In the few days since Jenna wrote this, the lockdown is no longer a rumor and New York City has become an epicenter of the pandemic.
Empty shelves in the supermarket. Barred off, unstocked pharmacies. Masked people making detours around each other on the sidewalk. Rumors of a lockdown. Quarantine. Lost jobs. Kids out of school. Panic.
The situation here in New York City is beginning to feel increasingly postapocalyptic: the normal busy streets are deserted, the parks are empty, and when I go to pick up groceries, I along with the hundreds of others standing in line (never mind the 10-person limit) am faced with empty shelves. Even the guidelines of how to survive in such a world could almost apply today: self-isolate, stay 6 feet away from other people, make your own hand sanitizer, grow your own food … and I’ll admit, it can be a little concerning.
I’ll be honest here, when I first heard about the coronavirus I didn’t think much of it. I definitely never thought I’d find myself quarantined here in my house in Harlem along with eight other students, doing classes and work online for the rest of the semester and not allowed to leave the house, living in fear of the virus. And from what I can tell, many others were like me and now we are dealing with what we least expected. And New Yorkers, while accustomed to the unpredictability of the subway, are not great at following instructions and dealing with this level of uncertainty. We’re really bad at following directions like parking our cars on alternate sides of the street, never mind self-isolating. Like me, most of the people in this city weren’t prepared to spend spring inside our houses, isolated from friends, coworkers, and peers – and we’re not liking this situation.
That said, right now it is the “we” of this situation I want to emphasize. It is impossible to ignore the fact that the entire rest of the world is dealing with these common fears of loss of work and financial uncertainty, class cancellations, kids out of school, and many other inconveniences; and it is important to remember during times of frustration and panic that we are literally all in this together.
New Yorkers sometimes forget this and are generally known for keeping to themselves. There is a sense of rushing about this city, and more often than not, everyone is racing past each other, consumed with their lives, where they are heading, and whether they will make it to catch the C train leaving in one minute.
But in between, there are moments when we can see past our own lives and connect with each other on a shared point of humanity, and from what I’ve seen over the past few days when calamity strikes, New Yorkers stand together. There’s a sense of solidarity: we’re all in this together.
I’ve noticed this solidarity in the supermarket – there’s more talk: we are able to encourage each other, to help that stressed mom trying to stock up on supplies and care for two small children all at once, to help the old lady struggling to push that heavy cart full of bottled water to check out, and, most of all, to simply relate as we walk down an aisle of empty shelves and just laugh, because there’s not much else you can do.
I’ve also noticed it in the pharmacy as I talked with the clerk who, through tears, confided in me her anger and frustration at having to turn people away because the pharmacy didn’t have what people needed. Sure, I didn’t leave with the thermometer covers I came for, but we were able to encourage each other to keep going and to remind each other and those around us that we are all in this together.
And I’ve noticed it as I walk down the street – people are more engaged and aware of the people around them – and, believe it or not, sometimes even willing to make eye contact and say good morning. Even if we step around each other, we do so with smiles of solidarity and understanding. And for many New Yorkers, this is huge.
In this time, many are saying that this pandemic is a “character test of our nation.” I’ve seen this phrase all over social media and heard many public officials talking about it. It’s hard to grade the nation on this test; the economy is out of hand; politics, like in everything, continues to get in the way of progress; the stock market is almost crashing. But I think that it is safe for me to say that, as individuals, as New Yorkers, so far, we are passing this test. So let’s keep this going, remembering that we’re in this together!
Jenna Boller lives at Harlem House in New York City.