The denizens of this city of ordinarily high-decibel levels kick them up an ample notch at this hour for the doctors and nurses and technicians and administrators and custodians of the beleaguered ICUs and ERs. The new urban ritual, which is catching on in other cities, coincides with the shift break of hospital staffs, when medical workers emerge from the covid-19 war zone into the open air, to go home for a spell or smoke or eat or otherwise decompress.
I dashed out of our apartment Sunday night just before 7 to buy groceries, and as I made my way down Pearl Street to the market, this surround-sound expression of support and gratitude engulfed me. The Financial District in Lower Manhattan is not the most densely populated part of town, and yet the usually silent dusk of early spring in the streets around the Stock Exchange was alive with noise. I couldn’t tell exactly where the cacophony was coming from: It seemed as if it was everywhere at once. There’s a major hospital — New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan — on William Street, a few blocks from where I was standing. So perhaps the applause was ecstatic neighborhood reverb, off low-rise storefronts and the offices of the New York Fed and the skyscrapers that were turned into apartments after the financial crisis of 2008.
The moment blew through me like a warm wind. “I hear America singing,” the Brooklyn poet Walt Whitman once wrote. On this night, I heard New York cheering.
It was reminiscent of — of all things — a scene in “Seussical,” the musical based on the books of Dr. Seuss. (You may know the interlude from its classic source material, Seuss’s “Horton Hears a Who.”) The Whos, citizens of a microscopic world that exists on a speck of dust, are in need of help from Horton the Elephant, and they figure out that the way to be heard is to yell in unison at the top of their lungs: “We are here! We are here!” So they do, and they are saved, by a creature with a heart as big as, well, an elephant.
TV news crews, celebrities such as Amy Schumer and ordinary people with their cellphones at the ready are all recording these audible spasms of approval. New York firefighters were filmed the other day, lining up and clapping outside city hospitals — including Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, one of the hardest hit. But as with all demonstrations of this kind, there is no equivalent to the firsthand immersion, of lingering on a corner and taking in the full force of the banging, the clapping, the roar of the crowd.
Bringing one’s hands together to make noise is, you won’t be surprised to hear, not a modern invention. In the Atlantic several years ago, Megan Garber began a fascinating article on the subject by citing the seventh-century Roman emperor Heraclius, whose army was depleted but still needed to impress an enemy leader with his strength. Before their meeting, he recruited extra men not to fight in the presence of his adversary, but to clap.
“Applause, in the ancient world, was acclamation,” Garber wrote. “But it was also communication. It was, in its way, power. It was a way for frail little humans to recreate, through hands made ‘thunderous,’ the rumbles and smashes of nature.”
Shouting from the rooftops, too, is often depicted in contemporary culture as a release from isolation and impotence. Think of Howard Beale in “Network,” exhorting the agitated viewers of his apocalyptic nightly newscast to go to their windows and shriek into the ether: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
The tumultuous reception accorded the hospital workers, though, is no cry of despair. It is an impromptu curtain call, of multitudinous thank-yous, from a vast audience rooting for everyday heroes. It’s New Yorkers joining in a chorus, singing out in solidarity: “We are here.”