The Day New York Changed

The last train I took out of Grand Central Terminal was on a Friday. March 6, 2020, to be exact. I have not returned to the island of Manhattan since.

I didn’t think it would end up like this. When I boarded a Poughkeepsie-bound MetroNorth train, I never guessed it would be the final time I’d make the trek for months. My company-issued laptop bounced up and down in my backpack; my internship supervisor told me the company wanted us to get “into the habit” of bringing our equipment home. Just in case. The laptop was bulky, and it felt melodramatic to bring all the way up to school only to bring it back to our Chelsea office on Monday morning. 

When Monday morning arrived, however, my alarm didn’t sound at 5:20 a.m., as to alert me to rise and get ready to go to the train station. Instead, when my alarm did finally sound at 8:20 a.m., I hopped into my car and drove to a nearby Dunkin’. I read in an article that when working from home it was important to maintain a sense of routine, of normalcy. In New York, I would have clutched a large iced coffee from Zaro’s, but there were no Zaro’s in Poughkeepsie. Dunkin’ worked fine. 

That was almost a month ago now, and the events of the last several weeks have exceeded my every expectation. The strangest thing about life is that it all feels so obvious in flashbacks. Purple latex gloves clutched around a subway pole. A rider dowsing their hands in granny-smith apple hand sanitizer. A surgical mask strapped onto a businessman’s face as he raced towards his rush hour train. Those moments all just felt like moments then. Now, they wear on my sanity, like red flags that I should have noticed, but didn’t. I wish I paid more attention. I wish I said goodbye. New York is an intrepid city. It can, and will, survive this. That doesn't take away the fact that the New York City I return to will be irrevocably different than the one I left behind that Friday night. 

The flashbacks return to me unexpectedly, like scenes from a car-crash, and I can’t figure out why. Sometimes, sitting in my Connecticut home, 70 miles away from Manhattan, I can still hear the roar of the 4-train creaking to a stop in Union Square Station. See the anguished faces of riders trying to keep whatever space they can muster between themselves and the next person. I remember balancing my Metrocard in one hand, a pocket-sized hand sanitizer in another. That very Metrocard still has money left on it. It sits, unused, in my winter jacket’s pocket, waiting to come out of its temporary retirement. 

Every Monday, Tuesday and Friday morning in February I snoozed my alarm clock, sleepy and reluctant to get out of bed early to get on the train. This has been life’s cruelest reality check. I would do anything to hear the jolting ring of a 5:20 a.m. alarm again.