By Kieran Loughney
The summer of 2020 never really happened in New York. With concerts cancelled, theatres shuttered, business conducted remotely and travel deferred, the city became a hollowed-out shell of its usually vibrant self. Plywood covered shop windows. Favorite restaurants and stores closed. Deemed a risk to public safety, movies and music in the parks, Pride celebrations and street fairs vanished. Ubiquitous facemasks revealed only worried and fearful eyes as we passed each other on the street or allowed ourselves a short rest, socially distanced from others on a park bench. We began to wonder if summer could ever be the same again. A recent stroll through the West Village provided evidence that in 2021, summer had made a comeback.
The fractured melody of nonsense syllables reached me nearly a block before the toddler in a stroller came into view. His full-throated singing echoed off the brownstones lining West 12th Street as his expressionless nanny wheeled her charge. With her earbuds in place, she missed the child’s caterwauling and a man on the street exclaiming, “Great song.” I agreed, remarking, “I smell a hit.” At West 4th, bass notes pumped a dance beat among tables outside the Cubby Hole, its patrons in cheerful animation, their hair buzzed, dyed or spiked. The smell of dog droppings confronted me as I crossed the cobblestone street near Café Cluny, though the face of the maître’d at his podium betrayed no awareness of the foul odor. As I passed an open door, a rich, roasted scent drifted from the kitchen. Diners chattered under the cafe’s canopy in various foreign dialects, the clink of flatware on plates punctuating their conversation. Just steps away, the piquance of ground horseradish drifted from another restaurant, its clientele sipping wine in a streetside enclosure. A whiff of pot smoke accompanied a passing young couple’s laughter. A raucous tuba, trumpet and drum backed a gruff voice on a megaphone at nearby Tartine. Alfresco diners bobbed heads and tapped feet to the strolling combo’s energetic take on, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” I had once complimented the combo’s singer for channeling Louis Armstrong’s voice. “Oh, no man, I’m trying to sound like Tom Waits,” he insisted. On West 11th Street, flowers entwined wrought iron railings and filled pots on stoops, lending their sweet fragrance—or was it the perfume worn by that stylishly dressed woman who just hurried by on clicking heels?
In the West Village the incessant wail of car alarms, angry motorists honking at double parkers, the shrill beep of trucks backing up and ear-shattering jackhammers make frequent appearances. The reek of curbside garbage awaiting pickup and acrid car exhaust are also here. But in the symphony of sound and scent of which the West Village is composed is the abundant energy of life lived fully. A life now reclaimed and rejuvenated, the summer after its very existence seemed in peril. We’ve taken tentative steps in 2021 into our new reality, our senses re-awakening, sometimes thrilling to that which may once have become ordinary. We are back to kibbitzing with neighbors, grateful for those who have made it through those harrowing months. Handshakes and embraces are becoming routine. Though variants of the COVID virus present a new threat of breakthrough infections, we are thankful for the interactions we can safely enjoy.
Too many didn’t live to see this remarkable summer unfold. Their lives will echo in our memories, and our hearts are with those they left behind. We have new heroes now, a new perspective on what really matters. We see those we may have once ignored: the sanitation worker, the delivery person, and appreciate the truly essential role they play in maintaining our city, supplying us with so much. Consider the custodian mopping a hospital corridor, the overworked nurse who has seen so much loss, the cheerful checkout clerk at the local supermarket. These and countless others who give of themselves each day have shown us what should have been clear all along: that their efforts enhance our lives in a thousand ways, every day. An undeniably positive effect of the pandemic is that we’ve acquired a finer-tuned sense of life’s richness. After the loss and isolation of the past, an appreciation for all we’ve missed may stay with us and we’ll understand more profoundly the treasure each moment can hold.