A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 84

Stefan Zweig (standing) with his brother Alfred, around 1900.

Wednesday, June 3 

Tomorrow, it’ll be 13 weeks since we left New York City for our East Hampton pandemic retreat.

Without jobs or even solid gigs, it may have been mostly habit that held us to the city. There were times when we put a bit of effort into cultural pursuits—hearing jazz or classical performances, visits to museums, jaunts to particular shops where we often just looked at stuff without buying. Other times, we just hung out, enjoying the vibe. Now, Gotham may never again be what it was. To return there may be like subjecting oneself to the memory of a lost world. 

New York was never to me the near-paradise conjured by Stefan Zweig in his memoir of pre-World War I Vienna, The World of Yesterday. But the feeling of a lost world may be somewhat similar. Zweig—a highly popular writer in his time if not so well remembered today—describes that Hapsburg Empire capital as a center of music and learning, a place where he became acquainted with cultural luminaries ranging from Rainer Maria Rilke to his friend and fellow writer Romain Rolland. Then came World War I and, all too soon, the Nazis. 

Zweig, who had thought of himself less as an Austrian than as a citizen of Europe, fled to London, New York,  and ultimately to South America, where despair led to suicide. He wrote that “the past was done for, work achieved was in ruins, Europe, our home, to which we had dedicated ourselves had suffered a destruction that would extend far beyond our life. Something new, a new world began, but how many hells, how many purgatories had to be crossed before it could be reached!”

In a vandalized New York, broken glass can be swept up and windows replaced. Even burned buildings can be reconstructed. What worries me more are the small institutions that could very well become casualties of the current catastrophe. And these—not Dunkin’ Donuts but the intimate Jack’s Coffee or even the very hip Think Coffee—are what make New York what it is. I was glad to hear that Small’s, the tiny West Village jazz club, was sponsoring some streaming concerts in the next days. That seemed a sign that the club, and its nearby sibling Mezzrow, sees itself as having a future life.

Food halls like Essex Market on the Lower East Side are likely to suffer. That mid-size emporium is made up of many independent vendors including sellers of Italian and Latin grub, cheese, seafood, and baked goods.

Dozens of small art galleries could well disappear. And if the citizenry is poorer and global tourism put on hold, even much larger cultural institutions could be threatened. Does the avant-garde New Museum have an endowment large enough to weather the current storm?

Optimists will say that, no matter how it changes, New York will always be New York. People and places disappear, but the essence remains. 

Another memoir of a vanished world is Dan Wakefield’s New York in the Fifties. That author ends on a wistful note, cognizant of the many unwelcome changes that have come since he departed the city in the early 1960s. Yet he concludes with a sentimental poem about New York by the radical John Reed: “Who that has known thee but shall burn//In exile till he come again….”

On a less elevated note, Peapod made its food delivery today at around 6 p.m. Of the 43 items we ordered they delivered 29–and no receipt to tell us how much we were charged. Still no toilet paper, of course, and no mushrooms, sugar snap peas, walnuts, or garlic. Does our $20 tip seem warranted?

Dinner: Spaghetti with fried eggs, green salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of the Belgian policier The Break

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 44

Once a Union Square mainstay.

Tuesday, April 21

Every day I get up, make coffee and oatmeal, and at least make a start on reading The New York Times. When in New York City—I live right on Union Square—I may go out early to Trader Joe’s or perhaps to a doctor’s appointment. Other errands may include a walk to the post office, to the Fed Ex at Astor Place where I make photocopies of this and that, and to the gym on Eighth Avenue for yoga lessons. On Wednesdays and Fridays, I generally go to the Union Square greenmarket, where farmers from New Jersey and upstate New York sell fresh fruit and vegetables, honey, cheeses, and bread.

Right now, it seems I may never perform any of these New York City errands again.

One Times story suggests that New York itself may never be the same: The article revisits a number of previous calamities to hit the city, including the September 11 terror attacks and the 1970s fiscal crisis. In the latter case, says Kathryn Wylde, president of business group The Partnership for New York City, “It took four or five years for a lot of the city to empty out,” then “it took three or four decades to bring them back.”

Empty out? Well of course, New York City is always in the process of emptying itself out and refilling. It’s not the same from one day to the next. New York’s ever-changing nature is one of the things that makes the city interesting. New restaurants and stores are always popping up. That little hole-in-the-wall place that you went to for years is likely to disappear. But then, something new, and almost as interesting, may well crop up. Tycoon Donut is long gone, but the croissants at Pain Quotidian are a pretty good if pricey replacement.

Back in the 1980s, when I first moved to New York, the Union Square area was quite dangerous. Drug deals went down regularly in the park, and the cops would go into surrounding office buildings and peer out of the windows in order to direct drug busts there. In a few years, that version of Union Square went away—taking with it such quaint and past-their-prime institutions as Luchow’s restaurant, Amalgamated Bank, and the Cedar Tavern. On the upside, replacements included such trendy if expensive hangouts as the Union Square Cafe—and, on the downside, big-box retailers including Barnes & Noble books, Kids R Us, and Staples. 

Now, facing the square, there’s little besides large retailers and mega-banks such as Chase and Citibank.

But on the side streets, there are still little shoe-repair shops, second-hand clothing places, dance studios, and an ever-expanding number of coffee joints. Within walking distance, such long-running survivors as coffee roaster Porto Rico Importing Co., Strand books, and Astor Wines & Spirits have been hanging in there. Nonetheless, in February, I began noticing a great number of vacant storefronts. Rents were to blame, I assumed—the ever-more-greedy landlords pushing the small-fry out. The landlords seem willing to suffer several months of vacancy in order to get new tenants who are able to pay market-rate prices.

And rents have risen astronomically over the decades. My dentist, whose office is in a building facing the square, told me that when he first located there back in the 1980s, his rent was a few hundred dollars a month. Now, I believe he said, the rents on his office suite run $15,000 a month. It’s anybody’s guess just how he can afford it.

Will this change? Will landlords see that they have no choice but to accept lower rents—allowing small-fry enterprises to return? And just how does this work? What invisible hands tap the landlords on the shoulder, saying: “Hey, buddy, it’s time to let the rents slide a bit.”

A few years back, Emily and I traveled to Vienna, Austria, where we stayed in a small guest house in the Neubau neighborhood. The largely residential area included a number of coffee shops, bakeries, beisls (or restaurants), the Naschmarkt (produce stalls), and innumerable little purveyors of candy, meats, toys, and so forth. Everything seemed very quaint and charming, like a visit to the early 1960s in an American town. Perhaps after a period of near-death, the East Village can become such an idyll, with a flowering of small enterprises. Maybe even Tycoon Donut will return. Stranger things have happened.

Dinner tonight (presumably after the Peapod delivery!): Black beans and rice along with a lettuce and cucumber salad.

Entertainment: There are five remaining episodes of Babylon Berlin—so a couple of those plus one Lovejoy and one Twilight Zone.