As I am still in New York after the cancellation of my immigrant art festival, I decided to watch and observe people, the streets, the public spaces and behaviors, while of course minding all the safety rules of social distancing and hygiene. So far everywhere I’ve been, New Yorkers exhibit model behavior. From the wonderful staff at the Bernie Wohl Center where our event was going to take place and where we had one rehearsal before closing, to the hotel concierge and cleaning staff, to restaurant staff, to random people in the street or at Starbucks, people are poised, calm and kind, even laughing, having fun and most importantly mindful of each other. Also, the hotel staff assured me that I will be refunded for all the nights I am canceling due to my early departure in order return sooner to my hometown of Lexington of Virginia.
This morning, as usual I stepped down from my hotel in the Upper West side to get my soymilk cappuccino at the nearby Starbucks. The staff was all smiles and kindness even joking around and not a bit phased, though the manager was giving “time to wash your hands” signals every half an our or so.
But the nicest thing happened while I was sitting down at the only available table with my cappuccino and oatmeal. The larger seating area upstairs had been closed off, most likely due to the pandemic, so I was lucky to get the only available table with two benches facing each other. A young woman with a couple of bags noticed the closed off area as well as the table where I was sitting and was going to go away looking a bit disappointed. I said: “you are welcome to sit here, please, I don’t mind it at all.” She was very grateful and for a while we each sat in silence facing each other, me reading the news on my phone, then taking some notes in my notebook, she drinking her orange juice and making some phone calls. At some point I decided to break the silence and said: “Hard times, hm?” She looked back, smiled and said: “Yes, but if we are careful it’s going to be ok, we are lucky, we have our homes, we have food.” Indeed, I thought, so lucky are we to have homes and food as I remembered the several homeless people literally sleeping on the hard sidewalk yesterday as I walked to Central Park from my hotel. She said: “it’s not the end of the world,” “indeed I said, only the end of the world is the end of the world, we are still here.”
We started talking and sharing about our lives, where we live and where we are from, the usual. I found out she was born in the Dominican Republic but lived for most of her life in New York, first in Manhattan, right nearby to where we were on the Upper West side, that she had recently moved to Brooklyn which she loved thanks to the wide spaces, the openness, the neighborhood feeling and the houses. I shared I was from Virginia and had come to New York for the show which had been cancelled and I was ok with that, thankful we at least had a rehearsal, that I was going to return home soon and felt calm and hopeful. She said: “You seem so cheerful,” and I said: “yes, what good is it to stay worried and dark?” She said: “So you decided to come out today?” I said: “Sure, I feel cooped up in my hotel room, it’s a beautiful day to walk around.” She inquired very delicately about my origins, not the usual abrupt and intrusive “Where are you from?” Then she guessed I was European and then wanted to guess what part of Europe.
She did guess I was East European and guessed I was an artist, called me Bohemian, complemented me on my style. We ended up spending almost an hour talking and sharing until we heard again the manager call out to the employees to wash their hands which was pretext for more fun bantering and joking around. Upon leaving she told me her name was Gabriella and I told her my name, we complemented each other on our beautiful names. I left Starbucks feeling joyous and hopeful and decided to walk around some more in the crisp brilliant air of this day.
As I walked down the beautiful streets, Broadway, Amsterdam, I thought of worse times in history, such as the war my parents had survived, the devastating earthquake I survived in Bucharest in 1977, September 11 of course which my new friend Gabriella had also reminded me of, and which had given New Yorkers a true badge of honor for courage and endurance, and of course devastating epidemics like the plague. I have been thinking a lot these days of great books about the plague and of course two favorites always come to mind: Albert Camus’s La Peste, and Bocaccio’s Decameron. And I find their lessons more precious and relevant now than ever: hold on to kindness, be courageous, keep your sense of humor, treasure every moment, hold on to beauty, engage in storytelling, help others. And count your blessings you weren’t born in 14th century Italy when soap and clean water were not in abundance, chamber pots were poured out of windows, testing kits had not been invented, not to mention the internet. Oh, but wait, they didn’t have Trump, they had the Medicis, who though corrupt were smart, educated and patrons of the arts! Well, nothing is perfect! Keep washing your hands though and keep your spirit strong!
This is myself with actresses and playwrights Emily Blake (left) and Jessica Carmona (right) at a chocolate and wine bar in New York on the night of Saturday 14th celebrating our work for the canceled immigrant art festival that would have opened exactly on that evening. We co-organized and produced it.
Emily Blake in rehearsal on March 12th at the Bernie Wohl Center, performing the monologue titled Lula’s Nightmare from my play ‘Welcome to the Jungle of Calais’ which was part of the festival.
Update to the original essay.
I wrote this a few days ago while I was still in New York. By the time I left the city yesterday, restaurants and bars were all closing or were getting ready to close that evening, the Starbucks where I got my daily coffee was still open, but all sitting was taken away. However, the staff were the same kind, lovely and smiling people as before.
People in New York are practicing “random acts of kindness” such as this one: a woman was seen carrying a huge trash bag filled with necessities for the homeless and go by homeless people and giving away foods, clothing items, cleaning supplies.
I am now back in my hometown of Lexington, where things are as calm as ever, the trees are blooming, and the birds are singing. I’ve never felt luckier to live here than I do now. I am however self-quarantining in a separate room in my house given that I just returned from New York to make sure I am fine. And I feel fortunate to have a back yard where I can walk and breathe fresh air.
As soon as I am back to normal, I plan to volunteer at the local food banks. My dear partner is tripling his hours of volunteering for the local food banks.
Domnica Radulescu, in New York on the upper west side, March 2020