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VIRUS DIARY: Goodbye to NYC, and to its unforgettable sounds

A sign reads ‘New York, I love you,’ on the billboard outside Webster Hall in the East Village neighborhood of New York, June 20, 2020. The sign is one of many stamped across the city as it slowly rebuilds after the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Farnoush Amiri)

NEW YORK — The last few weeks I spent in New York City, the soundtrack of my days went like this: police helicopters circling, firecrackers startling, uniform chants for justice rising into the air.

The noise was constant — particularly following what had been months of silence as the city that never sleeps went into a deep slumber. Since mid-March, the only sound we’d heard came from ambulances carrying the thousands of people who would become victims to a startling virus as the city became the epicenter.

I had dreamt of living in New York City since I was 13. I had come here from Southern California for the first time with my middle school choir class. We stayed in a hotel near Times Square, and I remembered the noise — the constant, looping sound of a city in motion. The subway rumbled underneath our feet as New Yorkers existed outside, creating a cacophony.

It was beautiful. I remember thinking: This is what life must sound like.

Now, more than a decade later, my time with New York is limited but also, somehow infinite. The days now have no beginning or end. We are not working from home but, rather, living at work. And now I find myself with too much time to recollect about a whirlwind romance with the only place I have ever felt at home.

In a 1967 essay, “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion wrote: “I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South.”

In many ways, I am so lucky. I got to have New York City for three beautiful and challenging years. For some, that may seem short, but I came alive here. I moved into a 300-square-foot apartment in the East Village in the summer of 2017, and life as I knew it changed.

I attended my dream school in New York. I met the girl who is now my best friend at a coffee shop near Washington Square Park. I fell in love for the first time while waiting for a table on the Upper West Side. I had my first national byline on the third floor of 30 Rock. I experienced my first heartbreak in an apartment deep in Bushwick. I graduated with my master’s on a blistering hot summer day at Yankee Stadium.

I moved to four apartments in three years. I cried on every train line in the city’s subway system but one. I truly lived in New York. And now, as the city is battered and broken down, as buildings remain closed and most stores are boarded up, I am leaving. Not because of the virus, but to start a new job.

Like many, I have spent these past three months mourning the life we had before this virus. The memories and lives lost. But I am also mourning the noise of a city in motion. And now, I wonder, will the sidewalks of New York ever be filled to the brim again? Will there be a day when the neighbourhood barber shops, restaurants, and dive bars are busy again?

I don’t know. But I know one thing. The other night, as protests erupted in each of the city’s five boroughs, a beautiful sound poured into the corners and crevices of my Brooklyn neighbourhood. It interrupted the chants, the helicopters and the fireworks. It was the sound of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

It echoed off the brownstones and spilled into the bodegas. It was the new soundtrack of a city in motion.

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Virus Diary, an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Farnoush Amiri works for the AP/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/FarnoushAmiri

Farnoush Amiri, The Associated Press