May 6th, 2014
It’s a hard thing to believe much less describe, but there are times when New York City feels empty. These are days when, for one reason or another, enough residents depart to make the streets feel under-peopled. It’s a sense that steals up on you and then suddenly emerges as a certainty when you set foot in one of the city’s great spaces and find it, uncharacteristically, full of space and a kind of quiet.
Broadway creates many of these spaces as its diagonal cuts through the rectangles of the grid and where it touches the southwest corner of Central Park, it forms a large roundabout, Columbus Circle.
For much of the time I lived in NYC, Columbus Circle was a place to avoid: multiple lanes of impatient and careering traffic surrounded by a colorless and dead cityscape. But that had changed with the construction of a massive building across from the park. It was an unfortunate design, artlessly marketed; the first four floors, surrounding a large and sterile atrium, were called “vertical retail” in an effort to avoid calling them a mall. But whatever it was named, the statue of Columbus now looked down on something new to be discovered, and the place drew people.
The biggest draw turned out to be in the basement. Down here, the atrium was mercifully reduced to a glorified skylight even if the marketing-speak still held sway. The tenant was a grocer, but rather than trumpeting the genuinely unusual fact that this was an NYC grocery store with aisles wide enough to fit a shopping cart, what they announced long before opening was their extensive selection of to-go foods. It was, they said, inspired by Harrod’s Food Halls.
Now the food halls of Harrod’s — Europe’s largest department store and an operation that traces its history back to the mid nineteenth century — are legendary. They cover an area the size of several ballrooms, and are a maze of elegant opulence. It’s like walking into a person-size cornucopia, beautiful food, beautifully presented, impressively demonstrating Harrod’s motto: All things to all people, everywhere.
Perhaps it was my fault, but the image inspired by the basement grocer’s copy didn’t line up with the reality that I found. Where I’d imagined a place where unknown treasures gathered, brought from hidden corners of the world, what I instead found was a dark-toned, tastefully designed, food court. True, there was a hidden corner of the world here, but it was a common prep room which supplied all the counters while they vainly tried to present the appearance of independent establishments.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t bad. For New York, it was a startling improvement over the typical to-go offerings, wilting beige under fluorescent light. But it was little more than a fresh coat of paint on the same old house, an invitation to use your imagination and believe that this was something special, and new.
Ten years ago, when the city emptied out for the last holiday weekend of summer, I left the city, too. I went to a place — it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it another country — only a couple blocks from Columbus Circle. It was a hospital. I went there at four o’clock on a Sunday morning, taken through the deserted boulevards by a middle eastern cab driver who took one look at my wife, in the last hours of a pregnancy, before hopefully asking — “Want me to drive fast?”
The day had actually begun at midnight, when the just-awakened obstetrician responded to our report and our flurry of questions with only one certainty: this day that had just started would be a birthday before it ended.
I didn’t get to see that day until after the cab ride and after the labor had revealed that it would be siege. I saw it from the sealed window of a ninth story room, and what I saw was a soft mist, the buildings and streets and sky and river all silver and gray. The glass was double or perhaps triple-paned, you could sense no heat or cold, hear no bluster of wind. We were far away, looking down on the silent city and I thought, how strange, to be born in the sky.
And she was, just as that day grew dark again, unseen. We’d moved deeper into the belly of the building, to hallways that served as antechambers, to rooms with no windows, but which were filled with blinding light. Clock time had long since faded from consciousness, replaced with other rhythms and intervals, rates and pressures.
Then, when it was over, when the siege was aptly lifted with blood and steel and the promised birthday had become a birthday in truth, I found myself in another room with a window. It was a different side of the hospital, the newborn ward, a gated precinct within the walls of the hospital.
I didn’t notice at first. The happenstance of a new life colliding with old lives had left me on the wrong end of forty-four hours of sleeplessness and I wasn’t noticing much. But when at last I turned out the light, I saw the window. It framed a jagged horizon of endless rooftops and black buildings, the high rises wearing red halos to ward off errant planes. It was a dark, misty night, but all I could see was light, flooding up from the unseen streets, suffusing every space between the buildings with a glow so palpable that you wanted to touch it.
I don’t know how long I stood looking through the triple-paned glass, not wanting to sleep but just trying to take in this apparition, beautiful, mysterious and hard. Through this ordinary window on an unremarkable side street of a city I had lived in for years, I was looking at a place I had never been. And a place, I slowly understood, where I would spend the rest of my life.
When I woke, I knew two things. The sun was out. And I was starving.
So I went out, walking quickly, heading east to where the streets would be more alive and where I might find something this early Labor Day morning. I emerged from the shadowed side streets into the light of Columbus Circle and saw that while the mall inside the glass atrium was locked shut, the empty escalators were running down to the basement grocer, the one with the ersatz food halls.
The place was almost deserted, but the servers were there, waiting, fresh and ready to begin their day. I remember that it was almost impossible to decide what to order. Not because I couldn’t parse the offerings, but because, incomprehensibly, I no longer seemed to know what I liked. It matched the inescapable feeling that I was somehow in this place, but not of it, that this celebratory breaking of the fast was happening without any friends, or loved ones, or participants, not even, it seemed, me.
I remember almost nothing about this most memorable of meals. Not what the person who served me looked like, nor what or where I ate, or whether I lingered or rushed. But I remember one thing, the only thing. It’s that when I took that first bite, the terra incognita I’d glimpsed through the silent window last night, the beautiful, awe-full horizon of buildings built of rain and air thick with brightness, was suddenly, certainly, here. I had, in the anonymous and insignificant offering of the food court, returned to earth, made contact with life. I had taken my first taste of the new world.
I wasn’t hungry anymore, but I finished anyway. And then hurried back to the make the acquaintance of the person who made the empty city feel full.
Photo by Christian Ford