I’ve listened to Billy Joel sing “I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway” a thousand times, but I couldn’t picture it until I saw the lights go out at Cigarville. Cigarville is the first thing you notice when you look out the window of my apartment. When I first moved in, I remember my Dad saying sarcastically, “Look, you’re right across the street from Cigarville.” It’s not an especially useful store to have across the street given that I don’t smoke.
The storefront is an eye-catching addition to the north side of Fourteenth Street between Fifth and Sixth. Above the window is a large metallic sheet with “Cigarville Inc.” in bright red lettering. Below it in smaller red lettering are the address and phone number — there’s something quintessentially old New York about having a 212 number plastered to your awning — and next to it is a fairly detailed insignia that’s hard to make out from my window. At the front, there’s a display with a variety of boxes and other cigar-related trinkets.
From my couch you can even see inside the mahogany-drenched shop, a mostly empty interior lined on the sides and in the back with glass cases full of cigars. You can even make out the silhouette of the man behind the register. People don’t go in and out very often, which makes its presence in such prime real estate even more surprising, yet it feels like it has always been there.
I went inside once. I was walking down the block with some friends and we needed to pick up a pack of playing cards. We were debating where we could find one when we walked past Cigarville and I thought, huh, I wonder if they have playing cards. I had never been inside. We went in and I inquired. The man opened one of the glass cases and pulled out a shiny silver box that had cards inside. It was eighteen dollars — not quite what we were in the market for. We got the cards at Duane Reade instead. Cigarville was still not especially useful.
The most striking thing about Cigarville is that the lights are always on, even after the store closes. If I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, the light from Cigarville illuminates my living room. It’s always there, and even when it’s closed, it’s always on. Much like the city in which it resides, Cigarville does not sleep. It always watches over me.
It’s hard to imagine what a city shutting down looks like, particularly one like New York. At what point does it truly feel gone? Throughout this ordeal, I’ve maintained that the subway is the final step. If the subway gets shut down, New York is shut down, and it hasn’t yet. But then I saw the lights go out at Cigarville. Its significance in my life was miniscule, and yet somehow its absence felt unimaginable. How could New York feel so robust and so fragile at the same time?
The lights did not actually go completely out at Cigarville. The glass case in front is still illuminated — a small but ornate square on the left-hand side of the otherwise shadowy exterior. It’s like Cigarville still has one eye open. And even though fourteenth street is as barren as I’ve ever seen it and things will get worse before they get better, perhaps the whole city is keeping one eye open too.
Given that the world is in true crisis, I’m tempted to say that sometimes a Cigarville is just a Cigarville. I’m also fortunate to be in a position where I feel safe and secure enough that my fears still leave room for reflective sadness. But I’ve come to notice how precarious it all really is and how many things you don’t notice until they goes away, especially the insignificant ones. All that’s left to do is adapt and remain hopeful. I’ve seen the lights go out at Cigarville. But life goes on. It finds a way.