The first time Ben and I visited our 80th Street apartment, we didn’t have a lot of hope for the place. The rent was just $50 more a month than an apartment we’d looked at in a much less expensive neighborhood uptown, so I said something like, “I’m sure it’ll be a dump,” as we took the train down to see it.
It wasn’t a dump, but it was up five flights of steps, had little natural light, was very compact, and–unbeknownst to us–owned by a nightmare of a landlord frequently on the verge of a rage-induced tantrum.
We ignored all of these details at the open house. All we could see in front of us was our first dream Manhattan apartment–a dream we hadn’t even entertained until a few months before. In our eyes, we were in the center of the world. We Venmo’d (!!) the deposit to the broker and signed the lease a week later.
What the apartment on 80th lacked in space and beauty, it made up for in character. Our bedroom window overlooked layer after layer of classic NYC buildings topped with water towers, all of which turned orange in the late afternoon and lit up with our neighbors’ lights after sunset.
The people on 80th all seemed to know each other. The barber always said hello to us as we passed. As did an older man named George who sat on his stoop. He’d greet to me every time I passed and asked how my family was doing. He held a switchblade knife in his hand, hidden, but obvious. Not as a threat, just as a remnant of another time, another NYC I was too young to know. He’d lived on the block so long that he helped plant the trees that now reached up to the fourth story of the buildings. A group of guys two stoops down gathered outside each weekend and shared a bottle of wine. A well-known TV and movie actress sat on the stoop next to them, casually taking in the day as she read a magazine. It could have easily been Sesame Street.
Living on 80th Street was a daydream a decade in the making. Back in 2011, months before we left the city for Jersey, I used to take the train up and spend a few hours pretending I lived on the Upper West Side. I wrote notes for the book I’m currently writing (albeit 11 years later) in the Joe Coffee on Columbus and 84th. I wandered through the streets and picked my favorite blocks to live on someday. I figured it would never happen–back then we barely had money for groceries.
Seven years later–after three years in Jersey City and four years in Montclair–moving back to NY from Jersey was no small feat. We were never meant to leave the suburbs. The town was the destination, not a stopover. I sang in the local choir, worked at the local school, and knew the baristas so well that they hung my goodbye card next to the espresso machine. Most importantly, we had a small community there and met for weekly dinner parties.
But there were too many silent weekday afternoons, too many canceled plans because of broken-down trains, and worst of all, a pervading sense of loneliness that turned us into people we never planned to become. We weren’t growing. And then, we weren’t breathing. All of this lead to a train ride home one night when I told Ben that I’d run the math–we could afford live in a very small apartment on the Upper West Side after we cut out the cost of train tickets, gas, and car insurance. We could throw it all out the window and move back–the thing you weren’t supposed to do. I sang the Cole Porter song “Take Me Back to Manhattan” to him until he promised me he’d consider the idea.
We lived on 80th for seven months before news of Covid made its way into the city. “If they start talking about a quarantine,” I told Ben at the time, “Let’s go stay with family.” We weren’t meant to spend long amounts of time in this apartment. It was far too small.
But when what happened, well, happened, we realized the plausibility of leaving town and staying with anyone else was slim. It would only be for a couple of weeks anyway, right? Within days, the hundreds of yellow living room lights out our back window went dark. Some nights, all you could see were the shadows of buildings–row after row of gray rectangles against a grayer sky. The neighborhood grew so silent that we could hear the double beep of the 1 train when the doors closed underground.
As the internet turned against each other and fought over masks and safety, our neighborhood did what we needed to do to stay safe without prompting. Ben and I built masks out of scarves and hiking buffs before real ones were available at stores. If you passed someone on the street, you’d walk out into the road to give each other space. There wasn’t any traffic coming anyway.
The sings of Covid were all around us. It wasn’t some far-away thing miles beyond your driveway. Our city went silent, frozen in St. Patrick’s Day decor. Sirens and helicopters all day. A flyer memorializing the life of a line cook went up on the window of our favorite pub. News reports of how bad the city’s Covid numbers were. Or how we were behaving well or not behaving well. Like we were zoo animals out of control.
And then the cheering began. The second night the 7pm cheer happened, Ben and I decided to creep out onto the forbidden roof of our building. It was covered in wires, nails, and cockroaches, but we were outside in a private space for the first time in weeks. If you leaned on the front facade of the building, you could wave to neighbors sitting on their fire escapes who were hitting spoons against pots and pans or blowing into noisemakers. We befriended roof neighbors and exchanged bread and desserts. We all knew the cheer was coming to a close each night when a speaker across the street–we could never place where–played “New York, New York.” The block sang the last few lines and then we all went inside, back to our respective silences.
Ben and I knew how lucky we were. We had each other. We could work from our little apartment. We maintained our income. So we kept our chins up and our tears in. We were the lucky ones. We watched a multi-part documentary about NYC to feel even prouder of where we were. Afterward, when the few people outside wandered back in, we’d go for walks.
Ben and I went on what we named “beer walks.” We filled coffee tumblers full of beer and strolled through empty Riverside Park just after sunset. Sometimes we’d sit on that bench on the side of the museum that faces the planetarium and watch the families of raccoons wander toward Central Park.
When the protests began in June, we stood on the same roof and cheered on those brave enough to take the streets in crowds. We eventually marched with them as well. When the rioters followed–the people trying to distract from the protests–Ben and I stood on the roof with an eye on our local businesses. “If they go near Zabars, I’m getting the bat,” I told Ben, as if I’d be able to take on an angry mob. At the height of it all, we heard a crash of shattering glass and Ben ran out into the hallway with said-bat. But it was just another person moving out. They had broken a glass vase. We helped them clean it up and laughed at how shaken up we were at every sound.
The roof was our great escape. Ben and I sat up there night after night and talked about returning to a life in the theatre someday, if we could ever find our way back after leaving. Countless afternoons, I laid on my back and listened to audiobook after audiobook. There were always so many helicopters. And pigeons. We once stood feet from a two-foot-tall raven. I remember when I started to see airplanes again.
In the winter, Ben and I ducked into our favorite Irish pub one night (not the one pictured, but leftover St. Patrick’s day decor for reference), just days before the second indoor dining shutdown. One martini turned into two which lead to a beer which lead to shots at the (roped-off) bar after the whole place had technically closed for the night at the mandatory 10pm. We clanked glasses with the bartender and three strangers and all hugged–oh no–goodnight. We left laughing and happy.
But the weight of what we’d done hit me when I got home. We were surely going to get Covid, I told myself. We were surely going to give it to everyone there. It was all our fault. And then the weight of everything hit me. The makeshift hospital in Central Park, the hospital ship in the river, the temporary morgues on the east side. All of it. I sat in our dark living room and cried–deep gulping cries–until 2 or 3 am.
I haven’t gotten drunk since. I’ve gotten tipsy, sure. But not drunk. I doubt I will again, really.
A few months later, I sat on the couch in that living room and watched four people sitting in four Zoom squares confirm the first vaccine for safe use. There was no one to celebrate with anyway, so I pre-ordered a hot chocolate from Starbucks and went for a loop around the block before coming back to our silent apartment. I’m not sure where Ben was in this story. My memories of those months are thin.
We started looking for a new apartment in the middle of the summer of 2021. We needed to get out of that small space. The two windows that looked onto two brick walls. The neighbors that played Call of Duty all afternoon. The cockroaches that made it from the roof to our kitchen. It all added up. It was time to get out of our first dream Manhattan apartment.
But as life would have it, everyone in NYC decided to try to find a new apartment that fall. And for the first time in our rental history since graduating college, we simply did not find a new place in time. Our landlord, by complete accident, never read the email that we were ending our lease. And so we were allowed to stay.
One week later, the hurricanes hit. My social media feed filled with videos of water rushing down subway steps, through the streets, and into people’s apartments. And then Ben said from the next room, “We have a leak!” The ceiling in the living room began to crumble.
I called the super. “There’s nothing I can do. Call 911.” So as the crack got worse, I did call, even though I knew it was ridiculous. “We can’t help with storm-related problems,” they told me. I called the super back. No answer. Finally he arrived and threw a tarp over the spot in the roof.
Paint stripped off the ceiling in several long pieces, falling onto the furniture and quickly filling with green and black spots of mold. I made the mistake of calling the landlord directly which made him immediately erupt into screaming threats. When I said that I’d report him to the city, he hung up on me.
Two months later, they half-painted over the mold, but a large haunting spot remained until we left a year later.
When we were confirmed to travel again, we went on the trip originally planned for May of 2020. Ben and I hiked through Spain, so far away from the roof and the block and the dark living room. One night, we sat down with two fellow hikers and some beer.
“We watched NYC on the news,” They told us, “It was so scary. Are you both okay?”
I saw the weight of the question wash through Ben’s body. No one had ever asked. We just needed someone to ask. We told them everything with such gratitude. The cheering on the roof. The neighborhood disappearing. George getting sent away to live in a nursing home. The fireworks. The bikes. The beer walks. We were lucky. It was terrible but we were lucky.
Ben and I made the most of our last winter on 80th Street, but we counted down the months, and then the weeks, and then the days.
When we started to pack, we dusted off the shelf of hosting dishes, chip-and-dips, and punch bowls that hadn’t been touched since our housewarming in September of 2019. We went up to the roof the night before we moved.
“We spent so many nights up here dreaming about escaping,” I told Ben.
“We used to wave to a couple of toddlers during the cheer that lived up there,” Ben said, pointing to a window in a nearby high-rise.
“They’re probably so big now.”
It was hard to say goodbye to the view out the back window. All the lights in the windows had returned. No more shadows of buildings. So much life. And the noise returned, replacing the helicopters and the sirens and the train doors closing.
The apartment looked so hollow in those final days. “Someone will be moving here who will not see this as their quarantine space,” I assured Ben.
As much as I wanted to, I didn’t cry when we swept up the apartment for the final time. I think it would have been too much. Or maybe I’d done enough crying in that place.
We moved eight blocks south to an apartment with so much sunlight that we now wake up at 6:30 no matter how thick the blackout curtains are. We have a view of the San Remo out the kitchen window and there’s a restaurant below us that hosts joyful birthday parties on weekends. I have a new walking path, past the Dakota and through Strawberry Fields. I like to sit on the large rock next to Frisbee Hill in Central Park. I keep thinking that someone is going to make me move back to 80th. I miss it–the way you miss any safe space, no matter how suffocating–but I can’t be there another day. So I move through this new space delicately, convinced it’s all a dream.
I didn’t realize how small I’d become until we left that apartment, but I am still so grateful for it. It was our first home after the return. And it kept us safe for three years. Living on 80th street is the reason we have a community all around the neighborhood. We’re now friends with the barber, as well as many neighbors we met on the roof or the early days of bars reopening. I consider several local bartenders close friends now. I’m in a writer’s group with one of them. And I did eventually chat with the famous actress who lives on the street. I told her we watched one of her shows during quarantine and that we looked forward to it every night.
Living on 80th Street is the reason I feel more absorbed into this city than I ever thought I could be. All of the neighborhood’s landmarks are more than landmarks in my memory. I watch the tourists with curiosity most days, wondering if they can guess what it looked like here. The Natural History Museum no longer sits empty. The planets in the planetarium are no longer dark. There are more airplanes than helicopters.
Living on 80th street is why I know Ben and I can now get through anything. It’s where we counted down the days to an unknown deadline. It’s where we yelled out the windows, and recorded music for online concerts, and celebrated our wedding anniversary, and Easter, and our birthdays all by ourselves. It’s where we saw the world disappear and where we saw it slowly come back to life, one window at a time.