“Wow. So. Beautiful.”
“This is unreal.”
“Are we actually here?”
That was an exchange between me and me and two of my ex-classmates from the graduate journalism program at NYU, Ahad Sanwari and Mili Godio, at Bryant Park’s Movie Night on September 13. “Moonstruck” began airing at sunset, and as the night settled in and buildings all around us lit up, there was a moment of pause — right after Cher’s Loretta sees Nicolas Cage’s Ronny at the bakery — when we started to really take in the scene. Hundreds of New Yorkers laid out on blankets atop the grassy lawn; social distancing cropped to four feet (and sometimes less); the cluster of towering glass-windowed buildings that line Sixth Avenue illuminated in all their glory, alive and bustling with shoppers and foot traffic.
Jaws dropped. Smiles beamed. A feeling washed over us — wonder, perhaps — spurred by an unfamiliar feeling of what used to be familiar, of a freedom without constraints. “Are we done with COVID?” I asked. “We’re outside, on the grass, in NYC. And there’s so many people!” Bryant Park’s iconic annual Movie Nights were canceled last year, as were most outdoor community events, and I hadn’t seen Ahad or Mili in weeks, but in that one night, it all came back.
What may have been expected, ho-hum, “normal” in pre-pandemic times, are now made anew, evoking a sense of gratitude. A gratitude courtesy of 66% of New Yorkers that are now fully vaccinated, allowing the city to fully reopen and for life, as we used to know it, to restart.
As I presented my vaccination card before entering the lawn area, I thought of labels some have attached to this prerequisite — like being plunged into a dystopian world where a right to choice is extinguished, and fearmongering over future vaccination passports for international travel. One park-goer who was turned away due to not being vaccinated flipped two middle fingers to the staff and sauntered off, swearing as she left. A man who tried to circumvent the vaccination card check by jumping — no, blundering, rather comically — over the dividers was eventually hauled away.
I decided in that moment to push the negativity aside and focus on the good things being hauled back into my life. I had resided in co-living apartments — where rooms are rented out to individuals — since 2019, and after COVID took hold they had been mostly empty, like half or three-quarters vacant. Those were lonely, quiet times, when I yearned for human interaction.
In August this year, I got exactly that, and more. Thanks to the renewed influx of international students, my six bedroom apartment (previously comprised of only me and two Americans) started to fill up — first with Samrat Dhar, from India, and then in October, two Columbia University students — Amanda Forssberg from Sweden and Jannik Wortmann from Germany.
We got along like gangbusters from day one, indulging in impromptu beer jaunts and weekly movie nights. Two weeks ago, Amanda invited her friend Matilda over to bake kanelbullar, Swedish cinnamon buns. As I took in the aroma of vanilla and spice, and the sound of all of us talking and discussing the perils of bread-baking, I stopped for a brief second to relish the scene — no one scared of spreading COVID in taking turns to fold the pastry, none of us wary of standing so close to each other. Because, hallelujah — we are all vaccinated.
The following week, Amanda, Matilda, Jannik and I headed to AMC at Magic Johnson Harlem 9 to watch the new Bond flick, “No Time To Die.” As I entered the cinema hall, for the first time since COVID, I laid eyes on a fully packed movie theater. Mid-movie, the lady sitting next to me accidentally put her hand on my drink; she apologized, I said no problemo, and that was that. Because we had to present our vaccination cards before entering, and I knew she was in the clear.
Jump In, Let Go
Just last night, Sam cooked up a storm — pulao rice and a massive vat of chicken curry — as a part of our planned international dinner nights, where each of us would prepare food from our respective countries. Sam invited his Croatian ex-housemate over, and as we stuffed our faces with complete abandon, diets be damned, we talked, laughed and submitted to a food coma at around 10 p.m..
Matilda invited all of us to a Halloween party at her apartment. Reluctant to dust off my go-to catwoman costume that got no wear last year due to Halloween being canceled, we considered going all out for a “Grease” theme — me as Rizzo in a Pink Lady jacket, Amanda as bad Sandra, leather leggings and off-shoulder top all in, and Jannik as Danny Zuko complete with a T-Birds faux leather jacket. On Halloween day, Ahad, Mili and I would reunite at the Halloween Parade at Greenwich Village. Masks are required – and I wonder what sort of mask Rizzo would wear.
Earlier this year, when restrictions first lifted in NYC, most people were cautious, just dipping their toes in and testing the cool waters. But now, it is apparent that things can go back to normal after all — so we cannonball, arms flailing, into the water, because the higher the fully vaccinated numbers go up, the more we can let go.