Getting back in the New York groove after COVID


I had a really bad habit in college.

Back when I was editor of Fordham’s newspaper in the 1980s, I would just skip a night of sleep every Wednesday while we were pasting together the next edition. Come morning, I would drive pages to the printer in Hillside, N.J., return to a day of classes in the Bronx and circle back to Jersey around 9 p.m. to pack my Plymouth Duster with 5,000 newspapers.

After crossing the George Washington Bridge, I had to make a side trip to drop off bundles at the Lincoln Center campus. It was in those wee hours that I debunked a myth about the Big Apple. I may not have slept, but this city was pretty drowsy. In the absence of traffic, I could time my pace to only hit green lights.

As the first editor in the paper’s history who was also a commuter, I didn’t have the option of heading back to a dorm for naps. I also figured out quickly that it could be challenging to stay awake while studying in the hush of the library.

So I sought noisier places to read, which led me to discover something about myself. Even on days when I was rested, I could focus better when wrapped in noise. In silence, every whisper is a distraction. So I’d often go to the campus pub, the Ramskeller, to study the likes of Descartes amid the din of peers munching cheesesteaks. At night, it was occasionally transformed into a club for small concerts. When Bo Diddley played there, it seemed undignified that he was backed up by a pickup band that used the wooden lunchtime chairs as a keyboard stand. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame wouldn’t exist for another three years, but Bo would become a member of its sophomore class.

Which brings us to NYC about 40 years later.

After a summer in which we visited Maine and Florida, two of the corners framing America, it struck me last Saturday that The Kid had not been to Manhattan since December 2019. It may not seem long, but it’s a quarter of his life (see, I did stay awake for math classes).

I didn’t know what his expectations would be. There’s also the not-insignificant issue that because he is autistic, we were advised early on that large crowds could be too stimulating for him.

Thus, we headed for Times Square.

Times Square has never been a destination for me. Yet, on a whim, The Kid, Mom and I decided to meet a friend at the Hard Rock Café. I had not been to the New York Hard Rock since it was on West 57th in the 1990s, but The Kid enjoyed the one at Universal a few weeks ago. I didn’t want him developing notions about Orlando as an epicenter of rock ‘n’ roll.

I was pretty out of tune myself about commuting to NYC. The Kid asked for a candy bar on the Metro-North platform and I calculated easily beating the train to feed his sweet tooth. The next sound I heard was Mom yelling that the doors were closing and the train was leaving. We abandoned the Reese’s and persuaded conductors to open up.

Apparently, the era of social distancing made some riders even more selfish. It was always common to see bags plopped on middle seats to discourage company. But as we searched on a Saturday for three seats, the light ridership should have left plenty of options. Alas, every set of facing seats was filled by a single spreading out like Patrick the starfish from “SpongeBob SquarePants.” But then, who wants to sit next to someone who can’t figure out the rack is for luggage and the floor is for feet?

If anything, The Kid handled the train, Grand Central Terminal and subway even more instinctively than I did. He remained chill despite New York unleashing a tornado of sensory overload.

I spotted the answer on a wall almost immediately after we took our seats at the Hard Rock.

“See that guitar,” I said to him. “That’s Bo Diddley’s guitar. It’s a box. There isn’t another one here like it.”

The Kid thrived in the
Bo Diddley beat
of NYC. But I also knew he would soon need a little quiet. So we headed up Broadway to Central Park. My perennial recommendation to any traveler seeking advice on how to spend a day in New York is to simply go to the park. The city’s song flips from Zeppelin to Gershwin. A stroll is like a trip along a radio dial, picking up stray lyrics.

“Is that, like, legal?”
I heard as we passed a business transaction between Zoomers posing as Hippies.

“I don’t think I’m ready to take him to a strip club,”
another young man pondered.

“You have to look out for cars in New York,”
a veteran Gothamite warned no one, and everyone.

Such small moments were music to my ears. Taking the Kid back to NYC felt like a reset, a chance to consider again just how
goo goo g’joob
Manhattan really is. It’s an amusement park with free rides. It’s life on a movie set. It’s a museum. It’s the world crammed onto an island. It’s Oz in neon.

And eventually you have to head home.

The Kid’s memory was better than I expected. He searched for, and found, the Transit Museum’s shop in search of the Lionel Train exhibit he had last seen around Christmas 2019. The area was boxed in like a construction site, and an employee issued a warning that staffing shortages made it unlikely the show would be ready for the holidays. It sounded like foreshadowing in a Netflix Christmas flick.

“My grandpa will help,” The Kid offered.

Problem solved.

When we finally made it back to the Pelham, N.Y., station and started heading to the car, The Kid hustled to the opposite platform.

“Where are you going?”

“I want to check if my candy bar is still in the machine.”

Why was he determined to spoil a perfect day?

Three boys watched him reach into the machine.

The chocolate had waited for him. The Kid looked like he’d claimed one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. The boys surrounded the machine hoping to seize similar treasures.

Back home, we asked what he liked best about his day in New York. I expected him to mention the train, or Grand Central, or Times Square. But after three years, he recognized New York’s finest quality again.

“The people.”

John Breunig is editorial page editor of the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time.;

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