In the classic Washington Irving short story, the character Rip Van Winkle falls asleep for 20 years, misses the American Revolution and wakes up to a world utterly transformed around him. The people of New York have experienced something similar since the novel-coronavirus pandemic plunged us into a prolonged and seemingly endless lockdown.
Sure, we haven’t been sleeping; in fact, many of us are sleeping a lot less, and a lot less easily or restfully, than we used to. But we have been hunkering down in our homes, fearful of neighbors and even our own loved ones, barraged constantly with crisis bromides (“in these uncertain times,” “We’re all in this together”) and ominous warnings (“Don’t touch your face,” “Wear a mask,” “Keep at least six feet away”). The world outside has passed us by, like history did with van Winkle.
So it comes as a great relief that our “sleep” probably won’t last 20 years. In fact, my hometown of Northport, on Long Island, is starting to open up.
The good news is that less has changed in Northport than changed for Rip van Winkle. When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Long Island had reached Phase Three just a few days ago, allowing indoor dining, it felt like a shock to the system.
We have adapted — to mask-wearing, to staying home, to takeout, only takeout — and now we are back to indoor dining in restaurants and indoor shopping in stores? It’s almost incredible.
We actually did such things in those long-ago days of February, in the Before Times, as Twitter wags like to joke? I would have thought reopening would be slow and gradual, but when the governor gave the all-clear, restaurants, barbershops and stores here were packed the very next day.
That’s a good sign: It means people are ready and willing to get out, to be somewhere other than their houses, to interact with other human beings again.
Cuomo has spoken so extensively about the need to keep people safe against the coronavirus — while making the lethal decision to force nursing homes to admit COVID-positive — that he seems to have forgotten that human interaction and being in communities actually matter. You can’t plot how much we need others on a chart or factor it into COVID-19 numbers. But we know it’s a big deal, all the same.
Here in Northport, we have been wearing masks and adhering to the other rules. Life has been drama-free, for the most part, and we have avoided the worst of the racial unrest in the city. The single protest that happened here was peaceful and limited to the park.
But painting a totally placid, bucolic picture would be wrong. Even here in suburbia, we had a racism scare (and “scare” is the word for it): Huntington restaurant owner Luigi Petrone’s comments calling protesters “little animals, savages” somehow made the national news, and the pushback forced him to make ritual apologies. Both Petrone’s comments and the frenzied responses seem over-the-top — in part, no doubt, a reaction to bottling ourselves up in our homes for months. There is no doubt the tensions, including the minor ones here, have something to do with lockdowns.
On the whole, though, the people here aren’t going in for political extremes: Instead, normalcy is reasserting itself — not the “new normal” of isolation but the real normal of going into town, sitting in the park, talking to friends and neighbors and passersby.
Many are scared of a second wave; even my extended family doesn’t get too close. We are, however, getting closer to the specks of light at the end of a very long tunnel.
Northport isn’t free from worries roiling the Big Apple and the rest of the nation right now, but we’re making do. After his sleep, Rip van Winkle returned to his old ways, 20 years lost or not. Gradually, Northporters are trying to do the same thing.
Now comes the hard work of rebuilding an economy, educating children who’ve gone without real schooling for far too long and, perhaps most important, casting off the gloom of prolonged isolation.
Karl Salzmann is an intern on The Post’s Editorial Board.