At the end of October, I flew to Oregon to spend a couple of months with my sister’s family. About halfway through my time there, I streamed Cinemania, a cult documentary I had wanted to see for years. It profiles a bunch of obsessive moviegoers during an era — the turn of the Millennium — before you could order a DVD of any film you wanted to see, let alone find it on-demand or stream it. These cinephiles would study the movie theatres’ programs like tacticians, and then they would hop from arthouse cinema to repertory cinema to museum cinema, taking in four or five or six different movies a day, every day.
Cinemania could only take place in one city on earth. Only in New York are there enough movie houses and enough transportation options to make this lifestyle possible. And only in New York and a few other special cities on earth can characters like the ones in Cinemania really blossom and flourish and find community.
I felt so homesick when I watched Cinemania, even though I had only left New York a month or so before. My homesickness felt like the longing of someone who has been gone for decades.
Living in New York for the past year has been like living on the sound stage for a movie that takes place in New York, after they shut off the lights and everyone goes home for the day. All the things that made New York so New York disappeared overnight: movie theaters and museums and bars and clubs and restaurants closed down until further notice, all the energy that animated the city got bottled up into individual apartment buildings, all the people whose imaginations and ideas and talents used to surround me now sheltered-in-place in their own places, and my five-borough playground was reduced to a village-sized area outlined by the distance I could bike (summer) or walk (winter).
I so deeply miss the New York I knew and loved/hated. It would be ridiculous for me to pretend I unequivocally embraced this city. But absence, and especially absence-while-present, makes the heart grow fonder. I fantasize about the day I can sit in my beloved BAM or IFC Center or Film Forum again and watch a movie in the dark with other people. I cannot wait to go to MOMA and visit Starry Night. I’m chomping at the bit to get on a subway again and ride somewhere, anywhere. I wouldn’t even mind some mechanical difficulties for old times’ sake.
Apart from Cinemania, a couple of other things I’ve seen this year have also made my heart ache with love and longing for this city and its kooky, quirky people. Pretend it’s a City could not have come at a better time. And this 30 year-old Claire Denis short, Keep it for Yourself, is such a perfect reminder of the serendipitous meetings and random adventures that used to happen in New York.
Watching these films and television series buoyed me. I thought, New York is not forever changed, it’s just sleeping! I ignored what I knew about gentrification and absurdly rising rents and the chain store-ification that has been going on for far longer than this pandemic. And when vaccines started rolling out, I finally allowed myself to hope that I might soon be reunited with a city I missed even while living in it.
And then, last Thursday, I heard about Pyramid. For me, this is the most heartbreaking loss of an NYC landmark since the Twin Towers. At one point a few months ago, when I started seeing round-up lists of restaurants and bars and clubs that had closed during the pandemic, I realized that Pyramid was in distinct danger, and I panicked a bit. But then I thought, nah, Pyramid will never close. It is an institution. Institutions don’t change, and they don’t close. Of course, we all know that is not true — especially in New York City, where nothing is sacred.
I am so heartbroken that when the dust settles and things finally get back to semi-normal, I’ll be returning to a city that no longer includes my favorite place in that city.
So much of what I do these days is hold loss in one hand and anticipation of rebirth in the other. It’s been a year of horrendous loss of human life, and of course that’s the saddest loss of all. But it’s also been a year of the loss of the life of this city, and man, that’s rough, too.
The only thing that makes me feel a little better is imagining my friends gathering outside Pyramid this summer to throw a new wave dance party / wake in the street. And then maybe we’ll walk a few blocks down to Veselka, the 24-hour Ukrainian coffeeshop that’s been around for 60-something years and has managed to withstand the forces of time and COVID — for now, at least. Maybe we’ll even eat inside the restaurant instead of in pandemic-era gutter seating! It seems like a faraway dream, and maybe an impossible one — New York and I meeting again under (relatively) normal circumstances. But I’m holding out hope, because what else is there to do?