NEW YORK (Reuters) - An otherworldly quiet descended over the streets of Manhattan on Saturday as a muffling blanket of snow and a complete ban on private vehicles transformed a city renowned for its bustle and horn-blaring traffic into a tranquil pedestrian mall.
As a blizzard that seemed destined for the record books intensified, officials closed all bridges and tunnels into New York and banned all but emergency vehicles from its roads. Soon the city emptied of traffic except for a few straggling taxis and a trickle of drivers who defied the order.
The void was quickly filled as tourists bundled against the driving snow and wandered through intersections, taking selfies on their smartphones, making snow angels in the snow drifts of Times Square and huddling in coffee shops to warm themselves.
“I’m never leaving,” a little girl playing in a snowbank in Times Square exclaimed.
Residents took to the streets as well, many of them venturing into the white expanses of Central Park to build snowmen or indulge in good-natured snowball fights.
Except for the chatter of the merry-makers, the primary sounds of the streets were snow shovels striking pavement, the occasional police car siren and the hum of snow blowers.
A young man, wearing pants, shoes and nothing else, got cheers from the crowd in Times Square as he rode a bicycle down Seventh Avenue, holding a selfie stick to record his ride.
Saeed Naseer, a 51-year-old taxi driver who hails from Yemen, was one of the few people still behind the wheel.
“I heard the news,” he said, when asked if he knew that cars were forbidden from driving. “I’m coming from Brooklyn. I’m on my way home.”
The insistent snow and wind obscured much of the winter light, turning the streets an eerie blue as the sun set.
As Naseer drove down the street, he was forced to make way for Ahmed Mahrous, 58, whose halal food pushcart was stuck in the middle of the road, mired in snow.
“I take the cart back again to its garage,” said Mahrous, who comes from Egypt. With the help of a colleague and a reporter, he eventually was able to put it back.
At the nearby Port Authority bus terminal, stranded passengers and homeless people huddled in the complex’s south wing, either dozing or waiting for buses that probably were canceled. One man smoked a joint as he watched the snow twirl in the wind outside, while a clutch of men sipped from bottles wrapped in paper bags.
At Penn Station, the Amtrak departure board displayed 11 “canceled” notices for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains. One of the few listed as “on time” was going to Washington - the capital that was also paralyzed by the blizzard.
“That’s why we chose to the train instead of flying,” said Tiffany Mangal, 29. She and her husband Jed Mangal, 29, both physicians, were in New York to attend a funeral that was eventually postponed because of the snow, they said.
Nancy Brincat and her husband Vinnie encountered a similar problem. They came to Manhattan from the borough of Queens to see the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” but it was canceled.
When they walked to Penn Station from the theater district, they found that the Long Island Rail Road had canceled all but one of its trains. They said they would try their luck on the subway system.
“We had a bad day,” said Nancy Brincat, who celebrates her 61st birthday on Sunday.
Out on Seventh Avenue, a normally busy street, a reporter was able to walk the half mile north to Times Square from Penn Station without once having to move to the sidewalk.
Michael Paul Alexander, 50, a homeless man in the station, said he plans to walk around and look for a job shoveling snow.
“I love the snow because I’m a native New Yorker,” he said.
Additional reporting by Conway Gittens in New York; editing by Frank McGurty and Grant McCool