2020 Is the Year of Sidewalk Fatigue

4 weeks ago
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This is the feeling we miss. Photo: Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

I have never had as many conversations about the weather as I did in 2020. There are many ways the pandemic has brought us back to nature, but the weather is the one I think about the most. You can still see your friends, but not if it is raining, or heavily snowing, or if it’s too hot or it’s too cold. Did I always talk about the weather this much? I’m pretty sure I had other interests, although I can no longer remember what they were. “The weather” was a neutral topic designed to fill silence unobjectionably in elevators. Now that public life is on the sidewalk, it defines every interaction that I have.

We used to go to friends’ apartments. We went inside nonessential stores, just to stare at things and touch them. We went inside restaurants, which serve many important social functions, but their most underrated quality might be that they are indoor spaces with chairs.

I am not saying restaurants should open up their dining rooms anytime in the near future; I am saying that, while we had them, indoor spaces were pretty good.

It is upsetting to acknowledge this because I have been very committed to my willful embrace of the outdoors. “Actually, outdoor dining is pretty great,” I have been arguing for months, when I am not espousing the many virtues of spending time in public parks.

And it was nice, for a while, to be at the mercy of the elements. “I would love to see you,” I would say, “but, alas, there is a thunderstorm.” What could I do? I was so small. It was liberating to surrender to the forces of nature. At any time, whatever plans you’d made could be washed away by rain. This was humbling, and occasionally convenient: There is no luxury quite like a no-fault cancellation. And, when it was nice, the streets were lined with laughing people sipping cocktails under colorful umbrellas. I wasn’t having much fun, personally, but I liked that other people were. “This is so great!” I kept saying. “Isn’t this so great?”

I spent the summer watching people eat wood-fired pizzas in repurposed parking spaces, and I spent the autumn watching increasingly fat squirrels hoard acorns in sidewalk planters. I understand why David Attenborough does it, I thought, over tofu bánh mì in the park.

Then it got cold, and a blizzard arrived, and I realized that, for months, I had basked in the delusion that inside was overrated, but it isn’t true. Actually, inside is incredible.

I am not saying we cannot make the best of winter. Of course we can! All we have to do is wear base layers and good parkas and hats and mittens and warm socks, because there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. My Lands’ End parka, which is the color of electrocuted salmon, is as warm as it is ugly!

But do you know what else is warm? Inside spaces. “Inside” allows for many of the same benefits we have learned to enjoy outside, but there is almost always electricity and usually heat. It is easy being inside. It requires no preparation. This is not a coincidence. The inside has been designed for your comfort. You can emerge from inside, for example, and be shocked to discover that, in your absence, it has gotten dark or snowed.

This is not the same as being inside at home. I have always spent an inordinate amount of time inside at home, on account of it also being my office, or at least that’s what I thought, until I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere else. I did not realize how much time I spent indoors at restaurants, and bars, and cafés, and cafés that were also bars, and bars that doubled as restaurants until the option went away. I went to a lot of other inside places, too — friends’ apartments, or drugstores, and occasionally airports — but it is restaurants I miss the most. I thought I appreciated restaurants before, but I only appreciated restaurants as concepts. I did not appreciate restaurants as structures with temperature control.

Many pleasant aspects of the restaurant experience can be captured outside, especially during this, our golden age of outdoor-dining setups. But I find myself craving the homey Hallmark Channel comfort of casually sliding into a booth and taking off my coat. Restaurants were places to go for meals, but they were also places to go when it was raining. If a friend was running late, you might, for the price of a small coffee, buy the luxury of warmth. Now there is no choice but to stand on a street corner in a slush pile and feel increasingly annoyed.

When the weather was nice and there was daylight, I was able to successfully delude myself into believing that moving everything outside was not just a response to global suffering but also a fun lifestyle choice, like gardening or recreational adult ballet. Then the temperature dropped below a balmy 40. The problem is not the weather; the problem is that the delusion has worn off. It’s much more difficult, when it is sleeting, to convince yourself that, actually, all of this is pretty okay.

Restaurants have built all kinds of amazing outdoor setups, and a whole lot of diners seem game to try them. Look at these people, eating outdoors in a snowstorm at the Smith! It is heartwarming, in an I Am Legend kind of way. In the summer, you could forget the reasons, sort of. In the winter, you cannot; who would choose this?

The outdoor setups, thousands of them, are a testament to resilience, but they are also reminders that it has been almost a year since any of us could go inside and feel really, truly comfortable, ten months since we could see enclosed spaces and think Shelter! instead of Viral threat. More than anything, I miss taking that feeling for granted.

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Grub Street

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