It seems almost taboo to admit that the idea of going back to ‘normal’ has me feeling abnormal; but I’ve spoken with countless people who say exactly the same thing.
BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, I trekked to around 30 countries as a travel and culture reporter, everywhere from Nigeria to India to Vietnam. I took teetering prop planes (through the Himalayas) and open-air rowboats (down the Amazon River), shaky busses (up the side of an Ecuadorian crater), and zooming motorbikes (though Bangkok traffic). I’ve even ambled via an unfriendly horse through Patagonia. But a trip I had taken a thousand times, a subway ride through Brooklyn over the bridge to Manhattan, seemed overwhelming during the year of COVID-19.
It was pre-vaccine, so instead of angling for a crowded seat, I grabbed hold of a pole as far from others as possible. About halfway through the commute, I felt a jolt. I looked out the window and could see the skyline. My chest tightened. The car appeared to wobble on the track, as though it might fall over into the East River. I was frightened, believing at that moment that something was wrong, that an accident was imminent. But when I looked around, the other passengers didn’t seem alarmed — they were reading books or staring blank-faced at their phones. It only took me a moment to realize: the subway wasn’t acting funny. I was. Here I am, I thought, not on the Trans-Siberian Railway or Orient Express, just the everyday train. Thanks to a year cooped up in the house in quarantine, I could apparently no longer take a regular subway ride.
A central irony of this COVID-19 world, for me at least, is that while I waited all year to finally be free from the confines of my apartment, the isolation of secluded life has made normal life unnerving. It seems almost taboo to admit that the idea of going back to “normal” has me feeling abnormal; but I’ve spoken with countless people who say exactly the same thing. When the vaccines first began to be distributed in late 2020, my first thought was elation. My second thought was, Am I ready?
I call my condition re-emergence anxiety, but what exactly is causing it?
For starters, during this whole mess, I’ve forgotten in some ways how to be a person. I can’t remember how to small talk. Sociability is one of the many muscles I haven’t worked out since the gyms closed back in 2020. Random encounters used to be the joy of city living, but now I find myself feeling awkward when bumping into old friends. I’m not even sure, in our strange circumstances, how to answer the everyday question, “How are you?”
Then there are the things about quarantine life that I’ve become accustomed to, and maybe even like. Most centrally, I am daunted by the post-pandemic prospect of having options again. In certain instances, there is something surprisingly stabilizing about knowing, at any given moment, that there is nowhere else in the world you are supposed to be other than right where you are. There’s no vacation you should be planning, no FOMO about staying home on a Saturday night. Hours spent in front of the TV are a survival tactic as opposed to a source of shame. Before the pandemic, I had a closet full of clothes to choose from every day, but during quarantine, a rotation of four or five hoodies was all I really needed; now, any shirt with structure and buttons feels as constricting as a corset. Most nights in the past year, the question wasn’t which of a million different New York restaurants to go to, but, instead, how to spice up what I already had sitting in my fridge (red pepper flakes go a long way). I began to enjoy the rhythm of eating the same simple-to-make and heartwarming chicken and sweet potatoes night after night. Perhaps the pandemic just brought out the truth: It can be surprisingly comforting to winnow the endless choices of contemporary capitalism down to a scant solid few.
How will it feel to turn the volume all the way up again? There has been chatter that when the pandemic is truly over, it will be a redux of the Roaring Twenties: champagne pouring and parties everywhere. At any other point in my life, a statement like that would excite me. Now, I feel like a shy kid three weeks before prom, anticipating an important and celebratory moment that I don’t feel cool enough for.
Perhaps the pandemic just brought out the truth: It can be surprisingly comforting to winnow the endless choices of contemporary capitalism down to a scant solid few.
As winter became spring, and spring became summer, I have begun to try to break my re-emergence anxiety by steering my mind toward gratitude, particularly for the little moments that, despite being dampened by social distancing, were, in fact, meaningful. Mostly, those little things involve people I care about in places I love, like the friend who brought a bottle of Moët to my fire escape on my birthday. It was the most secluded birthday I’ve ever had, but it was also, oddly, one of the best. There was no train, no plane, no automobile. It was just five steps out my window, to a fire escape that for one night felt like a real destination. It was the tiniest trip that’s ever felt huge, and looking out at the view, I felt connected to my city in a way I hadn’t for months.
Which is to say, I’m confident that no matter the fear I have about re-emerging, it will eventually recede. My need for closeness and outward experience will return, and I will remember what it’s like to be a part of things again. In some ways, I really have no choice: It is a fairly certain truth (knock on wood) that COVID-19 will die down, the world will resume, the places will come alive. It’s happening now. It will all probably feel weird for a bit. But there is another truth that feels just as essential: people are people, adaptable and resilient, and though life might not ever be what we used to think of as normal, a new normal will arrive, and we will go on with our business.
Alex Frank’s Walking Tour of New York City
For Alex Frank and many city dwellers, walking has become a form of meditation, a way to feel grounded in one’s surroundings throughout the restrictions of life in quarantine. Here, Frank shares his go-to route for connecting with bustling New York City, finding moments of calm and quiet along the way.
The French Decorative Arts Rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Galleries 525 and 527
These moody, period rooms near the Greek classical section on the first floor of the Met are my favorite place in NYC. What's amazing about them is that they kept the lighting similar to what it would have been back then — candles. It feels like the sun is setting when you walk in. It’s a true time machine because you feel fully encompassed by that era. I can almost hear the harp being played when I walk in. Every time I go, they do exactly what they always do, which is to make me feel so at peace and so calm.
East River Esplanade & East River Park
After the Met, I head back downtown by way of the East River Esplanade, that long walkway against the FDR Drive. It stretches from Harlem all the way to the South Street Seaport, so you really feel like you're in this kind of amazing New York vista. The park is this no-frills kind, and it’s mostly filled with New Yorkers going about their day. The park feels like a true locals spot, with very few tourists. So much of Manhattan is manicured — a park like this is a rare find in New York these days.
On my walks back downtown, I’ll stop by PlantShed on the corner of Prince Street and Bowery for flowers. They have a great selection. If there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught me, it’s that nothing is promised in life, so take the time to fill your world with flowers.
Bode Tailor Shop and Cafe
I love getting my caffeine fix from the new Bode cafe because they put cardamom in the coffee. It also doubles as a tailoring shop. So you can drop off some alterations, get an iced cardamom coffee, and feel like king of the world.
I don't know what Scarr’s puts in that pizza. But I swear to you, when I eat it, it just tastes like old-school New York. My boyfriend and I get a pie for dinner every Friday. Scarr’s has a great guava margarita that we drink as we walk home with our box of pizza. It's become really popular and gotten very crowded lately, so it can be stressful at first. But then once you get that pizza, it's amazing and totally worth the wait.
I recently moved so, naturally, decorating and shopping for interiors is my zen now. Coming Soon is a place where everything they sell makes you happy. They carry brilliant, colorful, and sometimes silly interior pieces. Their approach to design really could’ve been super snooty but it’s anything but. The people that work there are always really nice. My boyfriend recently bought the Degen smiley face wine glasses for me. It makes me a little bit happier to be in my house because the stuff that I bought feels special.
Leisir is that great wine shop on Henry Street in Two Bridges. It’s like a hidden secret, tucked away from the busyness of Dimes Square. The first time that I went, I almost missed it. Their natural wine selection is really great. I’m a creature of habit so I get a gamay every time. They also sell vintage wine glasses that are really beautiful and fairly priced.
Alex Frank Writer
Alex Frank is a Manhattan-based freelance writer and editor covering music, fashion, and global culture. Frank previously worked at vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.
Joana Avillez Illustrator
Joana Avillez is an illustrator living and working in her native New York. Clients have included Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the United Nations, the New York Times, the New Yorker, New York Magazine, and the Paris Review.