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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