For Them, NYC Will Never Be The Same

The city may be only months from seeming like its old self. But the pandemic has changed many lives.,

Ofelia Becerra Diaz, pictured with her daughter, Culy, lost a sister to Covid-19.
Ofelia Becerra Diaz, pictured with her daughter, Culy, lost a sister to Covid-19.Credit…Sasha Maslov for The New York Times

For Them, New York City Will Never Be the Same

The city may be only months from seeming like its old self. But the pandemic has changed many lives.

Ofelia Becerra Diaz, pictured with her daughter, Culy, lost a sister to Covid-19.Credit…Sasha Maslov for The New York Times

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The old job, the old office, the old week — for many New Yorkers, the possibility of the return of something resembling their old life appears finally within reach. For them, the year of the pandemic was a blip, a pause, however frustrating, in their lives.

But for so many others, the old life is gone forever, washed away in tragedy, a job erased or a reordering of priorities.

New York may be just months away from seeming like its former self — restaurants and bars buzzing with people, subways full of vaccinated riders. The next few weeks will bring many reasons to feel hopeful. An increase in vaccine supply means appointments should be easier to secure, and the warmer weather will begin to draw people out of their homes.

But look closer and you see the truth. New York couldn’t possibly emerge from this year the same. Not after all this. Every street, block and building has suffered loss in some form.

The make-do adjustments, pivots and reactions of the last year have since calcified, becoming regular parts of the day. This is the new New York, and these are some of the new New York lives:

Andrew S. Gonzalez, 31, was a chef and menu planner for a chain of restaurants in Qatar. Now, he’s back home in the Lower East Side, where he hustles food deliveries for DoorDash and Postmates and is getting to know his 9-year-old son, Nael, whom he had only seen through biannual visits over the years. “I’m starting, like, all new,” he said.

Bienvenida D. Morales, 51, found a new job assembling and handing out meals through the city’s public schools. It’s like discovering a new city, one filled with need. “Families come, they say, ‘Thank you, thank you, it’s all I have to eat today,'” she said.

In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Ofelia Becerra Diaz, 41, sees only loss. An apartment rearranged by absence. Her sister, Ana Ellsy Becerra, who lived in Coney Island, died of Covid-19 a month ago. Her cremated remains are kept in Ms. Diaz’s apartment, an almost unbearable addition to the home. Two of her sister’s sons moved in and share one of the bedrooms. It is a home steeped in grief, and it all happened so quickly.

“I work hard in a restaurant,” she said. “I want to change my life. It’s too hard, because I love my sister.”

If the city has long had millions of stories, many of them have been changed, rearranged. These are people who now seek to reclaim their places or find new ones.

Joan H. Cappello, a Broadway usher and former Off Broadway stage manager, finds herself avoiding any new, Covid-era theater productions — “it makes me agitated” — and instead walks for miles, every day, in Central Park.

In the Bronx, Mark Vuksanaj, 64, has spent the last year in lockdown taking care of his elderly parents. His father died a few weeks ago of natural causes, and his mother has secured an upcoming vaccination appointment, but he’s sure he’ll stay stuck in his new habits, staying indoors, “imprisoned.”

ImageJoan H. Cappello, a Broadway usher, is eager to return to her theatergoing days.
Joan H. Cappello, a Broadway usher, is eager to return to her theatergoing days. Credit…Sasha Maslov for The New York Times

Gone, for many, is the idea that life will someday pick up where it left off a year ago.

“You’ve got to have a big heart in the city,” said Elio Garcia, 39, a restaurateur who now works as a cook in one of his own kitchens. “You know what I’m saying?”

His is an example of how a New Yorker’s relationship to home, no matter the life span, has been altered. Mr. Garcia, 39, who owns the Essex World Cafe in the Financial District, finds his days have reverted to the beginning of his career. While the cafe remains closed, Mr. Garcia, normally a front-of-the-house man and expediter, works in the kitchen of a cafe in Sunset Park in Brooklyn.

“I cook, I clean dishes, I do everything,” he added, jobs he once paid others to do.

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Elio Garcia owns a restaurant in the Financial District and now also has to work as a cook. Credit…Sasha Maslov for The New York Times

And there is the frustration of living in a great city still largely closed off. Seen from above, as in countless films and shows, its defining images appear untouched: towering spires and arrow-straight avenues, the broad shoulders of Manhattan’s skyline standing sentry along the greens of Central Park.

But New York doles out its rewards to those who interact with the place. To live here is to have claimed the little corners and haunts that make the whole thing work. Those who feel lucky to have lost precious little this past year — job intact, family healthy — still find themselves members of a quiet community that simply misses the old ways.

Mohammadreza Azimi, 35, a data scientist in Hell’s Kitchen, is eager to return to days spent working in coffee shops or the public library, to the comfort brought by the hushed company of strangers in the grand Rose Main Reading Room on Fifth Avenue.

Jonathon Ortiz, 29, a maintenance worker in the Bronx, has eaten tons of fruits and vegetables this year at home, and longs to visit his favorite chain restaurants — pasta at Olive Garden, shrimp at Red Lobster, the 2-for-$22 specials at Applebee’s, the fries at Dallas BBQ. “I can almost taste it,” he said.

Elizabeth Rosario, 33, asks for nothing more than a busy Starbucks — “I hope,” she said, “people don’t forget how to interact with people.” And Sone Sanders, 29, a financial technology consultant, hopes for the return of the Afropunk festival in Brooklyn, but would settle for much less. “I want to go to a bar and there be more than one person,” she said. “I miss the spontaneity. I know there are things going on, but I want there to be like 40 to 50 things that I can get FOMO over.”

Fear Of Missing Out: now something to look forward to.

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Sone Sanders would like to be able to go out dancing to live music again, but only if it feels safe.Credit…Sasha Maslov for The New York Times

New Yorkers yearning to return to a favorite activity are also grappling with a hesitancy and wariness, for reasons physical or emotional, of taking that plunge. Ms. Sanders can’t wait to hear live music, but only if the environment is safe from the virus — “I like my lungs more than I like to dance,” she said. Ms. Cappello said she thinks she’ll get emotional when theaters reopen. “It’s such a sacred place for me that even if it were to be a reading or a workshop or anything, I’m sure I will cry.”

Mr. Azimi thinks about going to happy hour after work at places like Papillon Bistro or Redemption Sports Lounge. For now, he’ll continue to mostly hang out alone, as many of his colleagues have left the city.

Netai Schwartz, 23, longs for the simple days of unplanned meetings with friends at his favorite bar. “Going out now, everything is orchestrated and a big ordeal,” he said in Central Park recently.

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Netai Schwartz aches for the simplicity of unplanned outings with friends again. Credit…Sasha Maslov for The New York Times

A glimpse at the new New York could be seen on a recent Sunday in one of its movie theaters — cool and solitary respites in the bustling city, allowed to reopen with limited capacity in early March. Jon Morgenstern, 68, and Darla Hastings, 55, ventured to a favorite theater, the Angelika on Houston Street, where they used to go all the time.

They bought tickets to “The Father,” and entered the familiar-but-different setting, with temperature checks from the usher and masks in seats that were distant from the 14 other people in the theater.

“As we sat down, we said, ‘It’s so normal,'” Ms. Hastings said later.

Then the room darkened, and an unfamiliar message appeared on the screen. It was celebratory, or it was depressing, depending on where one fell on the pleasure of the familiar versus the annoyance of change, the old city and the new.

It said, “Welcome back.”

Sofia Cerda Campero, Nate Schweber and Matthew Sedacca contributed reporting.

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