Lost in Translation:
Scenes From New York
THURSDAY, APRIL 8, 2021 -- Between bouts of runaway financial growth and wholesale physical reconstruction, the last two decades have been pretty rough on New York City.

Nine-11 changed the skyline and killed thousands. The Great Recession emptied office buildings and bank accounts. Hurricane Sandy swept away parts of the subway and the landscape.

Now the pandemic. New York was the medical and emotional epicenter of the New World's Covid-19 agony. Everything that made New York New York--Broadway, the entertainment venues, the glittering shops, the dazzling dining--shut down. Tourism disappeared and hotel owners handed the keys back to lenders. The city that never sleeps closed the subways overnight. High-rise office buildings went dark. Residents hunkered down in tiny apartments that were barely acceptable for living, but now doubled or tripled as school houses, office space, workout zones and family-entertainment centers.

A year later, things are better. A bit. So I wandered into Manhattan for a weekend of fact-finding and interaction with the locals. A lot of what I found surprised me.

I checked into the Marriott Residence Inn at the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane in what most of us have always called the Financial District. But don't call it that anymore. The diminutive FiDi is now the coin of the realm.

There is a logic to the changing moniker. Wall Street and other firms shrank after the financial carnage of the Great Recession and began moving away after the physical carnage of Hurricane Sandy. Those that remained are downsizing now. JPMorgan Chase put a block of 700,000 square feet in the area on the market earlier this year and other firms (Yelp and PriceWaterhouseCoopers) are hoping to sublease their space. In their place came families with children, upmarket singles and well-to-do couples. Before the pandemic, clothing shops and food emporiums like Eataly and Whole Foods opened to serve the new residents. In fact, at the base of the 243-room Residence Inn is a three-level, 19,000-square-foot Gap store.

Besides, much of this is simply part of New York's continual reinvention. The 19-story building that is now the Residence Inn was built in 1903. Back then, the so-called Broadway-Maiden Building was a mainstay of the neighborhood when Maiden Lane was New York's Diamond District and the country's best-known source of prestige jewelry.

None of us are surprised when hotels don't deliver on their brand standards in these difficult times, but I was shocked to learn that this particular Residence Inn had totally abandoned breakfast service. Not even coffee was available.

"There's a McDonald's around the corner," the front desk clerk mumbled when I asked about options.

Even in pandemic-pounded Manhattan, food isn't hard to find, but Saturday mornings in the former Financial District is still tricky. Besides, the massive, multi-level McDonald's in question once featured a grand piano on the mezzanine and was home to many impromptu concerts. It's still an attraction in its own right.

I wandered in a few minutes before 10am and waited five or six minutes in a longer line than you would expect in the middle of a pandemic.

"Egg McMuffin and coffee," I said to the cashier.

"No breakfast," she said. "Only lunch."

"I thought you guys served breakfast 24/7 now," I responded.

"Breakfast ends at 10," she replied.

"I came in before 10," I said hopefully.

"No breakfast," she repeated. "Only lunch."

As I wandered around the neighborhood, I estimated that about 40% of the storefronts were boarded up. At least six Pret a Manger grab-and-go food shops were permanently closed with each directing you to a Pret location on Broadway. It's closed on the weekends. A few family businesses--a shoe-repair shop, an old-style diner, a jeweler--posted "retirement" signs in their windows thanking patrons for their past business. Eventually, I found my way to a tiny hardware store around the corner from the Gild Hall hotel, now part of the Hyatt chain.

"Been busy?" I asked.

"Hasn't been busy in a year," the clerk said.

Before the pandemic, New York foodies were in the grip of a momentary mania for Philadelphia-style sandwiches. Cheesesteaks and roast pork subs are not in New York's wheelhouse, so a Philly expat named Dave Federoff opened a tiny storefront on Cortland Street. The pandemic wiped it out, but the sign remains. I was stunned to find the little stall already repurposed into a take-away Chinese place called Zen Pot.

Cheesesteaks and pork sandwiches out, scallion pancakes and pork bao in. So New York.

"We haven't even had a chance to change the sign," the gracious fellow in a black t-shirt told me from behind the plexiglass. "We're just trying to let the neighborhood know we're here."

As I was checking out on Monday morning, a woman in a rhinestone-studded red mask and carrying a little dog motioned me into the elevator.

"They only want two at a time. Social distancing," I said, noting the lift was already at capacity.

"It's okay," the Rhinestone Cowgirl told me as she moved her pink rolling bag to the side. I noticed the luggage tag said ATL.

"Downtown Manhattan isn't a lot like Atlanta, is it?" I said.

"I've been to Buckhead," she said.

I didn't know how to respond to that, so we rode the rest of the way in silence. As the elevator reached the ground floor, I jumped out and said, "Have a good flight home."

"Oh, I'm driving home."

I smiled through my mask and walked out into the rainy morning. As I trudged the six blocks to the parking garage, I wondered who drove to Manhattan from Atlanta.

I got my answer. As I was shoving my ticket through the cage to reclaim my car, Rhinestone Cowgirl popped out of a cab at the garage's entrance.

"Hey," I said, "good to see you again."

"How do you people live like this?" she asked. "Everything's so twisty and narrow and confusing."

"Well, this is the oldest part of town. The streets were laid out for horse-drawn carriages or as footpaths. A lot of them go back to the Dutch times."

"This is my first time in New York," she responded. "I didn't know."

"Strange choice to come here in the middle of a pandemic."

"Oh, I came on a whim. I own my own business, so I am flexible. My baby Daddy has the kids this month and I was stressed, so I just jumped in the car Friday night and came."

"You drove straight through?"

"It's only 14 hours," she said. "And now I can say I've been to New York."

"Gonna come back?"

"Fer sure," she said. "But I guess I'll stay in Times Square the next time."