A Columbia grad student, new to the city, lost his lease. So he organized the perfect send-off.
On an otherwise quiet pandemic Sunday, the unmistakable songs of the Beatles started blaring from the roof of a building on the Upper West Side. The band was belting out faithful renditions from the 1969 rooftop concert in London — “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling” — and people stepped out onto their balconies and fire escapes to listen.
When the band finished, and Upper West Siders shut their windows and headed back into their apartments, a 28-year-old Columbia University physics grad student named Ben Markham stood on the roof savoring the moment with a joint and beer.
“I was worried the cops might come,” he said. “If John was watching, I hope he liked it.”
Mr. Markham moved to New York a year ago, and a week before he was forced to move out of his apartment, he’d found the cover band, the Meetles, on Craigslist, hiring them to play on his building’s rooftop. The show was Mr. Markham’s unusual way of saying goodbye to his first New York neighborhood.
In a few days, he would become one of the last tenants to vacate a small apartment building on West 74th Street that has been steadily emptying out since the pandemic began. Last month, his landlord didn’t renew his lease, because he’s apparently considering selling the building, according to Mr. Markham, and so he was getting the boot. (He stressed that his landlord worked with him to accommodate a smooth exit.) Mr. Markham decided to commemorate his first strange year in New York City with an absurdist send-off to himself.
But as Mr. Markham crushed more beers on his rooftop, he said that he was also just trying to make life in the city a little bit more interesting. He wanted to reclaim some of the crazy and colorful New York that was promised but stolen away by the pandemic.
“When I got here a year ago, I realized that what everyone says about New York is true,” said Mr. Markham. “The hype is real. It was like being on line for a roller coaster. You wait and wait and wait. And then it started raining really hard.”
The rain, so to speak, began with the first signs of lockdown, and one after the other, his roommates gradually all left to return home. Then it was just him and another guy in the building. Mr. Markham says he’s become only more resolved to stay here, and he’s now convinced of his destiny to become a New Yorker.
“They all went back to mommy and daddy,” he said. “But New York is my home now. The pandemic won’t stop me. I think I’ve maybe always been a New Yorker, I just had to get here first.”
Mr. Markham, who is from Jupiter, Fla., arrived in Manhattan last August after serving in the Navy as a nuclear submarine officer aboard the U.S.S. Pasadena in San Diego. He’d been accepted into Columbia University’s engineering school, and soon after getting here, he immersed himself in the city’s colorful tumult.
By spring, Mr. Markham was smitten with New York, seeing a kind of mathematical poetry in it. “Physics is beautiful because it is unpredictable and random,” he said. “I see that same beautiful chaos in New York.”
Then, the pandemic gripped the city, and the New York he was getting intimate with became bleak and barren overnight.
Couches got tossed on his street as people moved out. On Tinder, conversations ended swiftly: “I’d try to meet up and they’d say, ‘Oh, I’m with my parents in Connecticut. I’ll be here until it settles down.’ I’d reply: ‘Uh, OK. Talk soon then, I guess.’” Soon, Mr. Markham felt like he had been left alone on a ghostly Upper West Side.
To his surprise, he began appreciating the city anew. At night, he biked through the empty canyons of Midtown. He set up a projector on his roof and watched “Yellow Submarine” on the wall of the building next door. One day, he walked into a nice neighborhood he’d never visited before, and discovered it had its own private garden.
“It’s called Gramercy Park,” he said. “They have this special little garden just to themselves. You need a key to get in, right? No, you don’t. You just need a pair of legs and to be able to jump a fence. And guess what? It’s just like any other park.”
“Now everything is strange, but I like strange,” he added. “I’m learning more about the city now than I was before.”
And then there’s his Beatles obsession.
Mr. Markham has had a morning ritual: a quarantine sanity stroll from his apartment to the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park, where he’d sit on a bench and strum Beatles songs on his guitar. Sometimes, he’d stand outside the Dakota and its flickering gas lanterns, and wonder what Lennon’s life was like in New York. Once, he said, he played the riff to “Day Tripper” on the very spot Lennon was murdered.
“I’ve been a Beatles fan my whole life,” he said. “I didn’t even realize the Dakota was a couple blocks from me until after I moved in. The fact that John died near me, and I had the opportunity to pay homage to him in some way, with everything going on, it just made sense.”
Well, it made sense to Mr. Markham, anyway.
At the rooftop concert, he invited a friend he made in the neighborhood, Richard Wooley, 55, to watch the “Let It Be” show with him. Mr. Wooley considered the newcomer’s choice to commit to New York.
“Does anyone get the New York they are promised?” Mr. Wooley asked. “I praise people like Ben who have stuck it out, because this is how New York will survive. He just got here, but maybe people like him are the real New Yorkers.”
Last week, Mr. Markham finally settled into his new apartment, a sublet in the East Village he’s sharing with three roommates. Tompkins Square Park is just down the block and he’s already become fond of its resident musicians and eccentrics and he said that the neighborhood has better bars than the Upper West Side.
As it happens, August will mark Mr. Markham’s first full year in New York.
“I think I’m still standing on line for that roller coaster,” he said. “It’s still raining and I’m waiting for the next chapter. But the wait has been beautiful in its own way, even in the rain.”