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Ode to Manhattan at 7 a.m.

As with many people, I turned on the television on December 31 and watched as the ball dropped over Times Square, signaling that 2021 had begun. The stark contrast between the usually dense crowd and the few spaces where three or four people were allowed to congregate saddened me some, though I am grateful for the safety precautions. But then I began to remember the joy of a time of day when I loved being in Manhattan: 7 a.m.

Several years back, I worked as the only paid employee of a shelter. I would set up the shelter, greet and feed the guests, clean up, provide entertainment in the form of Netflix DVDs (Does Netflix even do that anymore?), and make sure all guests had what they needed before lights out. And then I would sleep... for about two hours total. I took my responsibility to the guests very seriously, and that meant I rarely got the chance to fully rest while staying at the shelter. Once the guests had left for the day, I finished cleaning up, locked up the shelter, and went out into the world. I would go get some breakfast and do some prep work for my classes, or I would run some errands, or I would go across the street to Central Park, where I had no trouble finding an unoccupied bench to sit on.

Manhattan at 7 a.m. is similar to the other boroughs at 5 or 6: quiet, slow-paced, relaxed, and inviting. At that time of day, the majority of people one might meet are residents of Manhattan, and the hustle and bustle of people descending upon the borough has not begun yet. At 7 a.m., a person might get a smile or a nod from another person. At 7 a.m., shop owners are not yet handling the long lines of people from New Jersey, Connecticut, the other boroughs, Upstate, and Long Island who are beginning their workdays. Tourists are not awake yet, or they might be just getting to their hotels after a night at the club. At 7 a.m., a homeowner can sit on the stoop sipping a cup of coffee and reading the paper without the cacophony of car horns and hurrying pedestrians to take her attention.

If Manhattan at 7 a.m. is a slow cup of coffee on the stoop, Manhattan at 9 a.m. is a double-shot of espresso and a Red Bull chaser while power-walking from Penn Station to one's office. At 9 a.m., people rush from one location to the next, and if one is not careful, one might be carried off to a location pretty far from the desired destination.

Don't get me wrong, I am a New Yorker. I love walking, and there is a beauty in the chaos that is 9 o'clock on a Thursday morning. But when I was working at the shelter, I got the opportunity to see New York County (a.k.a. Manhattan) seemingly stretch to fit the millions of city employees simultaneously descending on it, bursting from the subways, Long Island Railroad, and New Jersey transit, or in their cars hoping to gain access to the slightly less expensive parking garage which is still within ten blocks of the office. I got to see it, but also be apart from it.

It was a curious thing to witness the activity from the relative quiet of a coffee shop which has not yet experienced the morning rush. I felt at peace as I sipped my morning beverage, and comforted knowing that even if I chose to exit this place and enter the chaos, I could still be apart from the crowd; I had no need or reason to rush. I wasn't late or perfectly timing my morning to get in five minutes before whatever I did to start my workday. In those moments, I felt grateful to be a member of the 7 a.m. group.

I realize that I am speaking to the Manhattan of several years ago, the pre-pandemic Manhattan at 7 a.m. I have not been outside of Tennessee, where I live and work, since the pandemic began, and I know that there are differences in the way that people are operating now than even a year ago. That was evident in the broadcast of the New Years Eve celebrations. But I choose to hold onto that 7 a.m. version of Manhattan from my days at the shelter. I hope to see that version someday in the not-so-distant future.


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