A June of Pandemic and Protest

A cop murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis and a firestorm of protests spread across the world. By mid-June, calls to Defund and Abolish the police were echoing fiercely across the United States. As the New York City Council began to head toward its annual budget vote, protestors occupied City Hall Park plaza. Thus began a week-long vigil to remind the Mayor and the Council that budget cuts to respond to the COVID crisis should include a billion dollar cut to the NYPD.

The Mayor offered nothing substantial in his budget and the police attacked peaceful protestors the morning of the vote but people still stayed put.

‘Twas the summer of our discontent.

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What Happened in May?

The month that is supposed to be merry proved to be a mixed bag, to say the least.

As spring finally pushed its way through, with flowers budding everywhere, COVID numbers started a very gentle decline in the city.

While many stayed home and kept ordering packages, others began to venture out more frequently:

The city added more pedestrian spaces to the Open Streets program, allowing residents to walk around outside after two+ months of being home for much of the day.

As the days got warmer, I biked out from the neighborhood to the World’s Fair Marina by Flushing Bay, passing fellow Queens walkers and anglers along the way.

The renovation of LaGuardia Airport was visible from the footbridge that crosses Grand Central Parkway near the bike path by the bay. Construction would presumably restart when the PAUSE lifted.

On my walks and rides, I passed signs and graffiti (charmingly misspelled) that served as reminders that the winter of COVID was far from over.

Other glimpses of the city’s resilience showed in the continuing work of volunteers, such as at State Senator Ramos’s office, where groceries are collected and distributed each weekend, and the new strategies adopted by bars and restaurants.

As things appeared to be getting better, however, we were brutally reminded that they have never been good for some in our community and that a state–sponsored public health crisis continues with or without a pandemic for BIPOC.

And a movement surged outward from the center of the country in all directions.

The centuries-long winter of discontent was turning into a conflagration of demands for justice.

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April Is for Assistance

Tree in bloom

As April crept forward, many joined together to help their neighborhoods stay fed and safe. This is an incomplete record of the ones that I encountered in my work as a volunteer and as a New Yorker:

Invisible Hands: a grassroots effort that coordinated requests for groceries largely through Slack. It focused on shopping for folks who couldn’t step outside their homes as well as subsidizing items for folks who were unable to buy their own.

Volunteer delivering groceries

Queens Mutual Aid Network: A sub-group of a larger city-wide Mutual Aid group, which also responded to requests for food and everyday items from neighbors in need. It functioned largely via Whatsapp.

Grocery bags inside an apartment foyer

Centro: An advocacy group based in Corona that was trying to directly support several families in this hard-hit area.

DRUM: A South Asian advocacy group helping low-wages immigrants that was fundraising both to support locals in need and to build leadership for the future.

QueensFeedsHospitals/Frontlinefoodsnyc: A group that coordinated meal deliveries to our hospitals to show our love and support to first-responders while also keeping some local restaurants going.

Qns_Together: An initiative to feed our community, including those facing housing insecurity, by delivering meals donated by restaurants.

Queens Neighborhoods United: A local advocacy and anti-gentrification organization that coordinated the GoFundMe campaigns for neighbor families who had lost members to COVID.

Street Vendor Project: A street vendor advocacy group that amplified their demand to get the same assistance as other entities in a financial relief bill during the pandemic.

Spring flowers and a lawn-ornament duck

These are only a few of the groups that kept the fight against the ravages of the pandemic going, through sheer goodwill and the ability to elicit the best in their members.

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April

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

–I. Burial of the Dead, The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot (1922)

A hundred years ago, there was another pandemic that unleashed havoc across the world. Millions were lost and maps, geographic and psychological, were redrawn. Facing a new pandemic in 2020, we try to make sense of our changed lives, of our hollow ambitions, of our former aspirations, and for too many people, of empty wallets and stomachs.

In New York, the hospitalizations and deaths rose and rose in the first two weeks of April, even as hospital workers and EMTs wedged their shoulders against the juggernaut and pushed back. The city lost over 50 staff from the still-operating transportation system.

While Great Leader gave increasingly bizarre press conferences, state and local administration fought for equipment, and every organization that is trying to distribute food and money to those left out in the cold strained each sinew to help. Restaurants shut down, only to open to feed front-line staff as commissary kitchens, designers and factories churned out masks and gowns, and medical teams and life-saving tech from across the world arrived in New York to help us hold the line.

And people lost jobs. Many, many people. Some were fired, some were furloughed. Some were told kindly, others in abrupt 3-minute calls. Lines for food stretched around the block in many distribution locations, including in the hardest hit neighborhood, Corona, a grim irony.

Our morgues filled up and our medical examiner’s office worked around the clock as bodies arrived in refrigerated trucks and vans from across the boroughs. Our funeral home workers tried desperately to provide dignity to our fellow citizens though the basements of their establishments could no longer accommodate more of them. And the city hired workers to dig trenches to bury our dead on Hart’s Island.

But we raised funds, we delivered groceries, we protected children, we made our feelings known.

We fought, we fought, we fought.

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Socially Distanced

As spring peeked out,

the city announced that it would be enforcing social distancing rules and handing out fines for groups that were still congregating after March 23. Non-essential businesses started to shut down

and all non-essential employees were required to work from home (which might explain why my neighbors ordered a copier from the internet)

By the end of March, much of New York had begun to withdraw into its shell, like a tortoise. (But there were still hoards that decided to go gape at the USNS Comfort as it drew into NY harbor on the 30th.)

In the Little India micro-neighborhood, even grocery stores like Patels, which had been allowing only a few customers in at a time, shut down. Apna Bazaar, one of the few South Asian groceries that stayed open, began to see lines form outside.

Indian shoppers appeared to revert back to the balaclavas that are a common sight in Indian “winters”.

My neighborhood Chinese take-out restaurant was no longer answering the phone, leading me to assume that they had shut down as well. The knell for the mom-and-pop store, including restaurants, was starting to sound, drowned out only by the sirens of ambulances and firetrucks as they tore down to and away from Elmhurst hospital.

But the businesses that stayed open tried to stay positive, reflecting the city’s indomitable spirit.

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Entering Pause

The week after my return, I ventured to a couple of neighboring stores for fruit and chapatis, and took short walks. Gyms and other large gathering spaces had been shut down fairly early, and since I’m a reluctant but devoted gym-goer, I was both relieved and resigned to gaining the quarantine-15.

A friend suggested getting basic cough/cold meds, so I skedaddled to my closest pharmacy again and grabbed the generics, plus some zinc, since it allegedly reduces the severity of colds. The cashier and I cracked jokes (from a safe distance) about why people kept buying toilet paper.

A hunt for an oxi-meter took me a bit further away to 37th avenue, another purchase meant to provide some semblance of control in uncontrollable times. Stores and restaurants along this stretch, the commercial spine of Jackson Heights and Corona (the neighborhood!) were still open then, and had the manic energy of the holiday season. A friend and I dropped into our local sushi place for lunch, but we were the only patrons.

A few days later, on March 16, restaurants were ordered to stop dine-in service and limited to pick-up or delivery. Liquor laws were altered to allow people to take alcohol off restaurant premises. The following day, I got an email from the take-out location of Pio Pio, a Peruvian brasa spot, asking for customers to order food. Apart from loving their chicken and green sauce, I was worried about these businesses surviving and promptly asked to pick some up. At this point, the ethical question of whether pick-up or delivery is better was still undecided and I opted to get the food myself.

The take-out location was deserted except for determinedly cheerful employees and me; its massive sit-down cousin across Northern Boulevard was shuttered. (About three days later, my attempt to order take-out from there for a friend failed; their online and phone line seemed shut.) Several places posted make-shift flyers on their doors or used sandwich boards to let customers know if they were doing pick-up or delivery.

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We all paused for breath.

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New York Pre-Pause

It feels strange to resume a blog about a city you can only see from your window, whether actual or virtual. As New York began reporting cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, I was preparing to fly back to it from Argentina, which had just started reporting its own cases.

The flight landed at JFK (partly full and with passengers taking selfies of their masked faces) and passengers cleared security quickly. Then I found myself twiddling my thumbs on the Airtrain platform for 30 minutes while they “cleared debris at Federal Circle”—whatever that means. People were crowded together and no one was exercising any particular precautions. (This was early March.) I pulled on some latex gloves and then proceeded to immediately rip one while unzipping a bag or a jacket or something, since they were too big. #GloveFail.

Transferring to the subway at Jamaica was quick, but even at 9:15 in the morning, it was full—standing room only. Again, no visible precautions from my fellow riders, though the car seem to have been freshly washed—at least I hope that was why the floor was wet. At the Jackson Heights stop, I walked upstairs to the bus terminal and finally got one after a 15 minute wait. There was a line of people waiting to get on and while the bus was not crowded, we were closer than 6 feet to each other.

Shortly after getting home, I walked around my neighborhood, with a stop at a Szechuan restaurant for lunch (plus take-out), a pharmacy, as well as a grocery store for staples. The restaurant was empty so I had the whole place to myself as I plowed through fish with peppercorn and sour cabbage.

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and then toted home some mapo tofu and spicy chicken. Just to be clear–this is normal rather than pandemic-buying for me.

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On the way home, I saw a pharmacy selling masks and picked up a couple, though their efficacy is doubtful.

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The grocery store was full, but the shelves were stocked and there were minimal indications of panic-shopping. (I did overdo it, but not by buying 20 packages of toilet paper—just a new bottle of laundry detergent, an unnecessary purchase since I would be staying home alone and barely doing any laundry in the foreseeable future.)

At that point (around March 11), schools and offices were still open and it was largely life as usual, though the news out of Italy was worsening and the world market had tanked once already. You could feel people preparing to batten down the hatches for the upcoming storm.

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Thanks

Things to be thankful for in NYC this year:

The NYC metro: we whine about it, but it is a warhorse.

Subway ads: every physical and mental health issue, god, consumer good, politician, cultural trend, and fad filters through those cars. Free entertainment.

Food options: every cuisine in the world, a lot of it in the $2-10 range.

Online delivery: Even without Prime, items can arrive in under 48 hours. (There’s probably some horrific reason for that, but this is a thanksgiving list.)

Public libraries: I have access to two: NYPL and Queens. Libraries rule.

Clean water: running water that is potable and available 24/7 is a public works miracle that relatively few people in the world get to experience.

Sidewalks: if you can, they will let you walk. No car-only culture.

Museums and public art: I was at a stunning exhibit at the El Museo del Barrio by late Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón and am looking forward to walking past and through the many Ai Wei Wei pieces all around the city. And there’s the Holiday train show at the Grand Central shuttle passage.

Meaningful work: employment at a college in a unionized public university founded on the principle of open access and educating New Yorkers from all over the world.

Friends and family who share the values of doing good, even if in tiny bits at a time.

Parents: gone, but ever-present guiding lights.

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Icarus, the Sequel: Baggage Interruptus

[Recap of Icarus: I try to fly across the Atlantic on Saturday night and fail.]

Sunday

9:00 Check in for my re-booked flight, scheduled to depart at 5:00 p.m. Call the car service and book a car for 2:45, since I just need to go through security, not bag drop-off or check-in. (No TSA pre-check speediness this time though—that’s only on American carriers somehow.)

10:00: Call American Airlines just to make sure my bag was correctly transferred to Iberia. The staffer says that as far as he can tell, they were not. They are to be sent on the same American flight that was cancelled last night. I sigh, but since that flight departs at 7 p.m., and will arrive in Madrid two hours later than my Iberia flight, I can wait for it. Except. Because there’s always an except—staffer says that if I don’t board the flight the bag is supposed to go on, they will unload it. So I’ll be waiting in Madrid while my bag sits forlornly at JFK. My bag with the clothes I need for the conference I’m attending. He suggests I recall it. He’ll ask the baggage handlers to bring it to the baggage claim office, where I can pick it up and re-check it to Iberia. Okay. He promises to call me when he’s located the bag.

10:15: Miracles. He actually calls. (Always a surprise in any context). Says the baggage  people (elves?) have found it and will bring it to his office. I can pick it up there. I send him some secular version of blessings.

11:15: Paranoia has taught me to confirm everything now so I call the office again to make sure someone can physically verify that the bag is there. New staffer. She checks the room and says, no, it’s not here. Says she’ll look for it.

11:30: I call again. Staffer says the bag is still tagged to leave on the American flight. She sees nothing about it being re-tagged and transferred to Iberia or of a request to pull it and bring it to their office. I tell her I spoke to her colleague. We figure out who he is and I ask to speak to him. Would that it were that simple. His shift ended, so he’s gone. She says she’ll put in the same request.

12:00 Pack a few more clothes, something I already regret but can’t avoid doing in case my bag is lost.

12:30: Send a fax to American asking for reimbursement for the Madrid hotel fine I had to pay for being a no-show.

1:00 Eat lunch, shower, find and book another Madrid hotel. Print out new booking.

2:00 Suddenly realize that if I have to retrieve the bag, I need extra time at the airport because the Iberia flight leaves from a different terminal than American. I call the car service and ask if they’ll send the car at 2:30, 15 minutes earlier than requested. The dispatcher sounds deeply skeptical about this happening but makes assenting hmm noises.

2:25: Call the baggage people. Still nothing.

2:45 Wait for car. Call car service. Get the same line as the previous night so drop the request and get a taxi instead.

2:45-3:35: Loooong cab ride. Get stuck in stop-and-go traffic on the freeway. Cabbie insists I must have Bangla ancestry. I explain that I don’t. I don’t explain that no one “looks Bangla”. We talk about hardworking Bangla immigrants, politics in India, Bangladesh, and the U.S., and his kid going to Bronx Science (good work!) I call baggage claim again. Nada. Dropped off at Terminal 8. ($50 extra on top of the hotel $100 I’ve already lost).

3:45: Skuttle to baggage claim office. Staffer re-routes me to another back office. Through the half door, my bag is the first thing I see. Bless Rick Steves and that weird purple colored canvas suitcase/backpack combo he sells. Then I see it’s tagged for Iberia. Huh. Suppress sudden font of rage. Staffer has her back to me and continues talking on the phone. I wait for a moment but finally interrupt and just ask for my bag. She looks exasperated but comes over and gives it to me. Tells me, “look, it was already tagged for Iberia”. I take a deep breath and softly say, yes, but none of your colleagues said that when I called repeatedly today.

3:50 Dash for the Airtrain on the upper level and jump on one just as it’s leaving. Fortunately (for once!) it’s one going counter-clockwise, so the Iberia terminal is the next stop. I run to Iberia’s counter. Hand over bag to check in against all my instincts. Staffer can’t understand my rebooked and return ticket. Consults a colleague several times as I watch the clock. Reviews my visa again. Finally prints out new bag tags and takes the bag. Tells me boarding starts at 4:10.

4:00: Go through security, which moves blessedly fast.

4:10: Stuff Ziploc with liquids and laptop back into carry-on, slip shoes back on feet, and dash for gate.

4:15:  Indications that the flight is on time but not boarding right away.

4:20: Try to call Madrid hotel to arrange for shuttle pick up from airport the next morning. Call won’t go through. Text friends to ask them to call. Message the hotel via facebook and the hotel booking page. Suddenly hear my zone being called to board. Gather assorted belongings and rush to gate. Become one of the jerks cutting in line.

4:20-6:00 Sit on tarmac because the line to taxi and take-off is long. Figures. Welcome to flight in the 21st century. We’re working on it.

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Icarus

One of the greatest triumphs and failures of modern civilization might be airline travel. As a comedian has argued, it is a miracle and we should stop whining if there are some kinks. But on the other hand, it can make you crazy because you’ve been led to believe it is possible and the refutation of that promise feels like utter betrayal.

Increasingly,  it is hard to pretend that travelling by air, especially in recent years, hasn’t become progressively (regressively?) worse. Witness the following:

I am scheduled for a transatlantic flight at 7:10 p.m. on a Saturday. I try to check in online when the pre-departure 24 hour window opens. After navigating American’s website and putting in details like my known traveler number (Global Entry/TSA pre-check), I’m eventually told I have to check-in in person. The reason is not explained. I also get a text saying the flight has been delayed and the new departure is 7:50.

4:25 p.m. on Saturday: Mindful that people who aren’t checked in get bumped off the flight because of routine overbooking of seats by airlines, I leave home to catch the 32 bus that takes me to the E train in Jackson Heights, which pokes along as a local rather than an express most weekends.

5:25: Arrive at the Archer Ave/Sutphin blvd subway stop and go up three floors to the Airtrain.

5:45: Arrive at the American terminal (8), find a self-check-in kiosk, repeat the entire data entry process, and am then refused check-in again. Staff are trying to assist multiple people. Turns out they are tasked with ensuring people like me have a visa to the country of travel. I have to point out the exact page with the correct visa on my passport to the baby-faced staffer two times. He then wants to see my return ticket, and then has to be pointed to the exact place on that page where it mentions the date of departure. He completes check in.

6:10 Drop off checked bag. I have a rule against checking bags, and this trip proves that I shouldn’t break my rules. More on this in a minute.

6:25: Complete security screening in a few minutes, thanks to the TSA Precheck verification on my boarding pass.

6:30: At gate.

7:00: At gate. Flight delayed to 8:20. Allegedly the craft we’re using has been late in arriving from Zurich.

7:45: At gate. Flight delayed to 9:00. Mechanical problem.

8:30: At gate. Flight delayed to 10:00. No explanation but passengers who are complaining about missing later connecting flights are advised to go to re-booking desks.

9:00: At gate. Flight delayed to 11:00. People are getting sloshed at the conveniently placed bar next to the gate.

10:00 At gate. Flight delayed to 11:30. People make a rush to the gate. Turns out to be sandwiches and tiny bags of junk food, not boarding.

10:45: At gate. Flight cancellation announcement via text. I’m rebooked the next day via a long connection through North Carolina. No. I run to the rebooking desk but there are already 8 people in front of me and matters are proceeding verry slowly. I call the number posted on the screen behind the desk. Told that the next day’s direct flights are booked solid. I ask about the following day, since I’ve already lost one day’s cost on my hotel so I might as well go straight through to my connecting flight two days later. Yes, that is available. We make the change and I get out of the line.

11:15: Realize that I forgot to ask about the checked bag. Uh-oh. Both the staffer at the gate and the rebooking desk are mobbed. No way I’ll get an answer within even 2 hours. I call the number again and I’m told the bag will be released (since I’m flying 48 hours later) and I should pick it up . I decide to walk around and find someone else to confirm. Locate another desk several gates away. The staff person is ready to send me back to the previous desks but I explain that I just have a question about what the process is for checked baggage in these circumstances. I’m told to pick it up from baggage claim.

11:45: Staff person happens to be walking in the direction of baggage claim. We get to talking. She advises me not to wait 48 hours to fly because the forecast is ominous. Offers to help. I take her up on it. She reviews and discards several options and finally finds me a direct flight on a partner airline for the next evening. Prints out new boarding passes and asks if I need taxi vouchers to go home and come back the next day. Yes, please. She prints those out. What about checked bag? Pick it up, she says. It’s a different airline now. Okay.

12:00: No sign of bag in baggage claim near belt. Staffer there tells me it will take a while and that I should give the bag tag to her colleague in their office plus details of my new flight. Promises to find my bag and switch it to correct flight. I do as advised.

12:12: Call car service that American uses. They promise to send someone in 15 minutes.

12:40: Call for update. Told to wait a few minutes.

12:55: Call for update. Told to wait.

1:15: Call for update and try hard not to lose temper. Explain that I could have taken the subway if they had been honest about their availability. She promises to send a car in 3 minutes.

1:25: Get a call from driver. Asks me to come up two levels from arrivals to departure. Haul myself up. Find car. Told to sit in front seat. Two passengers in back already. Woman starts to complain that she has been travelling for days and the car is specially sent for them by another airline and she doesn’t want me to cause her details. Her husband tries to calm her down while driver asks me to explain in English that Jersey is not closer than Queens and they have to go past my address anyway.

2:00 Home after 9.5 hours. Could have been at my destination across the Atlantic in less time.

And this is just part I of this story. So no, we’re not there yet.

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