Week Ten

A dispatch from the front lines of NYC in a public health crisis.

It’s Friday, fucking finally.  I’m not sure there was anything objectively worse about the past seven days than the seven days before that, but it felt exceptionally long and hard.  

It’s a holiday weekend, too, a weekend that in any other year would feature a brief trip, an AirBnB with friends or, at the very least, a barbecue or a beach trip.  Memorial Day is every summer’s early triumph, and we don’t get one this year.  It’s a bitter pill. 

It’s also an extraordinarily long period of time to be home, choosing between pleasant but anxious mass video chats with other people, or the continued solitude of various screens of entertainment. Eating one of the few variety of meals you can make with the things on hand, without having to venture out in this mess.  

I’m taking it seriously, the virus.  My ZIP code is on every list of worst hit places in the world, per capita, and this thing is nasty.  I don’t want it.  So I’m following the regulations, and then some.  Double-thick, homemade cloth mask with two straps, a fitted nosepiece, and even a coffee filter stuck in between the fabric layers.  Six feet, on all sides, at all times.  Don’t touch things with your hands, don’t touch your face at all, try not to touch, well, anything.  

Try to make eye contact, and nod to folks.  To be kind to neighbors, while keeping them distant.  

I had been out of my apartment building a total of five times in ten weeks.

So, this Friday, I had an unexpectedly heavy and productive day of remote work, and when it hit late afternoon, I needed to mail a letter; it was a work thing.  I had the envelope, I had the stamps, all I needed was to drop it in the blue box for sending.  I thought, in the words of a dear friend, “fuck it, it’s Friday” and left the house a bit before closing time, hoping to catch a lull in whatever muted foot traffic was taking place on Junction Boulevard. 

It was the last thing I had to do before the holiday weekend, whatever that will look like this year. 

I geared up, stepped out the front door, and immediately smelled weed.  It was that pleasant olfactory memory thing, where I immediately associated it with every other summer day I’ve smelled that, walking past the same group of guys who hang out in front of our neighbor’s building, talking and smoking weed.  

They were out there now. One had no mask on at all, and one had a mask that was strapped behind his head but pulled down below his chin, technically rendering it an item of jewelry.  The other had a paper mask that was on correctly.  I gave them a wide berth but we exchanged nods of recognition as I stepped into the street to pass them.  

Junction Boulevard is a vibrant artery of Queens.  It is a hub for families from Corona and Jackson Heights, and serves as their border.  My favorite deli is there, my drug store, grocery, bodega, and train stop.  

It’s ordinarily very crowded.  

And as I expected, it wasn’t crowded, not in any traditional sense of the word.  I didn’t make physical contact with any people, which on ordinary days is well-nigh impossible.  Six feet, though, was out of the question.  It would be literally impossible to navigate my neighborhood in such a manner.  There are simply too many of us.  

Those three neighbor stoners proved to be an apt microcosm.  About a third of the people were wearing no masks at all.  There was nobody giving them trouble, no police presence to speak of, and I observed at least fifty people without masks, in close proximity to passersby, in the ten minutes I was outside.  Another third of people had masks of various quality and material, and were wearing them on their faces. 

I wish that I could have left off the end of that last sentence.  

A full third of the people I observed were in obvious, physical possession of a mask, but were not wearing it, or not wearing it correctly, or wearing it as the aforementioned jewelry.  They weren’t using it, but they had it on-hand.  

I get why they are doing that.  They need the mask in case they want to go into a store, or if the local precinct happens by. But they otherwise don’t, can’t, and/or won’t wear their mask the way we are supposed to.  I’m tempted to scold people, but remember my own privilege, and that I don’t really know people’s reasons or motives.  I should just steer clear, and do what I can to protect my own health. 

Honestly, it was scary.  I was so aware that somewhere out there, in public, is this damned virus that has turned the world upside-down.  It’s real, it’s deadly, and I see its reflection in every stranger I pass on the street, silently calculating my odds and measuring my distance and even my breathing as I pass them.  We are all each other’s potential enemies. 

I got the letter mailed, and navigated home at a slower, more deliberate pace.  I thought about whether we are coming through to the end of the pandemic, or if a resurgence will be the next thing. I fear it will be the latter. Not enough people are still taking this seriously.  The last time I was out, about a month ago, there were far fewer people out, and nearly everyone had masks.  There were lines back then for the grocery store and Rite Aid. 

Today, there was a line for the healthcare clinic.  The line spanned two full blocks.  

-AG

Published in: on May 22, 2020 at 4:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

From the Belly of the Beast

My neighborhood is right in the middle of the NYC outbreak; here’s how we are coping. 

With Jackson Heights, Queens being featured so prominently in national media stories about the pandemic, I want to share what life has been like for me over the past month.  

Kelsey and I live in a two-bedroom apartment about a ten minute walk from the Junction Boulevard 7 train stop in Jackson Heights, right on the border with Corona.  Junction Boulevard is our main thoroughfare, and contains most of the stores where we ordinarily do our shopping.  

For the past month, we have been social distancing champions.  Most days, we don’t leave the apartment at all. I know many people leave to take brief walks, but the folks in our densely-populated neighborhood don’t seem to understand social distancing, and the few times we have been outside, we have had to “walk defensively” to create space between us and other humans.  For that reason, we are trying as much as possible to stay inside. 

This would be much easier if grocery delivery was still a thing, but it really isn’t.  Amazon Fresh lets us build an order, but won’t permit us to schedule a delivery. Same for Fresh Direct and Instacart.  For dry goods, I was able to make an Amazon Pantry purchase, but it took almost a month to be delivered. Oddly, alcohol delivery services are still running quickly and efficiently.  I can’t get a gallon of milk, but I can get pinot noir from multiple vendors, usually within two hours.  

I have been very fortunate to be able to work remotely, logging on to my work computer from home.  Work has been quite slow, as the courts are closed to all but the most urgent matters. My firm is taking a serious financial hit from the pandemic, and my salary has been temporarily decreased, though I have been promised I will get the deferred portion back when things stabilize.  I value job security very highly, so the disruption has been causing me some stress.  

On weekdays, I wake up a few minutes before 9, and log on to my computer, ready for the day.  I usually shower and change clothes mid-day. When I have work to do, the hours pass quickly. More frequently, things drag, and I alternate responding to work emails, throwing darts, reading, and browsing the internet.  COVID-19 news is everywhere, it is hard to escape.  

I have not been able to write as much as I would like.  There is something stifling about being cooped up all day.  I have, however, had a chance to improve my guitar-playing and my darts game.  I painted two acrylic canvases, despite my utter lack of artistic ability. I am reading steadily, which has been a challenge, since my ordinary routine is to read while I am commuting, a part of my life that is gone, and that I do not miss. 

A few days ago, I had to make a grocery trip, because we were out of everything.  The nearest grocery store is right across the street. They are metering people at the entrance, and only allowing a limited number in at one time.  I waited about forty minutes in a socially-distanced queue to enter, but then shopping went relatively quickly. Essentials are back in stock, and the lack of people in the store made it easy to maintain a safe distance.  Even for that brief excursion, I donned gloves and a face mask. We aren’t taking any chances. 

In the evenings, my routine has been to participate in video calls with people.  I have played virtual darts with someone else who has a board, and watched movies through an add-on app called Netflix Party, which syncs the playback and allows for chat.  Zoom has been a wonderful platform for remote socializing, and I hosted a seder for Passover with friends and family. I even managed to play a virtual talent show, singing and playing guitar.  

Fin, my 18 year old cat, is getting more attention and enrichment than he has had in years.  He seems happy about it, though I am certain this has disrupted his 16-hours-per-day sleep schedule.  

Every day at 7pm, we lean out the window to hoot, holler, and cheer for our first responders.  Unlike other parts of the city, not many people here participate, but a few do. It is nice to have camaraderie with strangers.  

I don’t know how much longer this pandemic will last, or how long it will be until we can resume our normal lives.  My best guess is that things will start opening up mid-May, but I intend to listen to public health guidance and do what I need to do in order to stay healthy.  My family had a COVID scare, which fortunately abated without harm. Some of my friends have lost people to the illness. It is a scary time.  

When this is over, I hope we will make some changes to the way we structure our lives.  The fact that so many of us can do our jobs remotely should cause us to question the need to spend hours each day commuting.  I have become even more committed to fighting for national health care, after seeing the debacle wrought by private health care companies that must prioritize profitability over preparedness.  

If we can emerge stronger, that will be a silver lining from this time of crisis.  I hope we get there soon. 

-AG

Published in: on April 14, 2020 at 8:59 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Butchering Foreign Languages

Thousands of miles apart, two butchers are cut from the same apron.

Last year, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Germany.  It was my second visit to the country, and one of the most surprising- and relieving- things that I learned is that the majority of Germans appear to have at least some degree of fluency in English.  As I speak no other languages apart from the smattering of phrases I pick up any time I travel abroad, this helped immeasurably; I was able to converse mostly without the assistance of my bilingual host.

On one particular day of our visit there, we stopped into a butcher shop.  Our host selected some local delicacy as a morning snack, and it was beyond good. The meat was fresh, the cheese was potent and creamy, and the bread was crispy on the edges and soft in the middle.  As we were standing just outside the shop, munching on our delightful meal, I remembered Black Forest Ham.

I capitalized the term for a reason.  Here in the states, there is a trendy meat product labeled black forest ham.  Like applewood smoked bacon or slow roasted chicken, that product is more adjective than substance; it still tastes like only a slight departure from the central protein with which we are all familiar.  So, when my host offered me Black Forest Ham on my first day in Heidelberg, I assumed I knew what I was in for.

I was wrong.

Among other natural features, there is a forest near Heidelberg called the Black Forest.  They produce, inter alia, ham.  Or, rather, Ham.  It tastes closer to prosciutto than to the stateside protein slop that passes as black forest ham in America, with a peppery smell and a crispness that is just…no, an adjective won’t work here.  You really should just to try it.

So, back to the butcher, we’re standing outside and I’m remembering how good that Black Forest Ham was, and I decide that I’m going to do something nice for my traveling companions.  I resolve to go back into the butcher shop, order about half a pound of Black Forest Ham, and we can take it along as a snack during our day, in which we planned to do several miles of country walking.  Resolved, I headed back into the shop.

Now, earlier I mentioned that most Germans I encountered speak at least some English.  The elderly man behind the counter in the butcher shop was not one of them.  Not only that, he didn’t even want to try.  No matter, I thought, I can point to what I want, and I know how to count to ten in German.  What could possibly go wrong?

Several things, as quickly became apparent.  First of all, counting to ten doesn’t give you the ability to say “one half pound.”  I tried to say “zero point five pounds” but that didn’t seem to translate, not the least of which because, like the rest of the civilized world, Germany is on the metric system.  The butcher looked bored.  Nobody else was in the store.  We were getting nowhere.

Frantically, I tried to remember my conversion tables between pounds and kilos.  One of them is bigger, about two times bigger, I seemed to recall.  I couldn’t remember which was bigger.  I decided to take a gamble.  “Ein kilo,” I clearly articulated, pointing to the Black Forest Ham.  Without a word, he lifted the meat, and began slicing.

It only took a few moments for me to realize that this was going to be more than half a pound.  The pile of meat kept growing.  Finally, he stopped.  It was five inches tall.  He reached for another piece of meat, and continued slicing.  My friends were at the window, still outside, looking at me with a mix of humor and confusion.  I had purchased 2.2 pounds of meat “as a snack.”  We ate it for the rest of our trip, with every meal, and never did finish it.  It still tasted great.

That anecdote was on my mind today as I walked into the grocery store around the corner from my apartment in Queens, New York.  I needed a pound of skirt steak, and walked up to the butcher.  Now, I should mention here that Queens is a big, diverse place, and my neighborhood, Jackson Heights, is overwhelmingly Ecuadoran and Columbian.  I am in the vast linguistic minority.  Still, most shop owners here can at least manage enough English to conduct transactions.

Not this butcher.

I pointed to the skirt steak, and confidently asked for one pound.  “Una pieza?”  He said.  “No, one pound, not one piece.”

He shook his head.  “Non, una pieza.”  He had decided for me.  With experience on my side from that German butcher last year, I decided not to take it lying down.  “No,” I said, “uno POUND.”

“Que?”

Frustrated, I pulled out my phone and started looking up the translation.  The metric system shouldn’t be an issue, I figured, as the prices were all listed by the pound.  Google came to the rescue. “Una libra!”  I was triumphant.

“Non,” he calmly replied, “una pieza.”

I got mad.  “Una libra!  Non una pieza.”

“Si, una pieza.”

“No!” I said, maybe a little too loudly.  Other customers were taking notice, which is always to be avoided in New York’s public places.  He didn’t respond.  He just put the single piece, una pieza, on the scale.

It weighed 0.98 pounds.

I’m not entirely sure if I blushed in embarrassment, but it’s likely.  I finished my shopping quickly and headed home, thinking of Germany, Jackson Heights, and the two unwritten rules I had learned: butchers can speak whatever language they damn well please, and we challenge them at our own peril.  Enough writing, dinner’s almost ready.

-AG

Published in: on June 14, 2016 at 4:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , ,