“56 years ago since the release of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bleecker St” in 1964, some things have changed like rent which is no longer $30 anywhere but voices still “leaking from a sad café” or closed venue like The Bitter End at 147 Bleecker St.
In fact, there are sounds of silence, sadness and resilience in 2020 due to the pandemic as NYC was the global epicenter this Spring and has gradually rebounded.
Today is my last day staying at 15 Bleecker St – courtesy of my Belgian diplomat friend Jeroen – but not the last time on this street of song and dreams.”
That was from a postcard with a picture of Bleecker Street subway station that I wrote from NYC – one of hundreds I’ve sent to myself since my travels began about 25 years ago. It was an odd practice my Spanish friend Agustin shared with me, which I thought was a bit self-centered, but then made sense as a reminder of being in a particular place and moment in time.
In the pandemic summer of 2020 and this summer in 2021, I spent much time in New York City and saw two very different versions of a metropolis emerging from yet another siege, this time from a deadly coronavirus. Cultural and commercial activities were shuddered last year as many offices and even Times Square were closed off. There was hardly any traffic in the middle of the day on 34th St and 5th Ave, so eerie and apocalyptic. Since then and with the rollout of vaccines, fleeing and diehard residents and tourists have returned along with thousands of not so sad sidewalk cafés (Simon and Garfunkel would find these makeshift cafes amusing), and noticeably a lot more homeless too.
The year prior when I was in town for Thanksgiving, just on the brink of the spread of the pandemic, I wrote this postcard:
November 27, 2019, New York City
“I’m very grateful on the eve of Thanksgiving. On this fourth trip to NYC this eventful year, I feel increasingly drawn here. Perhaps 2020 will bring me here on a longer basis. Whatever the path ahead, I will continue to learn and grow from life and love.
And there is so much to love about life! Yesterday, I volunteered at the Bowery Mission close to Jeroen’s apartment on Bleecker St – which was a reminder how much gratitude we should have for what we have – our dignity!”
Little did I know that 2020 would teach us all bigger lessons in gratitude and dignity, and to be grateful for literally everything from the life we used to know to each new breath. How we have missed what seemed so accessible like travel, live entertainment and meeting friends for a meal out, which is now more likely to be dining outside and with proof of vaccinations.
On a personal level, being in New York City has made me feel more alive… there is great density, shared sense of struggles and community within reach. Just when it feels desolate or lonely, a walk through the East Village or bike ride through Central Park are reminders that people are familiar and not far away, and carrying on the best they can with their lives. In contrast, the suburbia where I am still resident in Southern California feels more disparate as the pandemic has enabled and encouraged isolation. There I am often stuck at home, in my car and socially distant by default.
On July 23 this year, while I was about to meet a friend at one of my favorite hangouts, the verdant and plant-filled Rosecrans café at 7 Greenwich Ave, a butterfly landed on my shoulder while I was sitting on a bench across the street at Jefferson Market Garden.
In the age of social media, I posted the photo on Instagram @gotupgraded (my travel moniker). My friend Emanuela responded with a butterfly emoji saying: “Wow! That’s beautiful, Mark!! That’s a good sign!!” to which my friend David commented: “It’s a sign that New York is for youuuuuuu”
Agreed! The return of friendly butterflies in the Village and glowing fireflies in Bryant Park which I also saw this summer, are good signs that life is returning to a new normal. Perhaps we can appreciate and respect more the signs that Nature sends us, both visible and invisible. We are connected and our health and welfare are intertwined. When the world is ill, our livelihoods will reflect that pain and loss. When there is still is hope for recovery, we are stronger when responding together with bravery and innovation.
New York City certainly has demonstrated its courageous will each time it has rebounded from the latest setbacks. That’s why I love this city and I do hope it is for me, and for everyone who has been resilient in overcoming challenges both known and unseen.