Dear Achtung: Letter from New York by Michael Hainey
He is a close friend of our magazine and a razor sharp observer of what happens around him. So, we asked writer Michael Hainey for some on-the-ground reporting.
The first place I lived in New York City was a boarding house, owned by Quakers. People don’t believe me, but it’s true. This was the late 1980s, and I’d moved here to take an internship at a magazine that paid $50 a week. It was an old brownstone in the East Village, dating from the 1840s, and for $300 a month I got a tiny room that came with a bed on legs and a desk beneath it. The communal bathroom was down the hall. A woman cooked breakfast and dinner for the twenty or so of us who called that place home and we shared our meals at a communal table. The first night I slept there, I laid in my bed and looked at the ceiling and felt I was the luckiest person in the world–I had carved out a small corner of Manhattan. I belonged.
Now I live maybe ten minutes away from that little room, in Greenwich Village, just off of Fifth Avenue. I live with my wife in an apartment that I only dreamed I would have owned thirty or so years ago. We’re fortunate–for the past fifty or so days, our home has been a haven in which to isolate as coronavirus ravaged the city. We have a view that’s pretty similar to what Jimmy Stewart had in Rear Window (which was set a block away from where we live): we look onto gardens of other brownstones. It’s been nice, especially watching Spring bring it all to life. I’ve even hung a bird feeder off our fire escape. A few days ago, we had a downy woodpecker stop by, his shock of red feathers atop his head fluttering in the wind as he pecked away. Who knew there are woodpeckers in Manhattan? In the stillness of the city, new characters take the stage.
Most of the time, I’ve been writing. Trying to create in these days something new and worth remembering. There is a screenplay of my first book, while I also work on the sequel to that book. Two weeks ago or so, we started to venture out, for walks at dawn. Then a short time later, we started to include a walk two or three evenings a week, at 7 p.m., to the hospital down the street, to gather with others and clap. A few nights ago, as people were starting to gather, a NYPD cop came around the corner, mounted on a black horse. He clip-clopped his way into the middle of 7th Avenue, and stopped the few cars that were on the street. Just then, the bell on Jefferson Market tolled seven and people began to clap. The health workers came out. And just then, too, a truck with giant speakers pulled up. It was blaring “New York, New York,” by Frank Sinatra. I know it sounds schmaltzy. Maybe like something out of a movie. And maybe it should, because what else is life in New York but a movie, with incredible highs and heartbreaking lows? We stood there, all of us, masked and clapping, and listening to the music, to Sinatra’s voice, to his words, pushing us on, lifting us up. “I want to be a part of it… I’m gonna make a brand new start of it…” It was the energy of a game seven Yankees win. There was the old lady next to me, white-haired, took her cane and started banging it against an empty garbage can–Clang! Clang! Clang! It built and built, the energy. And then Sinatra finished and all of us–the crowd, the health-workers–let out a whoop. I heard a horse whinny and I looked and there was the mounted cop, his horse rearing up on two legs in the middle of Seventh Avenue. I turned for the first time to look at my wife. I had avoided looking at her because I knew if I did I would weep. And we did. Two masked faces, only our tear-filled eyes visible. Happy tears. I said to her, “I love this filthy fucking city. You cannot break us. There was nowhere else I’d rather be.”
“Me, either,” she said.
It’s the spirit of New York. It’s eight million people, but the strength and power and joy of it comes from the people who live here. That night, when I lay in bed with my wife, I felt the same way I did my first night in Manhattan, at that Quaker boarding house. Happy. And that I was the luckiest person in the world.
We’re going to be alright.
All of us.