Death and disease have been with humankind since we emerged from the primordial muck (or, depending on your truth, since Adam and Eve were deported from Eden), and our species has been imposing quarantines to contain disease for a very long time, too. Indeed, the notion of sheltering in place from family, friends, co-workers and neighbors struck me as exceedingly, well, medieval in 21st-century New York City.
I wasn’t prepared to batten down the hatches. It was my good fortune that the news business was deemed an “essential” industry. And although able to work remotely, I chose to ride the subway to work, while adhering, of course, to social distancing.
Would you care to join me on one of my commutes from my apartment in Pelham Bay in The Bronx to The Post’s Midtown newsroom?
On my most recent morning trip, a maskless bag lady (judging by her three bulging bags) began coughing and sneezing loudly as she re-boarded the train after mistakenly getting off at the wrong stop.
A fellow traveler immediately bolted to the next car. I guess that’s the new normal. I understand the reaction, but there is still something tragic about it: Are we really going to give up on the kind of human encounter that used to define big-city life?
But that’s a small concern next to the wider disorder I see spreading throughout Gotham — and undoing a recovery four decades in the making.
The first sign of this new decay is the absence of law and order. I had half-expected cops to randomly ask riders for their “papers,” to prove that we were essential workers. Nope. It didn’t happen. In fact, encountering police officers in the subway has been a rarity. In the past week or so, I spotted a pair of cops at 96th Street popping their heads into the cars. For what reason, I have no clue. That’s about it.
The absence of a regular police presence on the subway has been one of the disappointing features of my daily commutes since this thing began. Pre-pandemic, four to six of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s MTA cops would stake out the entrances at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street, on the lookout for fare evaders. Now, fare evasion there and elsewhere happens regularly in their absence. The spike in subway crime comes as no surprise to me. Criminals will fill the space law enforcement abandons each and every time.
Among my usual fellow commuters are bike-delivery guys, transit workers, health workers, mothers and their children, chattering street people and the homeless. One morning, the guy sitting next to me appeared to slip something out of his sock and snort it; nonessential riders openly smoke cigarettes and weed.
Subway passageways normally bustling with commuters, buskers and panhandlers saw a trickle of passersby. I was amazed at the sight of vagrants now regularly using pried-open MTA electrical outlets to charge their phones and other devices.
On the upside, the Norway rats are mostly gone. The 90 percent drop in subway ridership means the critters no longer have a smorgasbord of litter upon which to feast. We shouldn’t miss the chance to use this period of mass starvation to reduce their numbers even further.
More good news: Warmer May temperatures have brought pedestrians, bike riders and drivers back onto Sixth Avenue. Polite panhandlers have returned outside of the Midtown Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s. “I have nothing today,” said a local worker as he ducked into Mickey D’s.
Even so, the majority of restaurants in the area remain shuttered. The enclosed fronts of at least two restaurants on 46th Street were commandeered into filthy homeless encampments, where piles of excrement were visible through the plastic sheeting.
Mayor Bill de Blasio prefers holding daily media briefings and booking cable-TV interviews instead of ensuring that subways and streets remain safe and homeless New Yorkers are afforded proper shelter. That speaks volumes about what matters most to him.
What should have mattered to Hizzoner was protecting people still going to work and preserving the city for those who would be returning to their jobs. I’m glad I continued to ride the subway into Manhattan — with my wife’s blessings — each day. We can’t hold our elected officials accountable if we don’t witness what they’re doing to our urban world.
Michael Benjamin is a member of The Post’s Editorial Board. Twitter: @SquarePegDem