1. Personal

Letter from a Ghost Town

Last week, taking the subway and then walking through midtown Manhattan, the first line of the essay below came to me. I had to write it. I then published it on Facebook, and after one person requested it to be public, more than 20 people shared it.

If you already read it there, I’ve added a coda, as voting gave me yet another perspective on the city.

New York City isn’t dead, but it is a ghost town.

How do you reconcile all the different reports you’re hearing about the nation’s largest city?

How can anyone make sense of it? Two people living in my own building or even my own home could have opposing perspectives.

In anything resembling a ‘normal’ year, this city of 8 million is a city with infinite perspectives.
Now, there isn’t any sense of what normalcy will look like for us on the other side of the pandemic.

I was here for 9/11. You know enough about that.

I was also here for 9/12, when signs were posted saying blood banks were full, and when people would stop where they were on the traffic-free streets to applaud fire engines cruising by. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so much pride in my city or country as I did on 9/12.

And then came 9/13, a day that is more striking the longer we go through the current crisis. 9/11 was a day that lived in infamy, but 9/13 was a day that thrived in normalcy. Traffic was back. People were commuting to work. You couldn’t get bread in a grocery store, but those shelves would be restocked soon.

Today, seven months after the city shut down, I’m living in a much different city.

I’ve been away from Manhattan for less than two weeks total since March. In June, I took my first subway ride since the winter — to restock my wine fridge. I’ve spent most of my time close to home in midtown but have ventured to Queens and Brooklyn. A number of days this fall, today included, I walked from the north of Times Square down to Herald Square and through Koreatown.

I often don’t feel like a mere resident here. I feel like an observer. And sometimes I feel like I’m part of the neighborhood watch.

The city is less safe than it has been, and I’m more likely to be aware of my surroundings, not unlike I would be when on vacation in any other Western city. In June, when some rioters crashed the protests and busted up the 7-Eleven across the street from me, I was warier of going out late, but I have fewer concerns now.

We were spoiled in this city with historically low crime rates that somehow kept dropping through three very different mayoral administrations. Crime was far worse in the city when I moved here 20 years ago than it is today, and as the economy recovers, even this bump should subside. The city overall is safe.

There are signs of it thriving too. Walk through Koreatown at 7pm, and it does feel like Europe. Streets are closed off, outdoor tables are all full, and the smells — my god, the smells would even make a vegetarian tempted to try one of those plates of sizzling short rib, if only for a bite.

Murray Hill is like that too. It’s more of a local crowd; few travel there, and tourists don’t wander over to 3rd Ave. Most of those tables are full, typically with twentysomethings on dates or with small groups of friends grabbing wings or hummus platters or tikka masala and washing it down with craft beer as they take a swig on a crisp fall night at their table on a stretch of pavement that used to be a parking spot.

While the city’s not dead, it is a ghost town.

Ghosts are everywhere.

You start a call with a friend you haven’t spoken to in a few months, and you ask, “Are you still in the city?”

Or you check behind them on Zoom and see if you can detect the cramped furnishings of someone sticking around — there’s even something about the style of the closet doors that’s a giveaway — or you see some greenery and know they left, at least for a spell.

You walk around and see a building and go, “Oh, that’s where so-and-so lived,” or you see a restaurant and go, “Oh, so-and-so would love to know that it’s still here,” or you see an empty storefront and go, “Oh, so-and-so would be so sad to know it’s gone.” And so it goes.

You feel their ghosts.

My barber yesterday showed me the list of the 12 customers who had shown up by 3pm that day. He said normally they’d have 60 by then.

The higher-end pizza place near me that thrived on corporate and tourist traffic closed. The owner of the Murray Hill pizza joint that’s been my staple said they’re only here because the landlord gave them a break on their rent, and the outdoor dining hurt their business because trendier spots siphoned off some of the remaining business. So many here are hurting.

Many people who left the city were considering doing so anyway, but hardly everyone. Some who left will return; others won’t.

Some will come and take advantage of the lower-than-usual cost of living. A New York City full of ghosts is still more vibrant and full of potential than wherever these new residents are coming from.

There’s a lot of life here. Call this a dead city, and you insult everyone living here.

But there are more ghosts living here too, and we have to share this city with them.

Epilogue:

The day after I wrote that, it was my birthday, and as a present to myself, I took part in a historic event.

October 24 was the first day for early voting in New York — not just for this presidential election, but the first time ever.

Walking over, I approached Madison Square Garden as my brother, born 8 years and 364 days before me, called me from his home in Canada. I shifted the display to the rear camera, and we both saw the line heading from the Garden atrium at 32nd Street and 7th Avenue extending for one block, then another, and then around 34th Street almost to 8th Avenue.

I got in line because I had some time to wait, but I didn’t expect to stay long. I could always find another time to vote, and I had an absentee ballot that I could mail in if needed.

But then, as I stood there responding to birthday greetings on Facebook, I kept looking around and seeing more life than I’ve seen in the city since March. It wasn’t just the voting line. The shops were busy. There was car traffic and foot traffic. The weather was that perfect fall-in-New York 65-degrees, and everyone was out in the best of moods — the joyfulness that never gets captured on TV or film because a happy New Yorker on a screen must always be sarcastic, rapacious, or a second away from walking into a bus. Yet this was joy.

The battery was low on my phone. As I rushed out to vote, I brought my mask (of course) and sanitizer but not my charger. I saved my power to keep taking photos of the chalk art — “I’m so proud to be a New Yorker” (punctuated with a heart), “This ghost town shows up and votes,” “This is what democracy looks like,” “We can brunch when this is over” (really).

Minimizing device usage let me pay more attention and also allowed my mind to wander. Some passersby would ask others on line what the wait was for. I wondered what I would say if someone asked me. “Jay-Z is playing the Garden.” “Sale on Yeezys.” “Rumspringa.”

Outside the main entrance to Penn Station on 7th, I bought a pretzel and a Diet Coke from a street vendor. I wasn’t that hungry but was happy to see him working. I was never that impressed with our pretzels, but this had a smoky flavor I never tasted before. I wanted to attribute the taste to the halo effect where everything about the city seemed better that day, but no, this was the best street pretzel I’d ever eaten.

After I finished, a man came up to me, and my guard went up. He told me that some cash — the change from the pretzel guy — was about to fall out of my pocket. It was another reminder of how safe the city was.

It reminded me of a time when I was on the subway in October 2004 and the train stopped underground between stations. We waited 10 minutes, which then became 20 and longer. I kept my eye on a few teenagers who I could tell grew more restless with each passing minute. I knew they were going to do something; the cork would pop out, and they’d release all that energy. Sure enough, they started shouting to everyone, “Y’all gotta vote for John Kerry! Make sure y’all vote! Vote for John Kerry!” Yes, this was what I had to fear: political activists.

Is it any wonder I’ve stayed in this city?

Two-and-a-half hours after I got in that line, I voted. The polling staff couldn’t have been friendlier. After scanning my ballot, I felt like I was glowing. I left slowly, savoring it.

It felt this momentous in New York. In my district, every race was predictable, but it still felt like I was performing a sacred act for me, my city, my country, and my family.

Winter is coming. Beyond the Northeast, Covid rages everywhere. People who worked much harder than me to vote, including people who (unlike me) have had to fight for their right to vote, may find their votes aren’t counted.

But, that day, it was a day for renewal. My birthday coincided with a fall awakening. It left me more certain than ever that after this fall, this city will rise yet again.

David

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BROUGHT TO YOU BY… TALKWALKER
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ON THE UP AND UPSTREAM
You know how much I love Upstream; Serial Marketers is running our 9th event there this week (see below for more), and it’s been my favorite way to meet people all year. Now, Upstream officially launched, and you’ll see Serial Marketers featured there. They have a new office hours product too, and I’m one of the first members to offer it, so feel free to book a time.
https://joinupstream.medium.com/introducing-upstream-4303d0968e9

Thanks to Jaimee KniffenChris GorgesDon SteeleRachel PasquaMatt WurstWilliam AlvarezWendy Weatherford MarksDavid Kohlberg, and William Alvarez for spreading the word about the newsletter recently.

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EVENTS
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SERIAL MARKETERS SPEEDUPS
November 12, 12pm
December 3, 12pm
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Join the virtual 1:1 rapid-fire speed-meeting event to connect with fellow Serial Marketers, hosted by the Upstream app.
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SERIAL MARKETERS SALONS
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RSVP on our private Meetup (request access if you’re not there)
-11/10: Anna Bager, President & CEO of Out of Home Association of America (OAAA)
-11/17: Service as a Product with Andy Richman, Partner, ProductSavvy-11/24: Thanksgiving week gratitude refresher
-12/1: Resume Brand Strategy with Ali Roth, Executive Resume Writer, Ali Roth Writes
-12/8: The Real Meaning of Community with Bilyana Freye, Co-Founder and CEO, Orbiit
-12/15: Member Holiday Extravanganza

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