Descent Into Madness

The Sounds of 7pm

The first time I heard the cheering at 7pm, it was delightful.

I just checked my phone, and it shows that I recorded my first video of people on my block and around the Upper West Side cheering at 7pm on March 27th. I recorded a second video of even louder, more spirited cheering on March 29th. It was novel back then, a heartwarming tribute to the healthcare workers and first responders in NYC who are on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, to all of the people in our city who are risking their health by going to work right now so the rest of us can stay home. In this terrifying and lonely horror/sci-fi movie we’re living through, it was nice to be reminded that when you live in New York City, you’re never really alone.

People who don’t live here don’t understand what a Manhattanite’s existence is like under normal circumstances. The thing about living on the island of Manhattan – a very small island, just 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles wide – is that you’re always surrounded by other people. Every time you leave your apartment, you see people – ones you know, and ones you don’t know.

There could be someone in your hallway when you leave your apartment to take the elevator downstairs, someone else in the elevator when it arrives. There could be someone in your lobby when you get off the elevator downstairs. You’re guaranteed to see people when you leave your building: people walking their dogs, people having loud, animated conversations on their phones, couples in love and in arguments, tourists with their European sneakers (yes, we call them sneakers) and their backpacks, which we take as cues to be kind(er) to them if they’re walking down the sidewalk too slowly.

Normally, every time a Manhattanite leaves her house, she could see any number of different kinds of people while she’s outside. There are old people to see, and young people, scary people and sweet people, people who make you feel sad, and ones who make you feel happy. Usually, the defining thing about living in New York City as a whole is how much you just can’t avoid other people if you’re outside of your apartment.

Take me, for example. Before COVID, if I were to walk from my apartment just an avenue and a half down to Broadway, I could easily pass by 5 to 15 people on my short walk (plus the chauvinistic doorman on my corner, who is one of my nemeses, and also maybe the gruff-looking guy who works at the building across the street, who has a bald head and a beard like the Captain from Tin Tin, but it turns out is very nice). And that’s not counting all of the dozens of people across the street and down the block and over the avenue – this 5 to 15 number is just the number of people who will normally walk past me on the same side of the sidewalk during my less-than-3-minute walk to Broadway.

Then, when I get to the corner of Broadway, I’ll definitely see one of the two lovely gentlemen who both man the flower stall outside the corner deli, just at different times. Normally, I could go into any number of my many different regular, local establishments and chat with the familiar characters who work there, who have become more like friends than acquaintances to me in the 7 years I’ve lived in this neighborhood. And in the good old days before COVID, during my walks, I could always count on seeing dozens and dozens of other New Yorkers, people who were just glowing orbs to me back then, since we were nothing more than ships passing in the night – but at least then, there were other ships.

With this lockdown, all of that social activity and interaction – everything that makes New York City into New York City – is gone. Now, if I see someone else while I’m outside, we’re both wearing gloves and surgical masks, and I cross the street to get away from them. There’s no more standing on the sidewalk with a Starbucks in my hand, talking to my grandmother on the phone or – how I miss this – visiting her at her apartment in the West Village. I haven’t seen my parents, sister, grandmother or in-laws in over 2 months, except over video chat, and we all live on the tiny island of Manhattan. I’m not used to this whole ‘not seeing people’ thing. It’s the antithesis of life as a New Yorker.

So the clapping, and the cheering, and the banging of the pots and pans at 7pm on March 27th and then March 29th, and even through most of April – that was really nice. It was a re-affirming reminder that we aren’t living in a post-apocalyptic nightmare, that everyone is still here – we’re all just inside, sequestered in our homes.

Now, though, it’s May 6th, over a month later, and the nightly cheering has become a little bit…hysterical. I actually think these days, it sounds most like those scenes on TV where they bring a new inmate into a prison and the other inmates go crazy and bang on the bars of their cells, jeering at the fresh meat on parade. It just sounds and feels very Lord of the Flies to me now; there’s a desperation to the 7pm cheering these days that makes hearing it feel very different now than how it felt to hear it back in March.

I actually kind of dread 7pm now, because my block in particular seems to really be losing it in lockdown – and I’m saying this based on the sounds I’ve recently started to hear when 7pm rolls around every night.

There’s a guy with a shofar on my block – he’s been blowing that for weeks, and I was originally digging it, but it’s gotten old, especially since a trumpeter has decided to tunelessly chime in every night now. Some woman has also decided to stand on the sidewalk each evening at 7pm, where she bangs two pans together arrhythmically while wearing latex gloves and a surgical mask, like some kind of unsettling, hospital-themed Halloween attraction. Yesterday, I heard a guy who was just screaming – not a pained scream, but the kind of scream that literally sounds the way the word “AHHHHH!” sounds when you read it in your head.

It’s become the one time of day that everyone feels entitled to really let off their steam about this whole pandemic. Apparently, a surprising number of my neighbors like to let off their steam by ringing a cowbell in a frenzied fashion, or quickly, repeatedly banging on a tin pan with a metal spoon like a chimpanzee at mealtime (if you gave a chimpanzee a tin pan to bang with a metal spoon at mealtimes).

Sometimes, I find myself feeling aggravated by the cacophony of sounds and noises I hear from all of my windows (which face multiple exposures) every evening at 7pm now. On those days, my response is to want to hide instead of participate.

Whenever I feel like that, I just take a deep breath and remind myself that hey, babe, it’s New York City – we’re ALL nuts here. Then, I pull my curtain open, and I start to clap.

I'm a comedy writer born and raised in NYC.

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