New York has an allure like no other city. In an online world, there is little sold that can’t be purchased with the click of a button. Yet it’s the intangible things in NYC that make it worth visiting; the experience, the landscape, the music, the cuisine, the street fashion, and above all, the collective energy that emanates from the eyes of dreamers.
September is my favorite time of year to visit NY. Manhattan is typically bustling and the weather is that perfect temperature between shorts and sweater weather. You can walk and shop for miles in the crisp fall air.
Residents are home from their summer vacations. Kids are back in school. Musicians and vendors line the sidewalks. Fashion Week takes over the city, and even windows are dressed to the nines.
In September, the holidays linger just around the corner, teasing you with their joy and good cheer. New styles are out tempting you to buy now and shop early. After all, as I always say, Christmas is coming.
My September 2021 Manhattan emerging-from-pandemic “EFP” trip, was unlike previous September visits to the city. Of course, I watch the news, I saw how hard-hit the city was during the lockdown. But until you are there for yourself, you don’t realize how different things really look for the people who live there.
From the minute my flight didn’t leave the ground, I should have known, this trip would be different. A delayed airline flight pushed back my arrival by several hours.
FOMO kicked in. My friends were already checked in at Mr. C Seaport. They were roaming the streets having fun in the Financial District without me.
Upon landing in New York, the airport car service canceled my pickup. Lack of staff was the cause, a sure sign of the times. By the time the taxi delivered me to the hotel, my friends were ready for bed. Night one was in the books and I missed it. The little mini Covid aftershocks keep on giving.
Saturday’s sun rose just the same. Meandering the streets we passed mile after mile of shiny parked bicycles waiting to be rented. They were beckoning tourists to enjoy, explore and soak in the streets that make you feel alive. Tourists that weren’t there.
There were not only fewer tourists but there were also noticeably fewer adult professionals in dresses and suits walking on the sidewalks. The high fashion that typically deems most Manhattanites magazine photoshoot ready, was replaced by more casual, albeit trendy, clothes.
In place of tourists and professionals, I saw parents walking with their masked children and a younger 25 to 35-year-old range of people roaming the streets and inhabiting outdoor cafe seats.
We walked past half-empty outdoor restaurant seating structures (new since my last visit to Manhattan). They are wooden structures with tables inside just off the other side of the sidewalk built on now closed-off city street lanes. The alfresco dining structures look quaint and European. And in a weird way, it feels like they should have always been there.
My health tracker racked up tens of thousands of steps, traveled miles on the subway and in taxis, all without a traffic jam, an accident, a crowded intersection, a horn, anyone yelling, or a sweaty stranger on the subway in my personal space.
The lines to get into any place worth eating at or shopping at in Manhattan were noticeably absent. I can’t think of one line we waited in the whole trip, not even to try on clothes or at the fancy cupcake shop. It was like being at Disneyland with no wait for the popular rides.
The only two lines we saw that stood out and made us turn our heads were for two vastly different things. One reasonably short line was out front of a popular gold jewelry shop in SoHo. One line that went down the block was for a soup kitchen. The disparity of these images sticks with me.
Saturday evening the Baccarat’s Grand Salon restaurant was open, and last-minute reservations were easy to obtain, but The Bar at Baccarat Hotel was closed. The stunning glassware served deliciously crafted cocktails under breathtaking chandeliers. It felt more like a private event for the few of us brave enough to be out, relying on our vaccinated statuses to keep us well. (Vaccine cards were checked in the lobby before patrons were allowed onto the elevator.)
Reservations for Sunday brunch were a nice to have, but not a need to have. We had them but did not need them.
We were asked at the door to show our vaccine cards. Being new to being out and needing it on hand, I realized that I had left mine in a different smaller purse from the night before back in the hotel. I had only a photo of it. So I asked the person who was obviously covering for the hostess if that would suffice.
She looked at me and said, “Of course. We’re fully complying with requirements, but also, we’re in the hospitality industry.” Then she murmured something about not being a medical professional or the police. She said it with a disparity in her eyes. It was one more hat for her to wear, one more thing to pile on a restaurant that was barely surviving.
We sat at our table and pondered how it would feel to be in her shoes and to have to turn someone away. We were sitting in a half-full popular restaurant at noon on a Sunday. More little mini Covid aftershocks.
And yet that’s why I came, why I chose to travel to the city. I felt like New York’s vaccine mandate added a layer of safety against contracting the virus.
Restaurants were not the only place I noticed a difference. Salespeople in popular department stores were mostly empty-handed and eager to assist, even in shoe departments. (If you know, you know.) And while I have always received amazing customer service in Bergdorf’s, this September, the saleswoman helping me kept the cosmetics open for me while the rest of the store closed. She could have told me it was after hours, but she didn’t. I shopped the Hourglass section and made my purchases. She happily reopened the cash register to check me out.
Over the weekend, we ducked into loads of small business boutiques and shops in SoHo and Chelsea, fully masked of course in compliance with the signs on the doors. They were filled with one-off designer originals, samples, and trends that may be online, but you would never find them unless you saw or read about them first. We ordered handmade sweatshirts from Pakistan. We bought jewelry designed and made in New York.
One shop owner in SoHo implored, “Please, support our small businesses.” (We did.) The boutique owner shared how brutal the past year had been. Yet, the shop doors were open. The area was slowly coming back to life again.
Walking through Central Park, after closing down Bergdorf’s cafe, our laughter spilled over conversations. Our voices echoed on the empty paths. Shade was just something the trees were providing. We had not a bad word to say. Our trip was slowly coming to an end but empty park benches invited us to stay for just a little while longer. Our hearts were full, and I was reminded of what really grows in New York: love, creativity, relationships, and memories.
Late Sunday night we descended from a rooftop restaurant having dined on our last meal together. Two Canadian businessmen stopped us on an empty street corner in the Meatpacking District to ask “What’s open? Where is everyone hanging out?” Their trip was just beginning. They were on a hunt chasing fun.
We gave them a few names and spots to try then hailed a cab. Our group of friends had each other. We had what we all learned was most important through the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic. We had each other. We added a few more collective memories to our friendship bucket. We didn’t need Manhattan to be full of people to find fun, we made our own fun.
Exhausted, I walked up to the hotel room. My friends walked around the corner and returned with a treat showing me that New York with a little less hustle and bustle is just as sweet. (Thank you, Van Leeuwen’s ice cream.)
New York feels collectively eager to come back to life and I am glad that I was there for it. The city has been there for me so many times in my life. It has been and always will be my perfect place to recharge and refocus on my True North.
As we said goodbye we resolved to visit New York, again and again, every September.