This week, I punctured my personal pandemic bubble to travel to New York City where my wife registered for a ten-year health care research study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. It was a short visit to New York Presbyterian Hospital. The plan was for us to drive into the city (still wary of public transportation) and for me to wait for her brief appointment. I found a semi-legal parking space in a neighborhood where parking is usually non-existent. While I waited (all the time nervously checking my mirrors for traffic cops), I began thinking about the scene before my windshield and how the busy corner served as a microcosm for the issues confronting so many Americans during the isolating times we have endured this past year.

Upper Manhattan is a colorful mosaic of racial and ethnic groups. The sheer variety of folks who passed by on the sidewalks was astounding. As I observed the rapidly shifting scene before me, I was reminded how communities of color have been so disproportionally represented among the victims of the coronavirus and how, as the vaccines roll out, it is marginalized communities most often bypassed in plans for distribution. While sitting behind the wheel, I scoured the faces before me—many of them elderly—and my imagination leapt to the countless conversations that must have taken place in families stricken by loss brought on by the virus. In the shadow of the hospital, these musings were frequently punctuated by an ambulance siren or the sight of someone in obvious distress.

Even the background din reflected issues confronted by the broader society. The UAW was picketing on the next block, chanting and marching in cadence to a solitary drum. The rhythmic movement, signs held aloft, served as a reminder that labor issues are again in our collective consciousness as witness the current effort to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama. The picketers marching back and forth put a human face on the abstract concept labor issues and how the struggle for decent wages is a core concern for so many families, a concern that has only been exacerbated by economic woes prompted by the pandemic.

A mom wrangling four small children passed by dodging construction vehicles and ubiquitous New York City traffic—I’m not sure where they were going—and I winced at the resumption of headlines about the tragedy of children at our southern border. This will be a daunting test for the Biden administration: how does a compassionate President resolve the human tragedies fostered by decades of convoluted and contradictory immigration policies and the harsh economic and social disparities between the US and our southern neighbors?

And then, at the curb on the corner in front of me, a car pulled up. I was annoyed at first, thinking, “that’s offensive; they’re blocking a heavily traveled intersection.” Slowly I realized that the occupants were unfolding a wheelchair for an elderly man—his thinning hair pulled back in a pandemic pony tail. Partially paralyzed—by a stroke?—and unable to walk, he was assisted by two young women who struggled mightily to get him into the chair and onto the uneven sidewalk. Once, in the midst of their short journey covering several minutes and only a few feet of real estate, the wheelchair caught a pot hole and almost tipped over. I created my own backstory for this drama which may have been wildly divorced from reality, but I was again reminded of the daily struggles that each of us endure—and some of us way more than others—simply to experience the fullness of life.

My wife returned, her tests successfully completed and we drove away, back across the GW Bridge. But my observations from behind the windshield on that corner of upper Manhattan filled me with gratitude for how blessed I’ve been and how privileged my life is. More importantly, I left the city in awe, yet again, at the courage and dogged determination of so many who must struggle daily through a host of adversities simply to carry on.   

4 thoughts on “On a Corner in Upper Manhattan

  1. Washington Heights – my old neighborhood, for about a year in 1987, when the tiny apt 5CD in which we lived (it was carved out of what became a smaller apt 5C and apt 5D in a move to “clean up” the building from the drug dealers who had taken it on) shot up in rent beyond what my recently graduated (from Columbia Univ) earnings could afford. Still, the Dominicans and others were great neighbors. I wonder if you know about the new movie based on Lin Miranda’s “In the Heights” coming out later this year – a celebration of the community, struggles and all.

  2. Ah, Washington Heights, and the medical center, originally built on the very outskirts of the city (to isolate the sick from the rest of the population). Now, one of the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods, and a place where many immigration journeys end, or at least, pause. And with that, a focal point for ICE over the last decade. No doubt many of the recent border crossers will find their way to Washington Heights. Bob, you saw a lot on a brief visit!

  3. In July 1979, I discovered ‘Columbia Presbyterian’ when, after jogging on a hot summer morning, I suffered a brain bleed from hereditary vascular abnormality and collapsed. A series of (what could only be God-guided) people connections led me to Dr W. Jost Michelsen at Columbia Presbyterian Neurological Institute in Washington Heights. Last time I spoke to Dr M, (years later, at Roosevelt-St Luke’s) he told me.. ‘Lauren, back when we started? [working on a fix for my Cerebral AVM] that was the ‘stone age’! The things they’re doing now? Compared to then? Amazing.’. Of course, I’m paraphrasing but I think Dr M would agree it’s close enough.. Today, after treatments in NY and other states, brain hemorrhage is no longer a reality for me but that location in the city is wistfully nostalgic.. I can picture the blue and green curtains blowing in windows in the humid summers and remember the laughter of my Jamaican nurse, Monica. Washington Heights.. That crummy street changed my life but it sounds like the location itself hasn’t really changed.. Thank you, Bob, for this unexpected walk through a troubled part of the city and an unforgettable part of my life. 🙏

  4. Patricia Whitsett Mack. You were able to experience my home area for over 40 years. It is an experience to live with many kinds of folks. From Dominican, Jewish and med students. Come on back soon.

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