Postcard From the Pandemic: Creativity Behind Closed Doors in New York City

Rachel Friedman

A memory that has morphed into recurring fantasy in recent weeks: It is seven o’clock in the morning and I am walking to my favorite café. I pour self-serve coffee into a thick ceramic mug and pick a table away from the buzzing takeaway line. I untangle my headphone cords, Spotify some Chopin, and open my laptop to write. An absorbed hour or two passes. When I look up the place is half full of creative types, some pairs talking about projects and others, like me, lost in their own thoughts and computers. I smile at a familiar face and return to my work.

Being a New Yorker means constantly and creatively navigating our densely packed neighborhoods, findings ways to connect so that this ocean of people we have dropped ourselves into doesn’t drown us. I didn’t realize how those everyday exchanges balanced out the solitude of writing and fed my inner life. 

Building on Bond occupies the corner of Pacific and, you guessed it, Bond Streets in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood. It is one of those perfect restaurant café bar specimens that carries you seamlessly from coffee to lunch to dangerously cheap happy hour glasses of wine. There are three rooms, each with its own acoustics and mood. There is live music on Sundays and an unfussy brunch menu. It’s got a slightly hipster aesthetic thanks to copious antique bird cages, Instagram-able peeling paint, and sporadic Ethan Hawke sightings, but it’s a kid-friendly neighborhood joint at heart. I used to take my child there on weekends for hot chocolates and people watching. And on weekdays from seven to nine—frequently before I had a baby and less frequently after—it was my favorite spot in Brooklyn to write.

You’d think writers would be custom-built for this pandemic moment. Given the high percentage of introverts among us, surely we’d easily adapt to staying home, where I have been nearly 24/7 since schools closed on March 16. Perhaps on a scale ranging from “Deep breath, I’ve got this” to “I’m going to lose my fucking mind,” I do have a slight advantage over those not used to spending so much time alone. But emphasis on the word slight

From my naive I’m-a-solitary-type-so-this-will-be-fine vantage point, somehow I didn’t realize during those first few days that choosing solitude is very different than enforced solitude. Or that during much of the time I thought of as “alone time” spent thinking and writing, I was physically surrounded by others. I miss cafés. I miss the subway, as crazy as that sounds. The subway is where I did my best dialogue scavenging. I am addicted to eavesdropping the way other people are addicted to coffee or CrossFit. I am the weirdo inching closer and closer to the arguing couple or laughing at someone’s joke intended for his friend. 

Being a New Yorker means constantly and creatively navigating our densely packed neighborhoods, findings ways to connect so that this ocean of people we have dropped ourselves into doesn’t drown us. I didn’t realize how those everyday exchanges balanced out the solitude of writing and fed my inner life. 

We used to walk so close together we sometimes brushed up against one another. Now we give our sidewalk sharers so much room I can’t tell if the person is offering a friendly smile beneath her mask. I try to meet people’s eyes, to say hello or nod. Even though I mostly walk early in the morning, some days there are already too many people on the street and my stress levels get the best of me. I turn back and go home, all the while feeling acutely a new kind of emptiness where I can no longer exchange pleasantries with the man who runs the coffee truck or smile at a fellow mom at preschool or give a cute stranger a glance back over my shoulder. My glasses fog up so I don’t wear them outside anymore. Everything these days is a bit blurry now, literally and psychically. 

I miss the IRL arts community too. My writer friends are launching books into the quiet world via Zoom instead of popping prosecco at Greenlight Bookstore or the Center for Fiction. In the weeks “before the germs,” as my child refers to the past, I went two nights in a row to The Inheritance on Broadway where I cried along with the rest of the audience. I ventured to the Upper East Side to see the ethereal harpist Joanna Newsom. Heading to the UES right now feels as unlikely as flying to New Zealand.

Five days before his school closed my son had his fourth birthday party at Jalopy, a music venue in Columbia Heights. The kids scrambled up onstage to play with Kyle Tigges, a beloved neighborhood musician. Kyle is doing shows online now, like everyone is. Visual artists are teaching live Instagram classes. Plays are streaming online. I confess to shedding happy/sad tears while watching the cast of Hamilton perform for an awestruck little girl and, inexplicably, the Backstreet Boys singing “I Want It That Way” from their homes. I have lost track of the number of times I have now sung along to the Stephen Sondheim YouTube video birthday tribute. 

Yet, we know online creative energy is not as powerful as offline experiences. So do our kids. My child is now a savvy enough Zoom user to click “leave the meeting” if he’s not feeling it—which is exactly what he did during a recent preschool music class he used to love. He’s got Zoom fatigue. We both do. 

Fran Lebowitz referred to April 2020 New York City as “a meadow without trees.” In Pitchfork, Jayson Greene wrote that the loss of live music has “spiritual dimensions.” It’s going to be months upon months before we can feel safe surrounded by strangers again, in theatres and museums and music venues. My yardstick is a vaccine. Any other one feels like magical thinking. 

I briefly considered leaving in those first two weeks when city was shutting down and I felt constantly on the verge of a panic attack. People have likened the the spread of the virus to an invisible wildfire. In New York, the blaze feels almost visible. Every surface we need to make life bearable is too hot to touch—subway poles, playground monkey bars, restaurant tables. Squint and you can almost see the flames licking them.

On its best day, living in New York before the pandemic could be exhausting. On its worst, it felt unsustainable, impossible. I moved here because I thought this is where Artists live. That cliché has been tested countless times by the reality of making a living here. Yet, I have chosen New York over and over again, despite thinking I’d be long gone by now. I’m in love with this unbearable, incredible city, as silly as that sounds to my thirty-eight-year-old ears. 

And now the city is more exhausting and impossible than ever before. In those first weeks, I felt like everything I loved about New York had been lost. It felt barren and dangerous. But the days passed and the panic subsided, as panic tends to do. I was surprised how quickly my steadfast love for the city rushed back in once there was space for it again.

So, now I fantasize about writing in cafés. About touching the spines of books at the Strand. About seeing plays and concerts with friends I can hug hello. I want to be here when New York becomes some version of itself again. Hopefully a better version. I want my child to witness it, too. 

I want him to see how making art does not, despite art monster mythology, require self-inflicted, tortured loneliness. In fact, it thrives on collaboration and community, on everyday interactions with neighbors and strangers. On eavesdropping and endless cups of coffee. (And on childcare, but that’s a whole other essay.)

Until then, see you on Zoom. At least until I click “leave the meeting” and blame it on my toddler. Oh, and if you know any arguing couples who don’t mind an eavesdropping audience, do send them my way.


Rachel Friedman is the author of And Then We Grew Up: On Creativity, Potential, and the Imperfect Art of Adulthood and The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure. Her work has appeared in The Best Women’s Travel Writing, The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals, the New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her son.