The streets are empty
No one’s there
I stare — is it true?
Just yesterday, people streamed everywhere, high pitched
humming currents of worry, rushing chunks of ice colliding
The streets are empty
No one’s there
I stare — is it true?
Broadway goes dark, no money back
A cab driver shouts: Don’t touch the money, please
no tip
The puppy startles, a garbage can clatters
But no one’s there
I stare — is it true?
Just last night, people waited in line
at the ice cream store, a cute young server sneezed
Nobody blinked, not a pause for these fast-talking New Yorkers:
            I said two scoops of chocolate mousse.
That shop is dark now, night fell so fast, no one’s talking now
I stare — is it true?
The streets are empty.

I wait, staring, while our city shuts down. Fear fills the cracks in the sidewalks. The streets are empty.

And then I flee.


In her new book Weather, Jenny Offill’s narrator Lizzie talks about how it was after 9/11. In stores, in restaurants, on the subway. She meets a friend for coffee at a diner. Her friend’s family had fled Iran after the Shah fell in 1979 and Lizzie wants to know how it was for them. The friend doesn’t want to talk about it. Finally, he does:

Your people, he says, have fallen into history. The rest of us are already here.


In the spring of 2015, I visited the Greek island of Lesbos. It was the very beginning — an accident of history, that I was there — a vast river of Syrian refugees was coursing, hurtling through Turkey to reach the sea, the coast our eyes could reach on a calm day. An older Greek man, the owner of a café in Molyvos, approached the table where we sat over coffee. Morning light glinted on the harbor.

Have you been to the beach yet?
No, not yet, maybe still too cold for us, we’re from New York.
No, no, no, he interrupted. Not for swimming. Just go, you must go, go early, go at sunrise.

The sun was up, not yet strong enough to cast a shadow. The yellow lifejackets at the edge of the sand were tossed like limbs on the beach after a storm, yellow markers of the men and women and children, so many children. They poured over the sides of the rubber dinghies, pushed through the choppy gray water — into the arms of the waiting Greeks, the people of Lesbos.

Another day we rode with a driver in his taxi, one gorgeous ancient town to another.

Have you visited Mytilene? That’s the big town on our island.
No, not yet, we said.
I will take you there now. You must see it.

You must see the people, he continued. They’re walking, they’re coming to us — in their country, there is nothing but war. There is nothing for them but to flee. Last week I drove to Mytilene, he paused to smile, my wife sends me there every week for the shopping, we have many children, and then when I was coming home the line walking at the side of the road was so long, the sun was strong and there were many children. I had to stop the car. I got out, I opened the trunk, and I gave them everything: meat, milk, everything my wife wanted, he said, his face lit by his smile. I am Greek, he said, I had to do it.

The rubber boats are no longer crossing from Turkey. The few that try are pushed back by Greek authorities; patrol boats circle the dinghies, spewing a cold Aegean wake that can capsize the small boats. I can only imagine the café owner and his friends, and the taxi driver: angry. Their lovely island despoiled. Their livelihood, visitors like me, erased. The people who were fleeing are now held on Lesbos, some have been there for years. They live in squalid, violent encampments where they have nothing.

In 2020, refugees flee on land. Men and women and children, so many children, manage despite everything to reach the border in the north. There, the New York Times tells me, Greece is rounding them up, shuttling them away in trucks, transporting them to “secret” camps. That’s what the newspaper called them, secret. Perhaps they mean hidden? It is hard to hide the fleeing. People fleeing cannot be a secret.


I stared.
The streets of my city were empty.
It was true.
No one was there.

That was it. It had begun. I was fleeing the riches of life, my one life, my history in the world’s greatest city. Have I ever once in my long life, my endless good fortune, said the word flee when speaking of myself?
But the streets were empty.
And then I fled.


I think of the two friends who talked together in a diner in NYC after 9/11. I hear the words of the Iranian, speaking to the American:

Your people have fallen into history. The rest of us are already here.

Nancy Barnes is a writer and anthropologist who divides her time between NYC and Northampton, Massachusetts.