A Drive Through Manhattan
Can 5 AM during COVID-19 really be all that different?
I haven’t been sleeping well.
That has always been true, of course. But during this COVID-19 pandemic, things have gone a bit off the rails. Not only do I have the lack of a schedule that would come from having work, but I also have the sudden company of people in my same situation.
There is an entire social club around pandemic insomnia; whereas the night once offered only silence at 3 AM, I have had two separate, lengthy text conversations in the last week that began after 3 AM. I will miss this very much when the pandemic ends, but obviously that is a sacrifice I would gladly make.
I concluded one of these conversations at 4:45 AM the other day. I knew there was no chance of my falling asleep anytime soon, so I decided to jump in my car and run a brief errand. This is consistent with my travel philosophy these days: do not go anywhere unless there is a compelling need, and avoid grocery stores if only a few items are required, and they may be found at a close-by corner store.
I headed to the 24-7 gas station by the Holland Tunnel, and made it there in record time. To my surprise, there were cars entering the tunnel…I hadn’t expected no cars, but I also had not expected the feel of New York City on a normal (albeit lightly populated) day at 5 AM. It was one of the first ‘nearly normal’ moments I had experienced since early March.
Giving in to my curiosity, I decided no harm would come from things if I remained in my vehicle. I pulled onto the main road and went zipping through the Holland Tunnel, with the timing just such that I could see not a single car ahead of me the entire time.
Extraordinary, and not because of what I expected.
I thought it would be cool to experience having the tunnel nearly to oneself. But as I drove along, I found that the complete lack of traffic was causing me to experience the tunnel in a fundamentally different way. I had to make no driving decisions in the tunnel itself, except for speed and steering. My focus is normally on the cars ahead of me, and what their brake lights are forecasting, and without these, I was left to find other things to look at.
I noticed the shape of the tunnel in a way I never had before. I noticed how, at certain moments, a curve in the tunnel allows the driver’s line of sight to look down a long stretch of the lonely walkway on the left side. I noticed the condition of the road, the types of light fixtures, and the changes in elevation that occur as you move under the river and come back up again.
These last bits were especially noticeable. The tunnel descends at a maximum grade of 4.05%, and comes back up at a maximum of 3.6%. It isn’t going to rival the time that I had to tackle San Francisco’s Romolo Avenue (37.5%) in a stick-shift car; but it is not nothing, either.
And then, I was out of the tunnel. Without traffic, it took no time at all. I was back in the city I love for the first time since early March, and it was wonderful.
But sweet Lord, was it empty.
I know a lot about New York City at 5 AM. Between my insomnia, and my occasional run-in with a fun night with friends at a local establishment, I have navigated those streets many times when the sun was still just threatening to start the day. It is a city filled with signs of early life. Delivery trucks make their rounds; taxis come and go. Car commuters are able to get where they are going with surprisingly little hassle, and an entire army of joggers gets their exercise in before the city turns over into mayhem.
But I saw no yellow taxis at all. Not a one, my entire time there. I saw delivery trucks, but they were relatively few in number - as were the places that are normally open at this time of day. Instead of joggers, I saw a few people out for a run. And there were almost no pedestrians to speak of at all.
But it was the Holland Tunnel effect that struck me most. In a typical New York block, a driver makes a lot of decisions; it can be easy to miss a turn, or go further than you expected), entirely because of a microcosmic drama that plays out against some other car, over the span of an entire three-hundred feet of road travel. Anyone that experiences New York traffic is familiar with these little dramas. They have a physical grammar and vocabulary all their own. I have long-since discovered, for example, that yellow New York license plates are two parentheses surrounding a psychopath.
But it was all just not there.
I drove by my beloved McSorley’s (oh, the day McSorley’s reopens will be a very expensive day, indeed), and then turned on to Third Avenue to take it up town. And soon, I found that the lack of traffic allowed my eyes to wander from my own block, to blocks far ahead. Red and green traffic lights receded into the distance, and a great valley of buildings guided my sight all the way to the 30’s, the 40’s, possibly further. This landscape has always been there, but to have a concentrated, uninterrupted view while driving is not an experience I have often had.
I passed through Times Square, and found it to be its usual self. Any hope of seeing it empty was destroyed by an over-the-top police presence, with enough strobes flashing to blind an army. I have no idea what they were doing there, but it served to remind me that my little adventure had reached its sensible limit. I headed home, resolved to do a city walk in the next week or so, to see what else might be found along the way.
If I go in at 5 AM, I think I should have no trouble social distancing at all.
I cannot wait until that isn’t true anymore.
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