dates available from any purveyor until far into next week (I write on March 31), I’ve been going out to shop for groceries every three or four days at 7:00 AM, when Whole Foods opens its doors for one hour to customers 60 years and older, then lets the less vulnerable in to hunt and gather.
There’s a police-style metal barricade that runs 50 feet west on 125thStreet from Lenox, channeling us senior citizens into a socially-distanced single file so that security guards can check our ID. Once inside, it’s clear sailing–the aisles are bustling with employees stocking the shelves or filling carts with food for delivery, but the masked customers are few, no more than 20 percent of the store’s current population.
Outside–a security guard has to let you out–there are even fewer civilians. Used to be that at any given morning hour, dozens of addicts of all kinds would be gathered on the corner of 124th, waiting for the rehab/detox clinic behind Whole Foods to open. Not yesterday. Maybe three or four old guys waving canes, talking trash, smoking cigarettes. The hallal truck wasn’t there, either, nor the tented vegetable stand. Suddenly you can feel a lot of social distance on this street.
North of Central Park, Lenox (6thAve) is a wide boulevard, six lanes divided by a tree-lined esplanade, flanked by sidewalks 25 feet deep. It has American dimensions but a European feel–it’s made for strolling, that old-time promenade. Also stopping in, having a drink, shooting the breeze, eating outside, admiring strangers . . . .
Not yesterday. My girlfriend and set out on a walk to the Park, thirteen blocks south. What was different? Everything. No kids, to begin with. Not one. Usually they’re swarming the sidewalks, laughing and shrieking, or marching silently to the cadence set by their teachers. No tourists, either.
Also, many more masks than ever before–like the number of CORVID-19 cases, they seem to be doubling every 24 hours. Nobody on the basketball and handball courts, so the normal ambient noise of thumping and thwacking is gone. Murmurs of conversation remain, but mostly you hear just the stray sound of automobiles, which, far fewer than last week, seem to be practicing a disciplined, mechanical social distancing of their own. And most of the restaurants are just closed, not even offering takeout.
Well, duh. We’re all locked down. Still, the shape and the motion of the street was striking. First, the spacing. I felt like I was being coached to keep it right, as if I were still playing basketball, moving instinctively away from the player with the ball to prevent the double-team, to catch his pass, to take my shot.
Then, the swerving. Us pedestrians kept rounding our routes to keep our social distance, so the sidewalk felt like a skate park, everybody finding a new way around the other skaters, keeping their rhythm and momentum by leaning left or right. Instead of walking straight lines, headed for here or there, all of us were carving out parabolas, becoming new planets in orbit around each other.
If we could light this motion, it would be beautiful.