Just like before, only different

Grand Central’s Oyster Bar reopened yesterday after 18 months of COVID-imposed closures. I told my out-of-town colleague about it, excitedly, at the end of the workday. “We must go,” I gushed. “It’s a quintessential New York City experience.”

We wandered over at around 5:45 p.m. and I hoped we weren’t already too late to snag a seat at the infamous oyster bar. When we turned the corner and walked inside. I cheered audibly at the maître-D.

“You’re back!” I exclaimed.

“Yes we are!” he shouted right back.

And for a second it was just like it was, those carefree mid-twenties happy hours crammed in between someone in a suit who smelled like cigarettes and someone in a hurry to catch their commuter train home. But then I looked around and saw all the empty tables and all the unoccupied bar stools. It was just like before, in a way. Only…different.

Just like Grand Central Terminal itself. Still has that same grandiosity, the way the light strikes the arched ceilings and the way the live energy of the room reverberates all throughout the great hall. It still has the buzz of New York City — a true hive in the middle of midtown — only, it’s half as many people as before. Maybe even less.

Office spaces still hold their same allure. Rooftop views so spacious and sweeping. Cozy café tables tucked inside hip coffee shops directly adjacent to a speakeasy-styled bars that only open after 4 p.m. High topped tables with stools and low leather couches for the conversations when you need to feel both important and seen. Collaboration stations and boardrooms. Whiteboards and cafeterias. Bars set up to host parties of 200–300 people. Open seating designed to pack entire companies in by the dozen. Like lawn chairs on a cruise ship before sunrise, they remain at the ready, but unclaimed. Poised, but empty. If you get in early enough, it’s just like before. Just you in a big, empty office before the lights turn on. But if you think about it too hard, if you really look around at lunchtime and wonder where everyone went off to, you’ll only see what’s different.

“It’ll be great one day,” another colleague mused. “When there are just enough people around to really enjoy this space.”

We sidled up to the bar and decided on what drinks to pair with our meal of mollusks.

“How’s it being back, for these past 18 months?” we asked the oyster shucker behind the bar.

He shrugged in response. “Nice to have something to do. It used to be, get up, work out, and then figure out what to do with the other 18 hours in your day.”

I told a story about a time when I was gifted an oyster with a lucky crab still inside. “We get those all the time,” he acknowledged. “But normally we take them out. Some people get a little freaked out by them.”

The oysters were just as good. The martini, even better. I sat on the lipstick chaise lounge in the bathroom and exited just as I overheard the bartender ask the tourists at the end of the saloon bar, “Can I get you something to eat?”

“We would love to, but we’re off to dinner…at, what’s that place called again honey?”

“Second Avenue Deli.”

“Oh right. We’re going to Second Avenue Deli. Have you heard of it?”

Of course he had. It’s a must-visit spot for any out-of-towner. I locked eyes with the bartender and exchanged a look somewhere in between relief and exhaustion.

“Thanks for the martini,” I told him. “It was perfect.”

“Have you ever had a dirty martini?” I heard the tourist whisper to her husband, as I walked away.

“I think so, only once.”

“Disgusting,” she continued. “You know Marlene drinks them all the time? I just don’t know how she does it…”

Like I said. It’s just the same. Only…different.

Later that night I told myself I’d get a taxi but the city lights of the tall midtown buildings at night distracted me so much that I just needed to linger around just a little bit longer, so I decided to bike home. Past the skyscrapers, past the new construction by Hudson Yards, all the way along to the water and all the way up the river back home. It was just like the before, only I didn’t used to have to dodge 2–3 live rats in the middle of the bike path on my ride home.

When I parked my CitiBike up on 92nd Street, just like I used to, I heard the tail end of a jazz combo playing outside of Greek restaurant right in front of the now-shuttered jazz bar. A small crowd lingered on a few outdoor tables on the sidewalk. I sat down with my fellow neighborhood old souls, those among us who remembered what it used to be like to hear saxophones and trumpets and upright bass on this street corner nightly for many years before.

“Our kitchen is closed,” the waitress told me just as the singer started into the chorus of “Blue Skies.”

“That’s okay, I won’t be long,” I replied.

In another minute or two, their grand finale would be over, and then it’d be time to go back home. But just for now in that little glimpse, I saw the New York I knew before.

Originally published at Dry Erase.