"Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was." – Talking Heads
They marched down Rockaway Beach Boulevard, just like they have on the first Saturday of March for almost 50 years.
With skirling bagpipes and preening politicians, St. Patrick's Day comes to Rockaway about two weeks before the rest of the city dusts off its shamrocks and pint glasses. For the residents of our beach community, the parade is also the unofficial reminder that spring – and then, glorious summer – are not far away. Neighbors who you haven't seen for months will suddenly be spotted on a near-daily basis. It's mostly a good thing.
In 2020, the parade was one of the last large public events held in the city before the world went into lockdown, so it now holds a special poignancy. But, understandably, COVID wasn't part of the parade's narrative – nor should it be. Close your eyes and click your heels three times, and you could have been at the 2019 version of the parade. As a city, though, we can't pretend that COVID never happened, even if it's sometimes tempting to forget the past while you're navigating the future.
Like someone who survived brutal trauma, Rockaway and the rest of New York are trying to figure out what's next while slowly realizing that things won't ever be the same, even if we want it to be that way. Manhattan office work – the lifeblood of the city's economy – has been fundamentally transformed because of the pandemic. Roughly 80% of hundreds of thousands of office workers are in hybrid mode, with few expectations that those numbers will dramatically change. Subway ridership is still down about 33%, with the numbers even lower on Mondays and Fridays, when more New Yorkers are working from home. After initially calling for a "return to work" last year like peeved drill sergeants, both the governor and the mayor now seem to realize that New Yorkers won't simply walk into a time machine and re-materialize into January 2020.
What's next? The governor and the mayor don't really know. None of us does. After a long time of scratching my head and avoiding writing a column about anything for a long time, I've realized that it's OK for me not to know, either. But on a weekly basis, I will once again try to make some sense of life, the universe, and anything regarding New York politics.
Beyond politics, my one overarching observation is that the milk of human kindness has largely soured over the last three years. The "I'm OK - You're OK" mantra of the ‘70s has become "I'm OK but I'm not so sure about you." People have re-emerged out of lockdown scared, angry and sometimes crazy. If you dare, go on Twitter and watch the "dialogue" among members. As the saying goes: If you want a friend, get a dog. On Twitter, if you want a friend, you better get a kennel.
Maybe some people have no need to hit the reset button because they never stopped. Most bodega workers would laugh in your face if you asked them how their own COVID lockdown went. But for many other New Yorkers, including myself and my family, it's been a work in progress.
As we march forward, don't let amnesia cloud your head as the bagpipes play in the chilly air. Let's try to look ahead together and see what's next.