When I plugged in disposable red earbuds to a headphone jack on TopView’s double-decker bus on a recent Tuesday, Frank Sinatra greeted me with a nostalgic rendition of “New York, New York.”
That split-second of sentimentality disappeared when a gust of bitingly cold wind blew across the bus’s outdoor deck. Bundled in coats, about 10 people sat spaced apart, all wearing masks. Even Sinatra’s velvety voice couldn’t dispel the spectre of the pandemic.
Amid rising coronavirus hospitalizations, Cuomo’s threats of another “New York PAUSE” and toe-numbing cold, tourists across the country and world still found their way to the top of a tour bus to see the sites of a city scarred by almost nine months of disease. What they saw as the bus trundled through downtown Manhattan was an urban center limping, but still chugging, along.
A little after 11 a.m., the bus left from Times Square and did a quick loop around Rockefeller Plaza and past the shuttered Radio City Music Hall. A sprinkle of snow meandered down from overcast skies. In front of me sat the Henneseys, a mother and two daughters visiting from Centerville, Texas, a town of approximately 1,000 people.
“We just wanted to come for Christmas,” Bailey, one of the daughters, said with a twang. “I wanted to come here for a long time to see the Rockefeller tree and all that stuff.”
Here for just a couple more days, the Henneseys weren’t worried about catching COVID-19 in Manhattan, an area that’s more than 4,500 times denser per square mile than the county surrounding their small town in eastern Texas. “We already had it,” said Maddey, the other daughter. Bailey chimed in and said that they had antibodies.
The bus wheeled from Rockefeller Plaza down to Madison Square Garden, whose cavernous performance spaces have remained empty since March. Tourism in the five boroughs will be down approximately 66 percent in 2020, the city projected in mid-November.
“Did you know the Empire State Building has the largest open-air observatory?” a recording of a tour guide asked through our earbuds as we passed the looming skyscraper. The cheerful voice then said more than 30 people had committed suicide by jumping from the building since its construction in 1931. Shortly afterwards, the narration transitioned to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind.”
As the bus proceeded farther south, I struck up a conversation with Michael Keffer, who along with his three children and wife, said he was visiting the city for two days to escape being “cooped up” in Weirton, West Virginia.
“Many months ago, we ended up catching the coronavirus,” he said. “Being home so much, we wanted to get out and enjoy the holiday.”
Keffer, who runs a company called DJ Mike, Music Express Entertainment, drove the six hours from West Virginia to Manhattan with his family. “Our area has cancelled a lot of things, so where’s the next best place to see some entertainment? New York City,” he said.
He snapped photos from his smartphone as the bus weaved farther downtown through Manhattan. He and his family weren’t too worried about catching the coronavirus again, given their recent exposure.
“I gotta give it to New York City for still being able to open up their city—still—and still enforcing the CDC guidelines,” he added.
We drove down past Washington Square Park, not far from Bleecker Street, an area that once was a “major center of American bohemia,” according to the narration. Eventually, we entered Soho, where people were lining up at brand-name stores in preparation for the holidays. “For rent” signs stood out on vacant storefronts. As many as one-third of small businesses in New York City may close because of the pandemic, estimated the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit that advocates for city businesses, in a July report.
Seated behind me was Suraj Jadhav, who works in information technology in Guatemala but is traveling back home to Mumbai, India for vacation.
“This is the easiest way to know New York in two or three hours, because I have that much time only,” he said, explaining why he was on the bus during his layover. This was his second time in the city. He spent his first visit perusing Strand Book Store, which recently put out a call for help after its sales had plummeted due to the pandemic.
While he was concerned about COVID, Jadhav said “you can’t stay in the house all the time.” After our short conversation, he put his earbuds back on and listened to the narration. “Do try some Chinese food,” it advised when we rumbled through Chinatown, where residents are trying to revitalize a neighborhood reeling from the lack of tourism.
As we passed a view of the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park, Michael Keffer let out a loud “God bless America” to celebrate his first time seeing the monument. He and his family then got off to explore the area around the World Trade Center.
Soon, I and two men were the only ones on TopView’s tour bus. We charged up the West Side Highway, winds from the Hudson River chilling us even further. As we passed the renovated Hudson Yards, the narrator said that the now deserted, luxury boondoggle is a vision of “a future that will redefine the city.”
My nose was running, and my toes were numb from the cold. Buildings provided cover from the wind once we turned back on 42nd Street and drove past Falun Gong activists protesting—like usual—outside the Chinese consulate. The bus eventually let us out where we started, not far from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Hungry, I decided to buy a lukewarm hot dog for $3 from a street vendor. I wolfed it down, ketchup staining my mask. Overpriced and underwhelming. Some things never change.