Icon: “Nighthawks in the Age of Coronavirus”

Letter from Manhattan

This morning, bells chime for Sunday service at the church inconspicuously tucked between beige, brick, post-war apartment towers around the corner from mine. I’ve thrown my window open to let in the cool city air after a week of sheltering in place. The bells surely ring every Sunday, but they normally blur into the rushing urban soundscape. This morning, though, they call out over a quiet city and reassure us that we’re still a town, a community.

In his famous 1949 essay, “Here Is New York,” E.B. White describes this glinting metropolis as “peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along… without inflicting the event on its inhabitants.” But a deadly invisible intruder has stormed our steel and concrete shore. We don’t know when or who it will strike. Even riding the elevator becomes a tensely silent occasion.

On Twitter, a bleak reimagining of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” (painted just a few years before White’s literary tribute) is rocketing around social media. Hopper’s original masterpiece depicts a low slung, brightly lit diner on an empty downtown corner with three, mid-century urbanites sitting together in isolation. In the new digital rendering, “Nighthawks in the Age of Coronavirus,” Hopper’s melancholy tableau is sapped of color, left standing cold, empty, and desolate — a relic of a long since vanished civilization. Tweeter @m_tisserand laments, “We are all Edward Hopper paintings now.” His tweet racks up nearly 220,000 likes.

But unlike Hopper’s alienated diners, here inside our modern apartments, shiny flickering screens offer endless connection. Friends from across town organize online cocktail parties. Smart phones buzz with encouraging text messages.

It’s now evening, and I hear cheering, clapping and whistling on the street below. A manic burst of rebellion? Or, perhaps, the exhilaration of having Manhattan’s empty sidewalks to oneself.


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