Deirdre Dempsey-Rush worked as an editor and lexicographer in book publishing for many years before becoming a copywriter. She is now associate creative director at an ad agency on Madison Avenue. She has lived in New York City, on the island of Manhattan, since the mid-1970s.
Photo Credit: Deirdre Dempsey-Rush
New Yorkers, on any ordinary day before COVID, endured countless assaults on our personal space as we navigated the wall-to-wall humanity of our streets, subways, and shops. Rush hour in particular was overwhelming. Our strategy for dealing with the onslaught? Minding our own business. We stayed to ourselves, avoiding each other’s gaze even, not out of hostility but out of mutual respect. You could always tell a tourist because they didn’t mind their business; they either stared too long, or tried to mimic us, extravagantly projecting what they hoped looked like boredom or world-weariness. Fact is, we weren’t bored or world-weary. We were just trying to get from point A to point B as quickly and easily and respectfully as possible.
Over time, if you’re lucky like I am, many rush-hour assaults evolved into exhilarating, albeit anonymous, encounters, wonderful little human touches, a hundred gifts a day. On your way to work, you’d nod to a dog walker, a Con Ed worker, a doorman. You got to “know” the bus driver who stopped right where you stood so you could get on first, and the crew at the coffee shop who knew your order by heart. On the packed subway home, you exchanged glances with a fellow straphanger, simultaneously rolling your eyes, shaking your head, even smiling as a raggedy but enthusiastic dude ranted too loudly about Jesus or diBlasio.
Since lockdown, with workplaces, subways, coffee shops, and travel of any kind, off limits (I don’t own a car and never have), the extent of my outdoor activity involves occasional walks around the neighborhood. The vast majority of people I encounter wear masks, so it’s hard to read expressions. I’m focused on avoiding people, not connecting with them. If anybody gets too close, even wearing a mask, I’m sure my eyes betray my suspicion. I’m always relieved to get back inside, where I walk up the 8 flights to avoid the elevator (who knows who sneezed in there 2 minutes ago?) and get my tired heart pumping.
Then 7 o’clock rolls around. At that moment, every evening, I and a reliable gang of strangers lean out our windows to salute the essential workers. Early on, we did it for the healthcare front liners, but it has since evolved to include all the people who sacrifice their own safety in order to support and protect the rest of us—the delivery guys, the supermarket and pharmacy clerks, the MTA employees. We clap and yell, bang pots and ring bells. Somebody on the 25th floor blows bubbles. We even sing sometimes. I scan the rectangles for faces. Now and then I wave, and I always get a wave back.
This little ritual unites us, far from the sidewalk of our former, normal lives. It connects us not only in shared gratitude, but also in the terrible sadness and grief we feel for our city and its people.
Then 7:02 comes, and we turn away to the solace of screens in our boxes in the sky.