I met up with Renard (not his real name) in the yellow afternoon glow of an empty Union Square. He had his bike with him, trying to pick up any deliveries he could. I was just bumming around, checking out the shuttered city.

“The best part of quarantine,” he said, his eyes scanning the street ahead of him, “is that with their faces covered, you never have to see how ugly these women are.”

A couple weeks before, he had written RETURN TO SENDER on his $1,200 stimulus check and dropped it in a mailbox. But his politics are so complicated I didn’t bother asking what, if anything, he meant by this.

I heard from another friend that he had been taking part in the protests and marches and low-scale riots that had been sweeping the city in early July. Just what he did, or why, I don’t know. I didn’t ask, either; none of my business. He asked me if I wanted to help him run security on the marches—taking our bikes, blocking off traffic, making sure no cars came too close—but I had to decline. I’m a Knight of Columbus now, I told him. That’s bad optics.

He seemed disappointed at first. But more for my sake than for his.

“There might never be another summer like this,” he said.


They kicked everyone out of student housing, but I came back to the city as soon as I could. I don’t know why it so compels me. Sort of in the same way a man who no longer lives or works in Manhattan sometimes likes to stroll around the island just to see how it’s holding up without him. I rented a room in one of my old neighborhoods and was reintroduced, once the weather warmed up, to the entire menagerie of New York City apartment insects: small flea-looking things that crawled on the wall around my work lamp at night but never seemed to bite me, white spiders that descended on long strands from the ceiling and hovered in front of my eyes, adult roaches stumbling dumbly toward me, baby roaches born from the eggs laid in the bathroom light fixtures, a swarm of flies that moved in when my roommate left the window open and which I spent a pleasant afternoon tracking down and killing one by one, ladybugs flitting from surface to surface (these, of course, I spared, following common schoolyard superstition), tiny infant millipedes dancing around in the tub, their grown brethren which left streaks of gore on the wall when killed, a long beetle-like thing crawling up out of my laptop’s keyboard, friendly green aphids jumping around on my skin, minuscule colorless mites living inside the pages of my manuscripts, a silverfish skittering out from the copy of Eugenie Grandet I was planning on giving to a friend.

I spent my days riding my bike, catching up with old coworkers, rubbernecking around the shattered glass and plywood barriers of the Manhattan I knew so well. Just wandering the streets, waiting for the memories to encounter me: the damp oily smell of the loading docks where I spent so much of my life, the bench at Washington Square where I once sat on a date as the rats scuttled around at our feet. Other times, I’d walk around Queens, under the sunless stretch beneath the overhead rail, through a block of completely shuttered storefronts marked with anti-police graffiti, weary from staying up too late watching riot livestreams, wondering why it had taken us so long to enter the cyberpunk future we are now inhabiting.


The first thing I did was catch up with C.J. (not his real name), another old coworker who lived a couple blocks from me. His walls were tagged with graffiti from top to bottom, his fridge didn’t work, his apartment always smelled like smoke. But for me, it felt like being home again. We watched obscure VHS tapes fished from a mountain of debris in his living room and drank warm tall cans from his coffee table. Every time he went down to the bodega, he’d take an armful back up with him.

“C.J.,” I said, “why don’t you just buy them one at a time?”

“Warm beer is better than no beer,” he said.

He showed me around the changed neighborhood: empty Queens Boulevard, populated only by small groups of quiet, masked residents going about their essential tasks. He bought me a Coors Light that we drank in the streets on the way to visit his quarantine girlfriend in Woodside; people were drinking on the sidewalks outside of bars now, and C.J. took this as an invitation to carry open containers wherever he went.

Already, C.J.’s quarantine girlfriend was crowding him. He didn’t want to sit around in the park all day, he didn’t want to do the couple thing—“She doesn’t understand my photography, man,” he said, though to her credit, I didn’t really understand it either. He would show me print after print, pointing out nuances that no one else could see, insisting that they would be worth a lot of money one day.

“Look at this,” he said. “I told him not to stand up, but he stood up anyway. Ruined the whole shot. Except, because he stood up, do you have any idea how much more valuable that makes this photo now?”

If it weren’t for C.J., I wouldn’t have had any fun at all that summer. The quarantine had gotten people accustomed to being alone and inside, and it was hard to get anyone out for anything. That’s the funny thing about getting older: everyone else gets tied down with girlfriends, wives, careers, obligations, and it’s only the unreliable people you can rely on anymore.


Midtown had changed. It wasn’t just the broken glass. Maybe the amount of homeless people was the same, but now, they were the only people out. It was sort of like after a big storm: all the grime and debris rises out of the clogged drains and settles on the streets and sidewalks. Homeless people started showing up in outer borough neighborhoods where you’d never see them before. Unable to get by with their usual panhandling tactics, they started wandering the streets with cardboard signs, begging at highway medians at rush hour, accosting people eating at the makeshift sidewalk seating the restaurants put up.

C.J. has a homeless friend named Arthur (not his real name) who comes over to sleep on his kitchen floor when the weather gets bad. It’s mental illness, C.J. says; most of the time, he’d just rather be living outside. One day, we were all at C.J.’s place having a drink; Arthur had brought a small bottle of Jameson to pass around.

“It’s just us and the hookers out there now,” said Arthur.

“I never noticed any hookers in midtown,” I said.

“But now you do,” he said.


New York City had become a place where it was impossible to get anything done. Stores opened and closed at odd hours without changing their signage. Several ATM locations in midtown Manhattan, all affiliated with major banks, had closed forever. A bodega on Greenpoint Avenue was locked in the middle of the day, the lights on and the gate up, as if the owner had stepped out for lunch and didn’t have anyone else to mind the store. All the bike shops were backlogged and short on parts. A couple times, I set out early to run some errands before the heat of the day had peaked and found that nothing was open yet. It used to be that the inconveniences of the city were neatly balanced out by the many conveniences it presented, but this no longer seemed to be the case. Yet another thing that had changed forever in New York, yet another reason for the businesses to stay away.

There were no tourists; there were no tour buses; hardly any yellow cabs in the street anymore. For most of the summer, I was the only person living in my four bedroom Airbnb. Everything was breaking down, slowly but surely. The laborers went back to work soon enough, suspended in harnesses high above the city, rigging beams and sparking welding torches, but it now seemed like they were working to build a city that no longer had any reason to exist.


We were out at Metropolitan and Lorimer, drinking Budweiser tall cans outside the shuttered bars, waiting for the halal guy to finish filling our Styrofoam containers with lamb and rice and white sauce. Who knows what time it was. Too late. C.J. was driving drunk, and I was drunk, being driven. I kept looking up and down the street, but there was no one out. Saturday night, on one of the busiest corners in north Brooklyn.

In certain parts of the city, I always keep an eye out for a girl I used to know. She doesn’t talk to me anymore, and she has perfectly good reasons for not talking to me anymore, but she doesn’t hate me so much that she would refuse to acknowledge me if we crossed paths by chance. I kept looking, even though my chances that night were worse than usual.

Later that summer, while I was biking around in Manhattan, I thought I might have seen her. But with the masks on, it’s so hard to tell.

I’ve hardly been anywhere else, but I will continue to insist that New York has the most beautiful women in the world. Breathtaking: it’s not a cliché. Like the skyline at night, like the European Painting wing at the Met. These girls will take your head right off.


I went to the Strand the first week it opened: my eyes dilated, my pulse picked up, and I bought $60 worth of books without blinking. I can’t remember ever having so much disposable income at hand. In the past, I’d had to work so hard just to be poor, and now I could be rich by doing nothing. And yet, I developed an anxiety that my unemployment payments were going to stop one day for no reason. I’d done nothing to earn them, so it would only make sense that they should vanish without warning.

Once the churches opened, I made an effort every morning to spend some time in prayer at the local parish. It was the sickness of the world that I found myself most often meditating upon. The sickness that preceded COVID, the sickness that would remain after it. I thought of road crews standing out in the heat, waiting for the first opportunity to sit down; I thought of homeless people in wheelchairs with running sores who would have given anything to stand. The unease that stalks us at every turn in life, though we do what we can to remain happy. I wondered if everyone else was feeling it, too; if they could sense that, though their lives were proceeding more or less intact, something was very wrong with this situation.

For now, it was all fun and games. Free money, outdoor dining. It was beautiful the way that life could go on. I walked the dark streets of Sunnyside alone some nights, entranced by the golden light dripping from the porches of happy families, the undulating colors bouncing off the clouds above the Kosciuszko Bridge in the near distance. But there was always the unease of knowing it wasn’t going to last. It couldn’t. And when things went back to “normal,” how normal were they going to be?


I took a ride (sober) up to Yonkers with C.J. one Saturday. Before visiting an all-black American Legion post, before driving to a pizzeria at which a muscular Italian man was sharing his experience smoking angel dust, before breaking down in the middle of the Triborough Bridge, we were at the house where the Son of Sam’s brother lived; there was a tree in the front lawn where they used to tie the dog (or so we were told) who ordered David Berkowitz to kill those women in the summer of 1977. We sat in the back yard drinking beers with C.J.’s boss (still out of work) and discussing the fate of the deteriorating city: the decline of corporate real estate, the flight of the tax base, the exploding homeless population. Soon it’ll be Panic in Needle Park all over again, said C.J., referring to a 1971 movie starring Al Pacino as a heroin addict on the Upper West Side.

“All the problems the city was trying to hide for all these years are finally coming to the surface,” he said.


C.J.’s neighbor came over one night to buy weed and an original framed photograph. They were talking about crime picking up in the area: an old man mugged one morning on the way to church, a first-floor apartment near mine where thieves pushed the air conditioner back through the window and climbed in. We spent the rest of the night watching Greaser’s Palace, a 1972 acid Western, beautifully shot but ultimately incomprehensible, and I kept looking over my shoulder on the way back home.

People told me that at the height of the pandemic, they heard ambulance sirens going off at all times. Now you never heard sirens anymore. It was one of those things you didn’t notice until someone pointed it out to you. You saw cop cars around sometimes, but you never saw NYPD on foot. They stayed in their cars, idling on the corners, doing their best not to get involved.


I took a train to Morningside Park one morning to meet with a literary agent I am friendly with. I was a little early—I hate being late—so I sat down at a bench in Central Park with an everything bagel I’d bought from a nearby coffee cart. The bagel must have been sitting next to a glazed donut on the shelf, and the sugar paired nicely with the flavor of onions and garlic and poppy and sesame seeds. It reminded me of a time over a decade ago when I stayed in a hostel up there in order to see some European punk band play at ABC No Rio. (Was it Daitro? Raein? It is almost pure guesswork at this point.) I couldn’t have been any older than 20, and I remember eating an egg and cheese from the deli that morning, wandering around the Ramble in Central Park, realizing that I loved the city and wanted to stay there forever. Of course, we had our ups and downs and separations—all young couples do—but I suppose it all worked out in the end. Even now, even after all this. I had never been happier to be there.

The agent and I drank iced coffee and talked Dostoevsky, and I pitched him on a manuscript I’ve been working on since 2013. I could tell he wasn’t interested, but he told me to send it to him anyway. I was grateful for the meeting; it’s no small thing to meet an agent who will talk to you about Dostoevsky; it’s no small thing to meet an agent who will even return your emails. But perseverance is not enough, vision is not enough. At the end of the day, he said, literature is a product like anything else.


It was early August, 90 degrees, and C.J. and I were drinking open containers at a bus stop in the middle of the afternoon. One of his graffiti friends came by to scout a billboard he was going to bomb and stopped his bike when he saw us kicking it. C.J. went to the corner, brought back three more tall cans. Of all the neighborhoods in New York, he said, Sunnyside always had the tallest women. We turned our heads to watch them go. In a few minutes, his quarantine girlfriend would come by to nag him, obviously embarrassed to be dating a man who spent his days drinking with his loser friends on Queens Boulevard. But she had a point. I was staying out too late, sleeping in too much, spending my unemployment money on over-rich restaurant food. Every day, I was finding it harder to get any serious reading or writing done. I was ready to get on with my life.


About a week before classes started, on the way to C.J.’s birthday party, I stopped at a park on the East River to look at the skyline. It was the first place I’d ever found that allowed you to see all four bridges at once: the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges to the south, the Williamsburg Bridge flying its huge mass of girders above our heads, the Queensboro Bridge peeking out from around a curve of the river to the north. It doesn’t sound like much, but usually you can only see two or three from any given point in New York; to see all four at once was an aesthetic and reflective experience I had never had before. I must have spent 15 minutes leaning against the railing, turning my head from one to the other, appreciating their beauty against the backdrop of gray sky and gray water, thinking about all the time I’d spent biking up and down each one, thinking about where I had been going to or coming from, thinking about all the places those bridges had brought me. And I was grateful even for the times when it sucked, in the rain or the snow or the cold or the heat, when I was wiped from working all day and I could barely turn the pedals.

But the past is something you have to be grateful for. Grateful for the good times and grateful for the bad. If you don’t understand that, then you’re never going to get it.