The Day the Village Stood Still: Part 1

By Roger and Anthony Paradiso

“The closest thing it’s analogous to is when you know the order’s been signed for war and you’re waiting for the next shoe to drop. Is it a draft? Is it a bombing on the homeland? We’ve been isolated from so many things just by oceans and borders that now, the threat is here, it’s on our shores.”   

—Victor, co-owner, La Lanterna di Vittorio Cafe, MacDougal and West Third

THE VILLAGE IS A GHOST TOWN: Bleecker Street facing East. photo Jamal Alnasr.

THE VILLAGE IS A GHOST TOWN. Bleecker Street, looking east. Photo by Jamal Alnasr.

As I walked around the Village, I stopped into one of my favorite stores, Village Music World on Bleecker. Patti Smith shops here. So do many other rock stars and so many people looking at classic LPs and cds. I ask Jamal, whose family has been in the Village with this business since 1978, “how’s business?” He says it’s slow. I tell him I’ll check in with him in a few days. He is very worried about the virus and what it could do to this business and to his family. Did you hear that Di Blasio cancelled all city schools? 

“The last 20 years have been really tough to run a small business” Jamal tells me as I am leaving his shop. 

I stop to talk with Jamal. We had the 9/11 terrorist attack. That was inconceivable, an attack on the shores of America. That had not happened since the War of 1812. Jamal says of the 2007-8 recession, “Now that was tough.” My son asks about the Aids epidemic, which is still alive on this planet. “Yeah that was really scary but a long time ago. It came out of nowhere it seemed. But like the flu every year and the threat of terrorism like 9/11 we sort of deal with it. But this, it is really scary, like a primal existential scary virus that is all around us. Don’t touch this. Wash your hands. Don’t catch it!”

“I’ll hang out until three or four. Then I’ll go home to Brooklyn.” Jamal tells me.

VILLAGE MUSIC WORLD HAS BEEN IN THE VILLAGE SINE 1978: Owner Jamal Alnasr, above. Photo by Roger Paradiso.

I head home trying not to touch my face or anyone’s space. 

I walk away from Jamal and I see empty stores and sidewalks. This does remind me of those days at my office in Tribeca a few days after 9/11. It lasted until Christmas. Christmas was terrible downtown. Then spring arrived, and De Niro started the first Tribeca Film Festival. People came back on the streets.

A few days later, I talk to Phil Nelson who has pushed back his 14th annual Manhattan Film Festival held at the Cinema Village on East 12th Street. Originally scheduled for April 19-May 7th, Phil has had to push it back to June 19th-July 2nd. 

Phil says, “We are determined to do the Festival this year. About three to five films have dropped out, but we will have over 100 independent films showing at Cinema Village in April.”

“We’re trying to wait it out. The CDC said no more than 50 people in a space, so we pushed back. We don’t want anyone to get sick.”

I called Jamal after the weekend when a lot of things started happening. There were talks of New York City being on lockdown. Businesses would be shut. Jamal tells me that nobody is coming into the store. There are few people on the streets. This is like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or The Blob; some bioweapon virus from aliens in outer space has attacked the world. It’s a pandemic now according to the World Health Organization. “So, Jamal, what are you going to do?” He shrugs and smiles as he organizes his shelves. 

“Yesterday we did $200 in sales. It’s a fraction of a percent of what we usually do on a Tuesday.” 

“We were open 10 am-midnight” says Victor from his Café.

Victor’s place La Lanterna di Vittorio on 129 MacDougal in Greenwich Village. Photo by Roger Paradiso

“200 dollars? My God, they know, the Wall Streeters know. They already figured out that the whole economy is going into the toilet. Stocks continue to plummet. But our President has an idea to put a chicken in every pot. He is now talking like his socialist friend Bernie. Bernie really had it all figured out. He was right…And where’s Joe Biden?”

“I am grateful that in the midst of all critical issues at hand, the NYC Mayor was thoughtful to have extended small businesses interest free loans to help us get through this crisis. I hope some of this compassion rubs off on the NYC Finance Dept. that has killed me for over a decade,” says Nick, owner of the prized jewel of an art theater on East 12th Street called Cinema Village.

The oldest continually operating art house theater in New York is right here in the Village on East 12th Street. But for now it is closed up in the lockdown. photo Roger Paradiso

Nick has been fighting with the city, which keep raising his real estate taxes whenever he fixes up one of his theaters. He doesn’t understand why the city can’t see that he brings entertainment and culture as he struggles to stay in the movie business, which is losing a fight with cable and streaming services. He is very worried about this pandemic wiping out a lot of small businesses.

I speak to Torrie of the Half Pint Bar on West 3rd and Thompson. She opened up in 2007 and was doing great business until the virus and the government stepped in. 

Torrie’s place, The Half Pint, my favorite English pub in the Village. photo by Roger Paradiso

“We have no view of the future right now…I am expecting a total economic implosion…” says Torrie.

I turn on my Apple music and listen to the Beach Boys. It brings me back fifty plus years. Yeah it was good back then. We only had to worry about the Atom Bomb and radiation. Now, we must worry about an invisible little virus. 

“We are in the process right now of ramping up for delivery. That means printing menus, deciding if we’re going to scale back menus, deciding hours of delivery. How we can use our employees to do that in a safe and compliant NYC manner? We’re also looking to partner with delivery services, but in all honesty the fees that these guys, UBER EATS, charge is close to 30% and it’s a big piece to give away. We’re in the process of doing it right now. But we’re going to do it, to stay in business,” says a determined Victor from his Café on MacDougal.

The Village is a ghost town. Rush hour traffic? Where? Where have all the people gone? They’ve been told to stay home. Don’t get infected and then infect two more people. This epidemic will wipe out millions, we are told. None of us want to wipe out millions of people. I can think of one or two, but a million is unthinkable. This COVID-19 has a high mortality rate. Worse than the worst flu which kills 500,000 a year worldwide (and some 30-50,000 in America) every year. The flu is still out there but we don’t fear it because we know we have a vaccine that is somewhat effective, and people still catch it. But most of them survive, don’t they? Hey, the common cold is out there. It’s a corona virus. But this COVID-19 virus, we don’t have a vaccine nor any medicine that can conquer it yet. It can take a year to find something to kill this virus. Meanwhile the Senate is quibbling over how much money to give the small businesses.

Were we hit by a neutron bomb? Not a soul stirring. West Third looking towards the Hudson River in the West Village. photo by Roger Paradiso

“The stimulus for doing takeout wouldn’t even pay for a staff, a cook, delivery people… We are shut down right now…” says Torrie from the Half Pint Bar.

With the orders of the CDC and the directives by the Mayor, Governor and President, we can now say that nothing in history has been such an existential threat to America and especially New York and the Village. This virus, COVID-19, has never existed before. It started in November in the Wuhan Province of China and made its way through Asia, then Europe and now North America. The fear exists because we don’t know if there is a cure and it is deadly—so say the experts.

“It’s going to be a tough road, but sure enough, we’ll adjust to the new normal and we’ll get through this together hopefully with a greater appreciation for our neighbors, near and far,” says a resolute Victor from the Cafe.

LIFE HAS BEEN PUT ON HOLD: No more customers in Village Music World on Bleecker Street. Photo by Jamal Alnasr.

We see that 80 thousand have been infected in China. We hear Italy has been ravaged by many deaths. And now it is making its way towards us. Already New Rochelle and Teaneck, New Jersey are hot spots. The National Guard has been called in to provide security. We hear of hospitals being overrun with sick people in Washington state. Ominous and sometimes contradictory words have come out of the mouth of our President and many talking heads on television. Life has been put on hold. Is the world falling apart? They’ve cancelled the start of the Major League Baseball season, paused the ongoing NBA and NHL seasons, moved the Masters back to an unknown date, cancelled the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. All college, high school and youth sports and activities are cancelled. 

“And we all know Cinema Village is one of the oldest repertory theaters in NYC supporting independent film and film festivals. It’s a cultural gem in a rapidly disappearing Greenwich Village. I’m not going anywhere. I love the Cinema” says Nick.

There are reports from cable news that people are going to get checks of 1,200 dollars and businesses will get bailouts—even small businesses. We’re printing money and to hell with the deficit. And where’s Joe Biden? All we see on TV now is Trump winging it. Didn’t we do this already in 2016? It seems our President likes to praise himself and has started his campaign. I see him more like Nero who fiddled about while his city burned.

“Half Pint will always be here in the Village in one form or another,” says Torrie.

The Village will survive like it always has. You can take that to the bank if there are any open. I make one last call to Jamal who is staying until 8pm on this still night. I ask Jamal if he had any customers? He pauses. Then he says, “Zero today. Maybe one tomorrow.” I tell him we will all have our eyes on Congress and the city council to make sure that the small businesses are compensated fairly. After all, this was not their fault. They are following the government’s orders. 

An empty playground on West Third and 6th Avenue. photo Jamal Alnasr.

The parks are silent now, but soon kids will be playing. 

The Village will come back.

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