Opinion May 10, 2020 1:45 PM EST

How New York City became America's biggest ghost town in the fight against coronavirus

The beauty of the human condition is that we dream big, as we know no boundaries. Yes, we all want to be king or queen of the hill, top of the heap, and what better settlement to give it a go than here in New York City.

How New York City became America's biggest ghost town in the fight against coronavirus
Alexander Ruiz New York, New York
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In the lobby, cobwebs are developing in the corners. Letters are beginning to pile at the entrance of my apartment, resembling desolate mountain peaks more than anything. No one is picking up their mail anymore because no one is here. They're neatly distributed upward on each step, as if it's a trail leading me somewhere, someplace. Could it be a message? Oddly, even the letters are alone and social distancing themselves, existing fearfully that they might infect each other. I wouldn't be surprised if it were a mandate from our ruthless leader Mayor De Blasio—for our safety, of course.

At first, I thought people preferred the sterile sanctity of their apartments rather than traverse down a befouled hallway for useless mail. Why risk it? Let's be honest, who needs those coupons anyway, the stores aren't even open.

With no rush or urgency, I sometimes go down to check my mail. Besides the occasional grocery visit, it's my next closest thing to leaving my room and experiencing sunlight. As a Latino, I'm legitimately losing my tan, and I didn't know that was even possible.

Imagine waking up in a city that supposedly doesn't sleep and feeling like you're the only one out of 8.4 million people roaming the streets. Sometimes the only thing I hear at night is the faint sound of a trumpet off into the distance. It's surreal. Although it feels like you're alone, I can't help but sense the whole world is watching. At the moment, it seems like a dream. Maybe, I'm wandering through another dimension—the bridge between reality and imagination. And, as I journey these cosmic roads, I can see "the signpost up ahead—your next stop, the Twilight Zone."

Over the last few weeks, I've noticed my shoebox of an apartment becoming increasingly quiet, and consequently, more pleasant until it wasn't anymore. My humble abode is so small that I can hear when my three roommates chop vegetables, wash dishes, and wrestle with their quotidian tasks. I even know when my neighbor has an upset stomach or when he has pissed off his wife again.

Most certainly, she's going to leave him if he keeps this up. It isn’t uncommon to hear the coffee maker simmer, as the aroma of freshly brewed coffee permeates throughout the home. I know it’s just Folgers, but I still like it. In such an impersonal city, where you barely know your neighbors, at least, you know your roommates.

Unfortunately, over the course of mere weeks, I lost all my roommates.

Don't be alarmed, they're alive and well. But, they did lose the battle against COVID-19, and they paid the price with their jobs. Like many in this city, we come here with our "vagabond shoes" to make a new start in an old city. The beauty of the human condition is that we dream big, as we know no boundaries. Yes, we all want to be king or queen of the hill, top of the heap, and what better settlement to give it a go than here in New York City. Unfortunately, Frank Sinatra's "start spreadin' the news, I'm leaving today" is being said silently by many, and they're not coming to New York, New York. They're leaving it.

New York has lost more than a million residents to the rest of the country since 2010, according to U.S. Census data released before the COVID-19 outbreak. I can only imagine how many more have fled this city, seeking refuge elsewhere only to be sheltered-in-place. My smart devices, Alexa and Siri, don’t work anymore and I’m beginning to think they left too.

The sad thing is that we didn't plan for this invisible enemy that we're all fighting. It's not like we can call in reinforcements and outflank the adversary. It can only be won by an army of one. This virus is drifting society into a slow spiraling descent into insanity through solitude. If you want to survive unscathed, then you must be alone. There is no negotiation.

There's a saying—if everyone in the room is crazy except you, you're the crazy one. Well, what if you're the last man standing in the room or the only one in the fallow streets?

As I was writing this piece, my roommate knocked on my door to say his final farewell: "I'm headed out, and maybe I'll see you again. Take care." Of course, we both know that is unlikely, at least not any time soon. We are now topping 30 million unemployment claims, and like dominos, businesses are filing for bankruptcy and closing for good. There is no such thing as a return to normalcy because we were dysfunctional in the first place.

We're forced to deal with a new normal. A harsh reality where the United States of America has 70,000+ fewer people because COVID-19 took them away from us, many of which who are the elderly and the most vulnerable in society.

Oh, New York, she was such a loud city, full of vitality. I could hear the conversations from the street throughout the day with sirens all around—drunks stumbling down the sidewalks. Now, I only hear the occasional horn on the street in my poorly sound-proofed bedroom. But it's not what you think.

It's not the annoying type where you want to yell or put on earplugs. Although, I admit I'm guilty of doing one of those.

It's the type of horn that you faintly hear in the background, muffled because you already have your earplugs on. It's a unique sound that spurs the curiosity to loosen one earplug at a time to get a better listen. You notice it has a familiar melody, and you find yourself tapping your feet and singing along.  

I have yet to leave my apartment to find the fellow who is playing the trumpet. My nameless neighbor plays "America the Beautiful" every night at 7 pm, sharp.  It doesn't seem very far from me. I would go to inquire, but on my way out, I'd have to hop, skip and jump over my social-distanced letters. For a man who hasn't exercised in a minute, that's a daunting task for me, and now, I have to do all the household chores myself.

I used to long for a day where I had nothing but complete silence and utter peace. Well, my roommates have now departed, the city's population is waning, and the ability to eavesdrop on street conversations have faded. In addition to the fact that I have a mounting stack of letters blockading my exit, I have politicians controlling my everyday movements through use of force and surveillance - a New York City hotline has even been created for neighbors to snitch on each other. Highlighting the state of mind of those left in the Empire State, the snitch hotline has been flooded with pornographic submissions (self-portraits), memes, and middle fingers. What can I say, we all have an artist from within - the ones holding out in this city either have a strange sense of humor, or the cheese fell off our crackers.

I'd have to say, what a fantastic Twilight Zone episode. Rod Serling outdid himself on this one. And now, ironically, as I hear the trumpet faintly play at a time when the earth stood still, I wish I had somebody to help me sing "America the Beautiful."

Bravo, well done. You have an audience of one.

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