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The Messenger


Herb Leventon

The week before New York opened again, I rode my bicycle 90 miles in Manhattan. I wanted to prolong the odd but exhilarating experience of bicycling on practically empty streets.

I’ve traveled to obscure places in the world for many years. Since the pandemic, I haven’t been able to travel, so I treat the city as if I were a tourist. That’s not a pose: the city is so unlike itself, it's almost a foreign country. I shoot photographs, just as I’ve done in Myanmar or Delhi or Ethiopia's Omo Valley, except I use my iPhone.

In this suddenly strange New York, what remains are the people. When you live in the city, or any densely populated place, there are people you see almost every day. They are not your friends or your family, but you develop an affection for them. It's not unlike the warmth you feel for home itself.

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Monday: Joseph the Mail Carrier

I run into Joseph, the mail carrier, every few days. Usually, he is sorting mail into the grid of boxes in a small cubicle adjacent to the lobby of my building. He’s been delivering mail for as long as I’ve lived there, stuffing the boxes, rarely making a mistake. It’s a decent-sized building with a lot of tenants, so it takes a while to sort all that mail.

In late March, Joseph vanished. He was gone for close to a month. When he returned, he told me he had been in bed: Covid. Now that he’s back, he talks more, as if he's relieved just to be alive. Some people fled the city so abruptly they didn’t leave a forwarding address, he tells me. He’s obviously troubled that he can’t get their mail to them. They could be missing important bills, or letters, or who knows what? Plus, their mailboxes are full. What is he supposed to do with all that mail?

When I saw him Monday, Joseph mentioned that about 200 of the 680 mail boxes in the building have been empty since early March; he wonders if they will ever return. “The new saying in the post office is ‘rain, shine or pandemic you will get your mail.’”

I ask how he’s feeling these days. Mostly recovered, he says. “I stopped watching the news,” he tells me. “That helps.” Watching the news raises his blood pressure, he said. He'd been having trouble sleeping. When he stopped, these problems got better. A little bit, anyway.

Riding my bike south on 10th Avenue feels like being in a trance. At noon, there’s zero car traffic and the sidewalks where people used to throng elbow-to-elbow are vacant. The sun is so bright it seems as it its scouring the city, the air noticeably cleaner. The quiet streets have a surreal cast if you’re used to old New York. Pre-pandemic.

I ride downtown, close to the West Side Highway so I can glimpse the Hudson River. The steel and glass buildings on the far west side look cold and ugly as ever. I'm biased. The older brick buildings with cornices, spires, and fire escapes look majestic to me. Built by master craftsman, they feel preserved in time, an elaborate movie set.

Riding a bicycle in New York once meant taking your life in your hands. Now it's relatively safe: no maniac taxi drivers, double-parked trucks or pedestrians glued to their cell phones and not watching where they are going. I stay close to the river, seeing almost no one until I turn for home.

Tuesday - The Village and Its Domestic Dramas

I left my building directionless, but on Broadway a guy with a boom box attached to his bike pedaled by and he had Marvin Gaye going full volume. I said to myself, wherever he's going, I’m following.

Next thing I know I’m in the West Village. I peeled off to see how my fave Italian place is doing. Piccolo Angolo can survive anything and this Italian red sauce joint will be around when the pandemic is in the history books.

Lots of plywood and messages of hope, justice, anger and BLM. Soho is being painted and the streets were empty of foot traffic and few cars. It was like being on a movie set, loads of fun pedaling wrong way down cobblestone streets and riding on Broadway not even looking at the traffic lights. They were all green, all day for me.

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I fueled up at Porto Rico Imports which in my opinion has the best coffee beans in NYC. Construction is taking place but there are a lot of "For Rent" signs. I wonder if the pandemic will teach the landlords, who have driven out so many of the old businesses that were institutions, a lesson.

I passed 3 police stations and they all looked like fortresses.

I have to slow down for the smaller, crooked streets in the West Village. I pass Greenwich Locksmith, remembering the day I stopped to ask an unsmiling man sunning himself outside if I could take his photograph.

He didn't want his picture taken, but he talked to me about being a locksmith during the pandemic. He’d been rescuing people who were locked out by their spouses. He said: “Now I’m a therapist along with being a locksmith.”

People have either loved or hated who they have been entombed with these last months, I've noticed. The locksmith complained that business is terrible. He thinks half the neighborhood now lives somewhere else. He asked whether I needed a new bike lock. When I responded that I didn't, he grunted and went back inside.

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Wednesday - In Soho

On Wednesday I pedaled straight down Broadway to City Hall. In the five miles from my apartment to Chambers Street, I passed dozens of closed and boarded-up coffee shops, nail salons, sandwich places, clothing stores, liquor stores and offices. It’s not New York if you can't even get a coffee and bagel, I thought grimly.

The homeless and the helpless are on every street. Oddly enough, the only other people I saw, apart from a few walkers, were school crossing guards. The public schools have been closed for months. I stopped to talk to a crossing guard outside Public School 102 on Chambers Street. Her name was Gladys. She looked sharp in her blue uniform and hat.

I asked why she was still guarding when there was no one to cross the street. She shrugged: “I'm getting paid and staying safe.”

I pedaled home through Soho. Decades ago, Soho was a dark clutter of old industrial buildings. Artists moved in, then quirky shops, then upscale chain stores, the dirt and darkness transformed into a mall that you could have found anywhere in the world: Delhi, Mexico City, Nairobi.

Luxury stores took the brunt of the looting. Gucci, Chanel, Leica. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had to twist New York City Mayor Bill DiBlasio's arm to get him to put a curfew in place, the first time the city had instituted a curfew in 45 years.

As I passed the boarded-up windows, it was hard for me to imagine New York bouncing back. All across the city, restaurants, stores and bars closed “for the duration” have been abandoned. Every day the lines at the food bank gets longer. Signs for free food are popping up. Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republicans in Congress need to get a bicycle and spend a week with me, I thought grimly.

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Thursday - "Be Beautiful"

On Thursday I decided to look for signs of life. Black Lives Matter protests were still going on and I found myself in the midst of one near New York's City Hall. The raw emotion was very real.

People of all ages, colors, backgrounds were in the crowd. That’s New York. The police presence was massive. Cops were on foot, in patrol cars and in a helicopter circling high above.

I listened to some of the speakers. Holding my bicycle steady with one hand, I, too, raised my voice behind my mask.

Mayor DeBlasio's name comes up in conversation in my social circle on a regular basis. The consensus is that he is inept. In the wake of the looting, plywood sales have boomed. Artists have descended on what were once luxury stores. Natasha Garoosi painted a bucolic scene of palm trees with the caption: Be beautiful, Be You. A discordant message in this shuttered, shattered, uncertain city.

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Friday - Cleaning Up

Friday was hot. Before I’d gotten very far, the jingle of the Mister Softee ice cream truck drew a crowd. The person in front of me wore an “I Can't Breathe” t-shirt.

I headed east. A guy was sweeping the park near the Hillman Cooperative Houses near the East River. The neighborhood is a mix of orthodox Jews and Latinos. The guy working in the park was named Mario.

Mayor DeBlasio told everyone the park will be opening next week. Mario wanted it to be clean. The gate was padlocked and I asked him how I could get in to sit on a bench and take a bike break. He replied' "Wait til next week.”

Shops that have been handed down through generations like heirlooms encrust the Lower East Side and that was where I found myself. These stores represent perseverance and that is what making it through the closing of the city required.

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Coda: Re-opening

Today, I passed lines outside of barber shops, dog groomers, and banks. Very few stores are open, but the plywood is coming down. Makeshift outdoor restaurants are being set up. Off-the-books cooks from the city's restaurants have been starving these last few months. I don’t know how many gave up and left the city.

Uber, Lyft and yellow cabs are prowling for the few fares to be had. You could count on your fingers the people in business attire, but there is a noticeable uptick in people on the street, including people in their 30s and 40s, mostly without masks.

College-age kids cluster in front of Extra Butter, where sneakers cost the same as a plane ticket to Europe. None are wearing masks. Two local ladies in their 60s pulling grocery carts stop. They tell the kids to put masks on and go the fuck home. That's a quote. It's New York!

I’m no longer alone. Lots of people are riding bicycles. The three bike stores I pass have lines.

For most of the last three months, my only regular company on my rides were the bike delivery guys. They are tireless, and fearless on the streets. A guy named Edgar pedaled with me from 47th to 68th Street, talking as we reached red lights at the same time. He really wants to go back home to Guatemala. He's scared of the virus. But he’s busy, working all the time. He said people are eating lots of chicken these days.

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Herb Leventon grew up in Brooklyn. He has taught elementary school, raised turkeys, been a social worker and owned a printing business. For the last eight years he has been leading photography trips to places tourists don't usually go. More info @ Epic Photo Tours.

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Two-wheeling in the Big City: A Playlist

When The Telephone Rings ::: The Silos

The Only Living Boy In New York :: Simon & Garfunkel

The Lord Must Be In New York City ::: Nilsson

Bicycle Rider ::: The Beach Boys

Bicycle ::: Mark Olson & Gary Louris

Broken Bicycles ::: Tom Waits