Alone in Manhattan


Even before the lockdown, I never found New York to be “the city that never sleeps”. In fact, it’s always seemed a bit dozy to me. 

Having lived in Paris and Puerto Banus (just outside Marbella in Spain), I grew accustomed to staying out all night if I so chose. It was the same in London in the Nineties, but then, my generation seemed to grow old suddenly: they needed their beauty sleep and, where once they would be emerging from Gerry’s Club in Dean St at daylight, they were packing up at 2am (how old am I? Four?). In recent years, everyone had to be out at 3am anyway (even Mike, the owner, was getting older), but I have many happy memories of those late nights/early mornings.

In Los Angeles, where I lived when I first came to the States in 2009, the rules were (and still are) very strict. Closing time is 2am, and staff wait for your glass (still half full) like dogs ready to pounce on an available bone. In New York, the witching GTHOH (Get the Hell Outta Here) hour is 4am, though even in my lively area of Hell’s Kitchen, restaurants shut up shop at around midnight and very few bars stay open till 4am. You don’t want to stay anyway, because the smell of lemon-scented cleaning fluid overpowers any lingering aroma you might have left wafting up from your wine.

Now, with everything shut, an hour in any hostelry would seem like a glorious holiday; sharing a drink with a real live human would feel like all your Christmases had come at once. As for the idea of going to a restaurant and eating among other diners, your body might now not be able to withstand the excitement; if the Coronavirus didn’t get you, the shock of becoming reaccustomed to socialising could well do.

Even in these circumstances, though, it’s hard to feel lonely in New York City. I’ve experienced loneliness in many cities throughout the world – usually on Sundays, when I imagine everyone except me is sitting round a huge wooden table with hams piled high and laughing children running around in gingham outfits, chanting The Wheels on the Bus – but it’s rare here.

I am lucky in that I have a spectacular view over the Hudson, where every night the sunsets bring a new art gallery to my window. Despite the quiet of the streets when I go out for my self-isolating walk, the feeling is one of a city in suspended animation, silently reassuring me that it will breathe again, without assistance.

In the confines of my apartment, I read, cook, watch TV, listen to music, meditate and give thanks for the respite from car horns impatiently waiting to enter the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour. The non-stop thud of nearby construction no longer wakes me up and has me weeping with stress, come 5pm. I find activities and interests online I would never have discovered before. I’m refreshing my French and having yet another attempt at learning Spanish. I’ve even delved back into Italian, which comes much more naturally to me than Spanish, and I already feel fluent just by putting an ‘a’ on the end of every word I know and reading about the Mafia.

If I put an ‘o’ on the end of every word, I feel pretty fluent in Spanish, too, but I don’t feel as immersed in Spanish culture (not unless you count the gallons of Rioja in my cupboard) and I’ve always found a relative lack of interest in a country makes language learning more difficult. French, while being a more complex language, came quite easily to me when I moved to Paris in 2001; keeping up with it is a challenge, although I am hugely helped by Quora (which I have in French, English, Spanish and Italian), a site on which people pose questions that others answer or debate.

Because my work is essentially solitary, I’ve always been at ease in my own company and while being alone is not the same as feeling lonely, my situation makes these strange and frightening times easier to bear. When loneliness hits – panic moments when I wonder when I will ever communicate with a real live human again – I remind myself that everyone is in the same boat. It may feel like a sinking ship, but we’re all in it together.

There is a quote attributed to Scott Fitzgerald (some say wrongly so, but it’s still apt): “The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”

I suspect that is what many are feeling right now and there is a collective loneliness that has its roots in this very helplessness. Whether Fitzgerald said it or not, loneliness lies at the heart of The Great Gatsby – mainly, the loneliness that the pursuit of social status and money ultimately brings. Written in the 1920s, it’s a salutary lesson for our times and certainly worth reading or re-reading, not least for the ending: “So we beat on, boats against the current” but, to me, not “borne back ceaselessly into the past”, but towards a better future in which people have re-evaluated themselves, life, priorities; a world in which we will have learned, in being alone, that we truly never are. 

To quote the poet John Donne: “No man is an island,/Entire of itself,/Every man is a piece of the continent,/A part of the main”.

Donne was talking about Europe (and that’s a whole other debate), but knowing that we are not alone in this appalling crisis is what gets us through. Yes, there is, and will be more loneliness; some will cope better than others. There is fear, anxiety, dread, and all sorts emotions we cannot explain in a life that just wasn’t supposed to be like this.

While we are denied physical contact, other than with those we live with, it’s important to touch base on the phone and through social networking; reaching out to nature brings so many rewards (it’s very chatty when you give it time). These are precious moments to absorb the world around us – it really is our friend, even though it doesn’t seem that way at present.

Today, when I was out walking (briefly), I looked at a brownstone building and admired its colour. I am fascinated by architecture and how it reflects us at any given time. The words of Pink Floyd were singing in my head: “All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.” I found them strangely comforting.

Having said that, now I need a drink. Where’s that Gatsby drinking buddy when you need him?