When New York shut down this spring, Joe Harmer set his sights on a hobby.
He got a kayak. He bought a camera. He purchased a tablet-style computer on which to sketch. He even ordered a guitar.
But as the pandemic drags into its seventh month, all of the items are basically gathering dust save for the new musical instrument.
“I was facing extreme isolation, and I didn’t want to have all that time and waste it,” said Mr. Harmer, 42, who works in sales for a tech company and splits his time between Brooklyn and Montauk. “But nothing really stuck.”
As pandemic restrictions have slowly lifted, and the city tries to recapture its pre-Covid former self, many New Yorkers are taking stock of how they have spent much of 2020.
For essential workers and many people who have been able to work from home, the days and weeks have passed like a blur. For others, who have been fortunate enough to not be struggling financially, emptier days led to helping out at food banks, working phone banks for political campaigns, demonstrating for racial justice, or if they have children, a crash course on home schooling. And for everyone, lockdowns have been about extra stress and being stuck around the house.
Some now realize that grand plans laid in March — to bake bread, sew masks, paint walls, read books, write songs, or grow tomatoes — somehow have not quite come to pass.
“Time has seemed to be on this slipstream, where things are either moving very fast or very slowly, but nothing is really getting done,” said Anthony Bozza, 49, an author who has written books about AC/DC, Eminem and other musical acts. “It’s been hard.”
In mid-March, after the closure of restaurants, bars, art museums, basketball arenas, concert halls, art galleries and gyms, Mr. Bozza, like others who were able to continue working from home, initially felt blessed with loads of free time.
Bucket-list ideas suddenly seemed possible, like watching every “Star Wars” movie in chronological order, said Mr. Bozza, who shares a Williamsburg loft with a Pomeranian-Pit bull mixed-breed dog.
He also planned to finally plow through a stack of musical biographies sitting next to his bed. But as spring slogged on, Mr. Bozza, who could no longer rely on takeout, found himself cooking three meals a day, which sucked up huge chunks of time.
As a result, stories about the Smiths, Bauhaus and Jay-Z remain untouched. “After a while the things that you don’t do start mocking you,” he said, “so I put the books away.”
But those who quit their quarantine dreams should not succumb to regret, as even in normal times, to-do lists can be futile, according to Timothy Pychyl, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa who has written books dealing with procrastination. “You can’t really motivate yourself that way,” he said.
“When we all of a sudden have more time, we sort of wrongly assume that it will solve the problem of fulfilling our desires. But it really isn’t an issue of time at all,” Mr. Pychyl said. “We never had firm intentions before. They are just desires, like to fix up the basement or lose some weight. Had they been intentions, we would have been doing them a long time ago.”
Of course, the pandemic, which as of late September had claimed 200,000 lives in the United States, nearly 24,000 of them in New York City, has hardly been an ordinary time to pursue a self-betterment agenda. The lack of a vaccine, steep job losses and major business closures have created a grim tableau against which to tackle any goals.
Indeed, the inability to follow through on plans, or even carve out time for them in the first place, stems in part from off-the-charts levels of anxiety, said Dr. Charles R. Marmar, the chair of psychiatry at N.Y.U. Langone Health.
Cabin fever has in many instances morphed into depression, and in some extreme cases, post-traumatic stress disorder, especially for those who have lost friends or family members, or battled the coronavirus themselves, said Dr. Marmar, who was himself sickened by the virus.
And PTSD can greatly interfere with concentration, making it almost impossible to retain information and learn, he said. On top of that, some cooped-up New Yorkers might not have anticipated the duration and severity of the crisis.
“It was completely reasonable in March to think, ‘I’m going to make lemonade from lemons. I’m going to be locked down for a month or two here, so I will treat it as a mini-vacation. I will read every volume of “Harry Potter” because I have never had the time to read all eight volumes of “Harry Potter,” and by the time I have read all eight volumes, I will be back to dancing at Lincoln Center.”
“Well, maybe that will happen in 2022,” said Dr. Marmar, who added, “there is no question that prolonged self-quarantine has been very difficult.”
For Mr. Harmer, the guitarist, learning an instrument has been a smooth fit with his quarantine, which has been spent at his mobile home in Montauk. Twice a week, he has logged on for lessons with Manhattan-based Rivington Guitars and now has a decent rendition of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” to show for it.
“It’s not like I was looking to be a kayaker my whole life, so that didn’t stick,” said Mr. Harmer, who added that a sister tried her hand at baking sourdough bread before being overwhelmed with family duties. “Bread-baking and things like that are more fads.”
But playing guitar, which he also tried years ago, he said, was more destined to become a pastime.
Melodies have not come easy for everybody. Dava Nasr, a professional musician whose credits include a heavy metal band, Star & Dagger, has felt comparatively blocked.
Envisioning days curled up in her Lower East Side co-op writing songs with a Gibson guitar and a glass of whiskey, Ms. Nasr, 60, instead found herself consumed by concerns about the pandemic. Also shunted aside were plans to learn Greek. “I didn’t meet the demand I had in my head,” she said.
Panicked over possible food shortages, Ms. Nasr, a vegan, then tried to become an at-home gardener, though the presence of bugs on her vegetable plants almost spelled the end of those plans, too.
“I saw these yellow ladybugs and I thought, ‘Wow they’re so cute,’ and then I looked them up, and I thought, ‘Oh no! Those are cucumber beetles,’ ” Ms. Nasr said, adding that horned caterpillars were “one of the most of horrifying things I have ever seen.”
Frantic three-times-a-week calls to her coach, East Harlem’s Urban Garden Center, helped solve many crises, she said. And in fact, her crops, including kale, broccoli and squash, eventually outgrew their pots and were transferred to the roof.
“But it was still an “Alice in Wonderland” journey that was not always pleasant,” Ms. Nasr said. “And frankly, gardening is still really not me.”
Also eyeing a new language was Antonio Kallo, 19, a student at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn, who was stuck in a Bay Ridge rental after March. But his efforts to learn Chinese didn’t get far.
“I felt like everything around me was going in completely different directions,” Mr. Kallo said. “New York got hit, then all you would see on social media was fights about masks, crazy things about hoaxes created by the government. Seeing all that and trying to focus in on one thing was just too hard.”
His months inside, though, haven’t been totally unproductive. With help from his parents, Mr. Kallo bought a sewing machine, a trendy stay-at-home appliance.
Indeed, Sewmark Sewing Machines, a store in the garment district, sold three times more machines this spring than a year earlier. Karen Lozner, 51, the founder of the Karen School of Fashion, noticed in March that fueled by fears of a shortage of masks, people began signing up to learn how to make them. And some, like Mr. Kallo, she said, “are staying with it. While they’re not working, they figure it might be nice to learn how to fix their pants.”
Or maybe, to expand their waistband for the extra “quarantine 15” pounds that some have packed on despite early stabs at exercise.
In April, interest for yoga classes surged, with about a third of sign-ups being first-timers, said Tori Milner, 48, an instructor at the Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York, which went online after closing its Manhattan and Brooklyn studios.
But by May, there were fewer people stretching in front of their webcams. “I think there is such a thing as Zoom fatigue,” Ms. Milner said. “We’ve been Zooming everything: work and family and kids’ schooling, which is I think why we’ve seen a leveling out over time.”
In addition, if families have just a couple laptops, it might be hard to grab one to perform a downward-facing dog, said Teri Gandy-Richardson, the owner of Park Slope Yoga Center, which is offering 24 classes, down from 30 at the beginning of the pandemic.
Besides, “the intensity of having everybody functioning in the same time in a small apartment space, it’s very distracting, and a lot to work around,” said Ms. Gandy-Richardson, who in addition to squeezing a yoga broadcast studio into the bedroom of her Flatbush apartment, has also been sharing the unit with her partner and his 18-year-old son.
Ms. Gandy-Richardson, an artist who works with denim, has had almost no bandwidth for her own projects. “Time has become a really mushy, liquidy thing,” she said. “Things that took a couple of hours then started taking a day or two, and all of a sudden, a week or two was passing by at a clip.”
Along the same lines, Andrew Crooks, the president of the bike store NYC Velo and an avid cyclist, typically logs about 2,000 miles from January to August. But in the pandemic, he managed only 200 miles in the same time frame.
Helping his children, ages 7 and 9, with remote learning and caring for them over the summer took up much more time than expected, said Mr. Crooks, a Brooklyn resident. His wife has been at work as a school supervisor, but as a store owner, he has been able to work from home.
Being unable to indulge his cycling passion “has been a disappointment,” he said. But “it’s far more important for me to take care of my family and ensure that my employees are healthy.”
Other cyclists might also have changed their priorities. When the pandemic began, Mr. Crooks’ stores saw a spike in customers, at least among those who ride for fun. But by May, far fewer riders came through the door.
Still, once the pandemic eases its grip, he expects some would-be hobbyists to come back. “At the end of all this,” Mr. Crooks said, “I think there will be more bikes around than ever before.”