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The 3,500 year-old Obelisk framed by the magnolias in Central Park. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020.  Mid-50s, not quite chilly, but rain and grey skies all day yesterday in New York.

Monday, which felt like Sunday, and doesn’t everyday at some point? I went out for my first visit with a friend since this lockdown began five weeks ago. Or was it six? It all seems like the same week. Except some days are clearer than others.

Being a good neighbor.

I’ve talked to friends on the phone during those weeks, but have never seen anyone face-to-face. Or rather mask-to-mask. Most of those I talked to were in another part of the country or the world, not so much those I see here. That’s what’s missing for me.

So I took a walk with Gillian Miniter who lives over on Fifth, and came over to my neighborhood. Central Park around Fifth Avenue often has many more people out. Gillian and I walked up East End towards  Gracie Mansion where the Mayor lives, and into Carl Schurz Park, then down along the Promenade.

We kept our “distance” although I frequently had to ask her to repeat what she said. Aside from my hearing issues, which she is used to, the mask also often masks the voice. I’m sure she finds it at least slightly annoying — although she’s naturally patient.

The 86th Street entrance to Carl Schurz Park with this sumptuous grove of Kanzan cherry trees in full bloom. The woman on the right hand side of the photo with the two little children is wearing a mask. So are the children.

Monday was a sometimes-sunny day. There were very few on the Promenade. I took these photos of the park, as it is beginning to bloom. All beauty recognized is good for our heads — especially in times like these. It’s an important counterpoint, a miracle really, a reminder of what’s also out there for us in this life.

It also calms, no matter how briefly, since every little thing can be an issue in this current predicament. Although I have noticed a potentially liberating change emerging. A week ago I saw only empty roads and avenues in my brief travels to market. Since this past weekend, and in the last couple of days, the traffic is increasing. People are getting out. It’s a big relief.

This park volunteer is putting this fenced in garden in shape for the coming months.

The mask thing borders on the absurd at times. A young woman, wearing a mask, walking on the sidewalk in my direction with a little boy (also masked) detoured into the road as she approached me standing at a distance of 8 feet or so from her, with Ray, my elderly shih-tzu who was sniffing out the calling cards of canines who’d passed by the wall recently. I was wearing a mask, the kid was wearing a mask. Ray was not wearing a mask. I was also wearing gloves, and she was already eight or ten feet away.

Fear, I supposed. A lot of people have it. They turn away when passing by another; or put their head down as if there is some kind of spirit wandering around randomly poisoning the atmosphere. (And it might be sitting on my shoulder!) It could be that when this lock-down finally ends many will still remain en privee even out on the sidewalk. It is easy to understand: everything has been scary.

In the middle of mansion by a riverside. The condominium in the background on 87th Street (170 East End Avenue) was designed by Peter Marino.

The worse thing about the mask is that no one is instantly recognizable. Coming out of Citarella the other day, a young woman waiting in line, looking very smart in a white peplum jacket and a matching mask and hat, said hello to me. She had dark hair, was very well turned out and had the voice of a young (20s) girl. She’d said hello in way that I knew she knew me. I told her I didn’t recognize her with the mask. So she pulled it away from her face for a moment and told me: Peggy Siegal, the very prominent New York to Hollywood film publicist, renowned for her screenings and parties for decades. I’ve known her well for 25 years! She kept the mask on.

It may seem like a small matter but what I see are people separating themselves from each other, staying away, increasingly isolated from the world they live in. New York has always been the “melting pot” since the Europeans (and the British of course) began populating old Manahatta back in the 17th century. The result has been the greatest city in the world for the millions of creative minds who have built it. The people of the city are not just our neighbors, they are our community.

I don’t know what this great and gorgeous flowering tree/bush is called. JH think it’s a Purpleleaf Sandcherry. Above the tree to the left, the building with the glass walls is the yet unfinished Chapin School addition. To the right, the tall limestone building was built for Vincent Astor in 1931. He had the penthouse, the largest of its kind at the time, and the park he overlooked was not quite the place of festooning beauty that it is today. The Park ran to the shoreline (the FDR Drive wasn’t completed until the late 1930s). At that time the neighborhood was in transition from more of a middle class, partly manufacturing area to what became high end residential real estate. The changes began in the heydays of the 1920s before the Crash. The last Astor to live there was Vincent’s widow, Brooke, who eventually sold it and moved to Park Avenue. Before she married Astor, the widow Brooke Marshall lived on the other side of the Park at 10 Gracie Square. After Astor she moved to Park Avenue and lived happily ever after.

Several Thanksgivings ago, I had taken my dogs down to the Promenade for quick walkie when we stopped briefly before an older couple walking a friendly Labrador. Accommodating the canine meet-up, we chatted. I learned they were from a small town in Pennsylvania, and had come up to the city to have the holiday dinner with their son whose dog they were walking. From there we chatted about the City on such a holiday.  (Empty, like the last few weeks.)

I often ask when I meet people from out of town: “How do you like New York?”

“Oh, we love it!” the wife enthused.

Amazing, like a work of art. Mother Nature extending her arms in welcoming.

I asked her what she liked about it. “The people,” she said, adding that they had just got to know a complete stranger — yours truly —  better than their next door neighbor of twenty years back in PA. “That’s New York!” she said.

How was that possible — never speaking to the next door neighbor in two decades? The lady explained that the neighbor departs and arrives by car going in or going out of the garage, and otherwise they never see him, nor have they ever met him. She said they knew none of their neighbors despite the houses being fairly close to each other.

So, it started with the car. Nowadays, in the past two decades, the cell phones have replaced the car. And now it’s Covid 19 separating us. Watching the avenue from my terrace these days, I see many women and men, teenagers as well, all age brackets, masks firmly covering three quarters of the countenance into mystery, often with wires attached to their ears, with heads bowed looking like they are talking to themselves, and peering down at their palm holding a little flat aluminum rectangle screen.

This guy was sitting on the railing by our bench. He seemed to be visiting. It occurs to me now that he was probably hoping something might be coming his way. You’re not supposed to feed the birds. New York’s a helluva life of hardship for our fine feathered friends, but they continue unimpressed. He obviously knows who we are. Or could be. This is New York.

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