Letter From New York: The Much-Yearned Smile is Back

In a city of exuberance and high energy, there were only muffled voices and hidden facial expressions. New Yorkers are emerging cautiously, as we were at the epicenter of the pandemic last spring, and will not easily forget if ever, the eerily silent streets and the hospital tents constructed in our beloved Central Park.
Letter From New York: The Much-Yearned Smile is Back
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New Yorkers are smiling. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that vaccinated Americans can resume the life we enjoyed previous to the COVID-10 pandemic.  While there are still a few rules around wearing face coverings, both the Governor of New York State and the Mayor of New York City have lifted most restrictions.

It has been fifteen months since the city was shuttered on March 12, 2020.  During this time New Yorkers were not allowed to gather in large groups, told to maintain a social distance of at least six feet from one another, and could not leave home without a face covering. In a city of exuberance and high energy, there were only muffled voices and hidden facial expressions. New Yorkers are emerging cautiously, as we were at the epicenter of the pandemic last spring, and will not easily forget if ever, the eerily silent streets and the hospital tents constructed in our beloved Central Park.

Now our concern turns to India. There is not one New Yorker I have spoken with who is not aware of how the pandemic is raging through the country. I met my dear friend Ruchira Gupta for tea one afternoon to learn more about the situation in India. She is the founder and president of Apne Aap International, a social justice activist, journalist, professor at New York University, and a Distinguished Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. She, like many others, has been working within the international community to secure medical supplies and food, particularly for the most vulnerable.

As my mind and heart were thinking of India, I walked along the path in Central Park one afternoon, surrounded by spring blossoms, to visit the handsome Asia Society building on Park Avenue. It is a place I often frequent and yet this was the first time I had been there since February 2020.

Currently, the exhibition on display is part two of the Triennial, which has been titled “We Do Not Dream.” The work, by contemporary artists from across Asia, pushes boundaries and encourages us to use our imaginations to understand their conceptual thought. In one room a gaggle of music stands with quotations printed in black letters on bright white paper replaces music. In another room, trompe-loeil paintings suggest an Indian home in America.

Knowing the Asia Society has an office in Mumbai I sent a letter to Inakshi Sobti, the Chief Executive Officer, to inquire about their work. In a return note to me, she wrote: “The Asia Society Indian Centre in Mumbai is designed to cultivate nuanced understandings of Asia-Pacific affairs through diverse programming. Our initiatives include lectures, discussions, policy roundtables, leadership programmes, cultural summits, musical performances, and film screenings. The Asia Society is a place for discussions on regional and global affairs.”

Little India Market, a delightful grocery on Third Avenue in Kips Bay, between twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth streets, is a place where one can find chutneys, sweets, tea, spices, and other Indian groceries. I usually return with a satchel filled with a large box of loose tea, decorated sweets, incense, and other items food items available in my neighborhood markets. I have missed the loose tea and the other ingredients over the last year. Just a block from the Little India Market on Lexington Avenue, in the same neighborhood, are a number of Indian restaurants. With the lifting of restrictions and the return to indoor dining, I am hoping to gather a few friends for an evening of conversation to taste the delicate flavors we have missed.

Virginia Woolf, in her essay, A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929, is writing about the importance for a woman writer to have a room of her own. A room dedicated to writing. I am fortunate to have such a place, a studio in East Harlem. It’s a large room, unheated in the winter and without air conditioning during the humid summer months. It has shelves of books, a writing desk, and a long table created from a narrow door with a number four painted in the center. It’s on the fourth floor and reached by walking up a steep winding staircase, pushing open a heavy door, and walking down a dark corridor. The large windows face onto Third Avenue, a busy boulevard filled with shops and restaurants. There are wonderful bakeries and opportunities to enjoy Mexican, Puerto Rico, and Cuban food, close by.

Now, during the lovely spring weather, with the windows open the sounds from the street float into the room. There is the comforting and familiar music of the “Mister Softie Jingle” from the ice-cream truck that moves from block to block and the sound of motorbikes, trucks, laughter, music, and conversation. I regard the sounds not as a distraction, but as my connection with the neighborhood.

East Harlem is where the Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress Cecily Tyson grew up. Her family lived in a five-story walk-up at 178 East 101st Street just a short walk from my studio.  Ms. Tyson clung tightly to her East Harlem roots and became a neighborhood ambassador. She writes about growing up here in Just as I am: a memoir, with Michelle Burford (Harper Collins, New York, 2021). It was published just before her death in January and is a fascinating look into her life and work.

This is the neighborhood where the artist Alice Neel spent a quarter of her life. A retrospective of her paintings entitled, “Alice Neel:  People Come First”, is currently on view (through August 1) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition is so popular lines snake down along a narrow corridor for those wanting to visit. “I love you Harlem,” she once wrote in her diary. East Harlem, which is also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio, is reflected in Alice Neel’s paintings of scenes from the street, the interiors of apartments, and the portraits of people in the neighborhood who became her friends.

Today, as I sit at my table writing, I am reflecting on the death of George Floyd, who died under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on this day, May 25, 2020, one year ago.   An incident that ignited a conversation about institutionalized racism in the United States and lead to demonstrations across the globe. I stand at the window, look across at the large buildings and down to the people in the street: children in strollers, elders pushing a walker as they attempt to maneuver their way, young people engaged in conversation, wearing bright colors, and sneakers. Life in a community.

Perhaps, just perhaps, when we can all remove our masks, we will take a moment to reflect on the sorrow and pain that each of us has endured through the pandemic. Connected to the earth and nature. Connected one to another. There will be a moment when we can all smile again.  There will be a moment when we can embrace one another. We are, after all, interconnected on this delicate, spinning globe called planet earth.

About the author: Elizabeth Howard
Elizabeth Howard
Elizabeth Howard held corporate communications positions with two Fortune 500 companies before founding her own firm Broadbridge International Group. She is an author and journalist. She has been a member of a number of organizations involved with international issues including the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs and the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. She was a member of the board of the Ricardo O’Gorman Library in New York and served on the Board and as President of the Women’s Education Project, an organization that works with young women in India. She has published four books and her articles have appeared in The New York Law Journal, the Laconia Daily Sun, Communication Arts, Board Member, and other American and international journals. She was married to the late Thomas B. Moorhead, who served in the administration of George W. Bush. She is a host of the podcast, The Short Fuse, produced by the Arts Fuse, an online journal of art criticism and commentary (found on Apple or Spotify). She is currently the writer in residence at Randall’s Island Park Alliance in New York City and leading programs for their Literary Program. Follow her on Instagram at @elizh24, or send her a note at: [email protected]

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