I biked today through a remarkably gray and lifeless midtown Manhattan. It looks as if no one is working. The food trucks are missing. There were empty parking spaces, few taxis. I don’t know how the big companies function. All businesses need maintenance, contact, live flesh.
Plenty of skin was displayed on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The mad medievalists are still whipping themselves red over our shortcomings. Their leaflet offered the usual catalogue of misdeeds by the Roman Church (in which I was raised), plus man’s general immorality and lack of penitence. That’s reassuring: During the Black Death, hordes of flagellants marched around Germany, inciting people to destroy the Jews they blamed for the Plague.
The more restrained contemporary version was hideous to watch—or hear. The men beat themselves in stark rhythm, beginning with a whoosh as the knouts swept through the air, then a collective whomp as they ripped into human tissue, and finally the tcchh sound of tiny barbs being torn out of them in unison. Did some of these men used to wear suits in nearby skyscrapers?
Lest we be spattered by gore, the audience kept distant. Some baited the flagellants. Others cursed the hecklers. The police looked dangerously unhappy, though it’s all apparently legal as long as no one flogs anyone else and the men don’t lose their loincloths (or insult the mayor). They evidently don’t enlist women.
Then I biked to the top of the island to see what’s become of my car. First I pedaled along a path up the Hudson River to the tallest part of Manhattan Island, just north of the George Washington Bridge. A mockingbird was riffing in all directions over the old train tracks. Those critters inspired jazz.
I felt lucky to be exploring the city, rediscovering movement. My hamstrings haven’t forgiven me yet, but I’m absolving them with ice. I won’t pretend it isn’t a drag to bike hard while wearing a serious mask, but I grew accustomed to it. There were long stretches where I was alone and could breathe nakedly, the sun on my face. The air was clean, the skies blue.
I coasted down Broadway into the 190s, 10 miles north of my home. My sense of menace dissipated as I realized no one cared to harm me. New Yorkers are spooky and angry and needy—their gait is slower, confused, wary—but there was none of the malice or viciousness I’d anticipated having to flee. Manhattan was more like an afternoon break on a George Romero set, with the zombies content to relax, stretch, smoke.
The streets up there were filled with cyclists. Even surrounded by contagion, the riders were friendly, almost exultant. People on bicycles seem convinced they’re not ill. They must believe their exertions confirm it, the way some churchgoers think pious behavior proves they’re destined for heaven.
I Hope They Recycled it
I felt like a double agent. Bicyclists in New York tend to hate cars. But I was using my two-wheeled Green Dream to rescue my four-wheeled Toxic Public Nemesis from the bus stop where the panicky crowd had left it.
The corner was vacant.
My old VW Fox had vanished, crumpled axle and all. With so many stranded Acuras to steal, why would anyone want a dented, busted, four-cylinder German sedan that was made in Brazil before the millennium? All the plastic stuff had long since snapped off—not least, the door lock buttons.
A shopkeeper who looked as if he maintains an arsenal under his counter remembered seeing it. Didn’t know when, flung his hands as he shrugged. (I guess he trusted me.) The man actually had grub to sell. I was hungry, but it wasn’t fresh.
I called the police tow garages in Manhattan and the Bronx. Each answered after long delays. One cop sounded surprised that anyone had waited for him to pick up. “You know the problems these days,” he mumbled. Sure, I predicted them.
Tired, I followed Broadway south for five miles until I realized I was near Central Park. There I found a strange world of flugitives camping peacefully enough, interspersed with mounted cops rousting people who didn’t look like they were camping. No one bothered to yell so I couldn’t tell what activity the police were discouraging. It looked like a jerky silent movie without title cards to tell you what’s happening.
Sticks, Stones & Dead Birds
I pedaled up a steep hill to Belvedere Castle, next to the Central Park Weather Station. The courtyard was strewn with paper, deserted except for a couple of men barking into cell phones in foreign tongues. One had a little girl with him. She gazed at the battlements as if she wished a prince would come down to entertain her.
A frog croaked in the pond far below. I was tempted to tell her about the amphibious route to royalty.
Instead I bounced my bike down some stone steps into the Ramble, a wooded labyrinth famed for nighttime activities I won’t describe here. I’d never been there, but it was scandalously pleasant to be surrounded by tall trees and chirping birds. The woods were deserted by humans, which was fine with me.
A trail led me onto a peninsula that jutted out into the lake, toward the big fountain on the other side. In better times, the water would be full of tourists rowing rented boats, but it was empty—except for ducks and geese that blithely pretended to know nothing of any plague. One honked at me like a native New Yorker of yore: “Boid flu, wazzat?”
As the sun began setting, I made my way to a bridge over the lake. On the shore below, I saw a pile of geese that hadn’t died naturally. Some jerk had gone to a lot of trouble to catch and torture them. Need I repeat that whatever strain wild birds have is not the one people are giving each other? We are our problem.
In a secluded patch of magical, fading light not far from the carousel, I paused to watch a circle of hippies. At first I thought they were partying like it was 1969, trading tokes and blues on pipes and strings. But they were chanting for the dead. I sat by to admire their rich, heartfelt harmonies as I thought of Lisa, her big brown eyes, her serene smile.
As the sun set, the group invited me to break innumerable laws by smoking with them. (It’s illegal to smoke anything in a city park.) A friend in Virginia had died of bird flu, and this was his memorial. I started to talk about the pandemic, but they stopped me after I mentioned that nature might be targeting mammals. “Dude, the other critters are collateral damage. It’s us.” No point in arguing with that.
Before I rode off in the dark, I traded a pair of masks for some herbal supplies. (Mine await a lucky intruder, upstate.) Nothing like finding a vendor who so enthusiastically uses her own. In my neighborhood, they favor harder stuff these days.
A patrol car stopped me on my way home. I told the cop I’d just delivered masks to a doctor in the West Village, showed her my remaining sample. She was pleased to accept it and told me how to obtain a permit to break curfew. I asked how dangerous it is at night. She shook her head and murmured: “Pretty dead.”