NEW YORK CITY — Miguel Lopez stood in the middle of Times Square and removed the belt from his black jeans. He held the belt in his right hand, which was covered in a plastic glove.
Lopez, 13, danced backward a few steps. He called to his friend Adonis Montague.
“Yo, Adonis!” Lopez yelled. “Watch this!”
Lopez did a little hop. He hit the ground, and was gone. His target: a long bench of solid black marble. The bench runs parallel to Broadway. Its surface is buffed and shiny from the rumps of a million tired tourists.
On Monday, as people in New York City and across the nation took hiding from the coronavirus, the bench was empty.
Lopez sprinted. Just before his chin struck the marble, he jumped. He leaned forward, threw out his hands, and performed a perfect swan dive. Landing on his belly, he slid for 15 feet.
“We’re not in school today, and nobody’s out here,” Lopez said. “It’s a good day to practice Parkour,” the sport in which practitioners use urban environments as jungle gyms for acrobatic stunts.
If Thursday was the day the virus first made its presence felt in the streets of New York City, Monday was the day when things started to feel serious. President Donald Trump advised Americans to avoid groups large than 10. Schools in New York City, the nation’s largest district, closed their doors under order from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who also announced the mandatory closure of all bars and restaurants.
“Our lives are all changing in ways that were unimaginable just a week ago,” de Blasio said in a tweet.
On Broadway there were long lulls in traffic, where normally the cars are packed as densely as the pedestrians. There was so much space available, the sidewalks turned into playgrounds.
“I can do a barrel roll and a flip at the same time!” said Montague, 13. “Want to see?”
And, yet, New York City did not close.
Nor did Times Square. For a century, this strange square — which is not a square at all, but rather two awkward triangles meeting nose-to-nose — has served as New York City’s front yard, the place people go when they want to feel connected.
Even on Monday, as many city residents hunkered at home, and most tourists said they planned to catch the next flight out, Times Square continued its function as the city’s geographic and emotional heart.
“I promised my co-worker I’d take a selfie while eating a lobster roll in Times Square,” said Lauren Gillgan, 34, a photography teacher from Vancouver, Canada. “So here I am.”
The history of Times Square is rooted in the news business. By the second decade of the 20th century, hordes of people gathered often to learn the latest of battle reports from The Great War.
On Monday, the roles nearly reversed. By noon, only a few clumps of tourists stood at the northern corner of the space, called Duffy Square. They were nearly outnumbered by 13 professional journalists. Five different television crews all stood beside their expensive equipment, preparing to beam live videos of desolate New York City back to their home networks in England, Germany, Japan and Brazil.
“This is crazy, right?” Guy Siggers, a cameraman with Britain’s Sky TV, said of the turnout.
The news and crowds of Times Square also attract generations of showmen. For 20 years their ranks have included Robert Burk, better known to the tourist hordes as the Naked Cowboy. On Monday afternoon, Burk was found on parade, dressed in his usual attire: white cowboy boots, white cowboy hat, and a pair of skimpy white underwear. He strummed a guitar plastered with Trump campaign stickers.
Inside the guitar, tourists had stuffed quarters and dozens of loose bills, in denominations up to $10.
“I’m not out here to make money. I’m here to be a symbol for New York City and rock ’n roll,” said Burk, 49. “Coronavirus 2020. Get ’er done!”
Plenty of non-tourist New Yorkers were doing exactly that. Gene Talericu’s work as a taxi driver has all but disappeared due to the pandemic. So, on Monday, he took the day off to roam the city with his son Vicenzo, 6. They started with "a joywalk” around Central Park, Talericu said. Next, they planned to ride city buses all over Manhattan, a daylong tour for just $2.75, the price of a regular adult fare.
But, first, they stopped at Times Square.
“I try to avoid this area at all costs because it’s always jammed,” said Talericu, 61. “But now that it’s empty, I figured we should check it out.”
Juana Castillo lives in Brooklyn. On Monday, she dragged her 6-year-old daughter Krystal all over the city — to The Bronx, to the Target store on 34th Street and the K-Mart on Astor Place — looking for toilet paper.
They failed. Every store was sold out. As a reward for Krystal’s patience, Castillo brought her daughter to Times Square.
“I’m taking her to the M&M Store,” said Castillo, 38. “It’s been bitter days lately, so we’ll buy something sweet.”
Oh, but what about Times Square’s most famous people? What about the tourists?
Yes, there were tourists afoot on Monday, though every one of them expressed dismay at how few. Andie Byrne and her wife Lana Smith were visiting from Scotland. They’d started their trip in New Rochelle, New York, leaving just hours before the entire city closed due to a major coronavirus outbreak there.
In New York City, they attended the musical “Come From Away." The next day, all the Broadway theaters closed. On Thursday, they rode the elevator to the Top of the Rock, the observation deck at Rockefeller Center.
On Friday, it closed, too.
“It’s like we’re one step ahead of the zombie apocalypse,” said Byrne, 39. “It’s creepy.”
With so many businesses closed, Byrne and Smith planned to leave Times Square and proceed directly to John F. Kennedy International Airport, a few hours early for their flight home. They would be joined at the airport by Carla Ayles, who planned to fly home Monday night to Vancouver, Canada.
Before she left, Ayles was having trouble breathing. Her head felt funny, she said, and she was having trouble breathing. So, she entered the CVS pharmacy at the southern flank of Times Square, proceeded to the cold & flu section, and bought a box of nasal decongestant.
“I think it’s just my asthma,” said Ayles, 34. Either way, she planned to work from home the next two weeks. “I just want to make sure they let me back into Canada.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Chris_Maag