If you had set a time machine to 2019, ventured to my office at 422 Broadway in Saratoga Springs and told me that the following summer, I would be locked in my home office in Troy, Saratoga Race Course would be bereft of spectators and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center would cancel its classical and Live Nation seasons, I would have probably told your coming-from-the-future ass to get back inside your time machine and eff right the eff off. Up until mid-March of this past year, the COVID-19 pandemic was just another disaster that people had to deal with in China and Seattle. It wasn’t our problem here in Upstate New York; it was somebody else’s somewhere else.
And then, in a flash, it was our problem in a big, inconvenient and scary way. I remember those first few weeks being sequestered in my Collar City home, wondering when “it” would get me. For my entire life, I’ve been one of those cup-half-empty type of guys, assuming that the worst will eventually catch up with me, the other shoe will drop. The virus was invisible and deadly, and yes, it would track me down when I least expected it to. The first time I experienced that true, icy fear was when our pantry started to run low, and my wife and I ventured to the supermarket, despite the real or perceived dangers involved. Within minutes of setting foot in my local Hannaford, I had a massive panic attack—something I’ve been suffering from my entire adult life but hadn’t experienced in awhile. Upon arriving home, I remember washing my hands vigorously, while singing “Happy Birthday” twice through, inserting a dirty word in place of the person’s name in the song—an act of sanitization and safety that has basically ruined the tune for me—and then wiping down every last grocery we’d bought that day, as if each of them had been dipped in a bubbling cauldron of COVID. The experience affected me so deeply that I sat down and wrote an opinion piece, just like this one, for Saratoga Living. I’d do that numerous times over the following nine months; it was not only my way of coming to terms with the lot I’d been given, but also a way to reach our readers, many of whom I assumed were going through the same type of situation I was. Surely, I wasn’t the only person on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the cereal aisle.
Later that spring, I remember hearing rumors that the virus would be sent packing that summer and would come back in the fall. And although it had been a rough few months, I thought, well, at least Saratoga will have its famously sizzling summer season. And then, when that dream was quickly dashed, in July, just before Saratoga Race Course’s projected Opening Day, Charles V. Wait, Sr., chairman of the board of directors at the Adirondack Trust Company, wrote an open letter to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, beseeching him to think twice before closing the track to fans because of the grave economic consequences that might come to the city and its surrounding region. Wait was a realist, though. “Saratoga and the track survived the Civil War and the Great Depression,” he wrote. “During World War II, racing was suspended for three years, and in the 1950s, casino gambling was shut down. The great people of this community came together during each of these challenges, and Saratoga will continue to thrive once the pandemic has run its course.”
You don’t need to jump in a time machine to know what happened next: The racetrack remained closed to spectators—well, at least those of us who don’t have the disposable income available to own horses—for the entirety of the summer. Early on in that soon-to-be-lost Saratoga Summer, I did a bit of beseeching myself, urging the City of Saratoga Springs, in an open letter of my own, to consider shutting down a portion Broadway to vehicle traffic, so that would-be tourists could safely shop at our downtown businesses and eat socially distanced meals there. I imagined Broadway taking on the feel of a street bazaar, much like how River Street in Troy was transformed by the Troy Waterfront Farmers’ Markets of the not-so-distant past. Though Broadway never did go an inch pedestrian, the city eventually did budge, and in late June, closed off a cluster of off-Broadway streets, so that a several businesses were able to safely extend their wares beyond their already crucial outdoor seating.
Even without a Broadway bazaar, many of those “great” Saratogians, to which Wait referred in his letter, stepped up in a big way. Despite all of the city’s bars, restaurants and retailers having to deal with phased reopenings and capacity restrictions, locals went out of their way to shop and eat locally. And despite the predictions that the streets of Saratoga would mimic those from the era when Marylou Whitney arrived there—the kind you could roll a basketball down and not hit a single thing—every time I managed to venture northward from Troy, I found a city alive with tourists, seemingly unaware that a global pandemic had threatened to disrupt its prosperity.
The good deeds didn’t only come in the form of locals helping out businesses. Many businesses returned the favor. One that stands out in my mind is Saratoga’s Broadway Deli, which announced on its social media this past November, that it would be giving away free roast chickens, no questions asked, to any family in need from just before Thanksgiving through Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and beyond. The small business’ selfless act caught the attention of not only local media outlets like this one, but also the big boys such as the CBS Evening News and Good Morning America. And to top it all off, on Christmas Day, the deli posted that it had roasted and given away some 200 chickens, provided children in need with gifts and had had enough leftover donations, from people who had seen the good in what they were doing and opened up their wallets, to split $1,800 between Troy’s Capital Roots (an organization that we included in our annual Capital Region Gives Back feature/event) and the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. In fact, the restaurant isn’t even done yet; it’s still taking orders through December 31.
As I’m writing this piece, I feel as though we’re at a bit of an impasse. I don’t think that the state government and health experts are lying in saying that New York is getting pounded by a second wave of the pandemic, as our hospitalization rates spike and the bodies pile up again. And as these months have worn on, the virus has seemingly gotten closer and closer to all of us, and I’m once again waiting for it to sneak-attack me when I least expect it. Case in point: Just after Thanksgiving, I was having a friendly conversation with an older woman in my neighborhood, who casually dropped in that her eldest son had recently succumbed to the virus. If you know more and more people within your circle who have been infected with COVID or died from it, that’s all the proof you need that this virus is, in fact, real, and will not be going away anytime soon.
Which brings me to my “predictions” portion of this piece. For the last few months, I’ve been seeing people tweeting and sharing notes of encouragement about how, as soon as the virtual ball drops at an eerily empty Times Square this New Year’s Eve, 2021 will somehow come crashing in, a deus ex machina of sorts, making all things right as rain. So long with the crappiness that was 2020! In with the new year! As a cup-half-empty type of guy, I’d truly like to believe that the new year is going to bring with it the happy ending everyone has been expecting, but my gut says otherwise. What it’s telling me is that 2021 is going to look a hell of a lot like 2020 for the first several months, and only eventually, after we are all thoroughly exhausted (again) of wearing masks and socially distancing and not being around our loved ones and experiencing life as it used to be, will a speck of “normalcy” return. So, and I apologize if I had to be the one to say this, the new year is not going to be all that “new.”
But I’d like to suggest that we can all do things to make the new year better than I’m projecting. For one, we can continue to pivot and be more like our friends at Saratoga’s Broadway Deli. Those of us who avoid infection can enjoy our good health and unencumbered sense of smell. We can all continue wearing masks, socially distancing and sanitizing everything. And whenever our time comes, we can all get the two-shot vaccination, so that we can ensure that, for decades to come, Saratoga is and remains “the August place to be.”