"It’s a little like losing your life while still being alive, this experience. Everything I knew in New York—everything we knew—is gone: stores, restaurants, concerts, subway rides, church services, movie theaters, museums, nail salons. When a memory comes, you almost wonder if it is true—it seems so impossible to imagine again—if it happened at all."
Last New Year's Eve, Hayes recalls having had "a sensation I remember clearly; it was almost like having a premonition: The year ahead is going to be such a joyful one. Boy, did I get that wrong."
He sure did!
Hayes is a photographer, and the particular appeal of his book is the photos. Particularly poignant, of course, are his before-and-after pictures. So early on, for example, we see a fantastic photo of Eighth Avenue on a December night in 2019, a very New York photo of the street crowded with cars, red lights everywhere, a “fiery red Milky Way on the streets of Manhattan.” Then we see the same scene in early April, essentially empty, looking "like a sky snuffed of its stars."
"I can see already how photography can document the rapidity with which things are changing," he writes, "and equally, how street photography as I’ve practiced it may never be the same."
Anyone who knows New York understands the absolutely vital part played by the subway system in the city's very life. I have often wondered when (and if) subway ridership will return to normal - and what that new normal might look like. His photo of an empty L Train at rush hour on April 22 is amazing to look at - beautiful in some sleek post-modern way, but terrifying too in its implications for future urban life.
Here is how Hayes describes his last subway ride, on March 13, at the onset of the pandemic: "People were not yet wearing masks and only a few wore gloves like me, but everyone was doing their best to keep as far away from everyone else as possible. More people stood than sat, bunched together, for example—a rarity; you could practically get tackled for a spare seat in earlier times. This is not how New York, the New York I knew, operated."
Journaling (which is what textually this book most resembles) can be very rewarding as an exercise in self-exploration and self-clarification. Making one's day-to-day story really interesting for others is much more of a challenge. Literature - like life - flowers much more from getting out of and beyond oneself than from tedious self-absorption. But every now and then, the author makes an observation that says so much more than the words he employs or the seemingly banal circumstances being described. So, for example, on a walk one day Hayes visits a favorite bookstore and is thrilled to find it open - admittedly operating in an unusual way. No one was allowed inside. But, from the street, customers could call out a title or a topic and the staff would find what they were looking for. Evocatively, he says, "I felt like I was in a metaphorical breadline—a breadline for feeding the brain and the soul." What a wonderful image for this special post-modern intellectual and spiritual poverty! What a testimony to the transcendent power of books - even in this increasingly post-literate era!
In words but much more so in pictures, Hayes has invited us to reconsider the city and what it means.
How we live now - not just in New York - now seems so incredibly different from how we once lived not so long ago, a past that somehow now appears so distant. We have lost more than 200,000 fellow citizens. And we have lost so much else that we may never recover. And when this nightmare is over (if in fact it ever is), what will we build to replace what we have lost?