The Covid Diaries, 1: Won’t Somebody PUH-LEEEEEASSSEEE Think of the Children??

(April 2020)

A Scene In Three Acts


Roommates, one self-employed + one newly unemployed
Jill, a former adjunct professor/permanent substitute public school teacher (i.e. the equivalent of being an adjunct professor in the public school system!)
A new… friend

I. Confrontation

I could tell the minute she walked in the door that the air was off—although, to be fair, sometimes she’s just like that. After all, she’s an INTJ. Plus, I only moved in two and a half months ago,[1] and we’re still getting used to each other.

She puts her stuff down and sits in front of me in the living room.

“Jillian… look.”

Oh boy.

“I just want to make sure you’re taking this whole thing seriously. I really don’t want to get sick, because if I do it’s not only the two weeks of being ill, it’s two more weeks of mandated quarantine afterward. And unlike you, I can’t work from home.”

Ohhhh boy…

“It seems like you go out a lot, and when you went to the doctor yesterday and didn’t tell me or S[2], it just… like, you’re going to the place where this stuff is the most concentrated, even if your doctor’s office doesn’t let people showing symptoms or even suspected of having been exposed with no symptoms showing. Still, I feel like you should have told us before you went.”

But… would it matter if I told you now that I wasn’t planning on going in if it was crowded with sick coronavirus people?

I keep my eye-contact.

“Like, if you don’t take this seriously, then… well, there’s nothing anyone can do about that. You have your opinion. But I really don’t want to get sick, and it just seems… yeah.” She pauses. “I really don’t want to get sick.”

So if you get sick, that must mean that *I’m* the one that dragged into the house, like a barn cat bringing in dead mice?

I sigh. I breathe in deeply… and the let it go.

Let it go.

“Thank you for sharing. I appreciate where you’re coming from. I went to the doctor because I have this stress rash… I haven’t had an eczema breakout in years, but it’s been really uncomfortable and I just wanted to get it taken care of. And I wore a mask… I even wore a mask when I did laundry today, but I’m sorry. I understand where you’re coming from and I’ll do my best to stay in more and not run as many errands. But for the most part, when I go out I’m just walking in Green-Wood Cemetery, and there’s no one around.”

She nods, and half-smiles. She asks how I’m feeling.

“Um… I’m grateful we’re having this conversation. It’s a lot. We’re all learning about each other, and it’s been pretty stressful. I’ll admit, in the beginning I didn’t take this seriously, and it’s hard because there are so many unknowns. And you know, honestly, working in the public school system, it’s challenging because I just don’t know about the efficacy of this long-term quarantine stuff. It seems excessive to me when I think about the kids, and what this means for them, and so I think that colors my perspective on this. I try not to think about that too much, though, because it puts me in a state of angst that’s not good for anybody.”

I breathe.

“But at the end of the day, I live with two people, and my priority should be to make sure I do what I can to contribute to a safe and healthy living environment, in all aspects. So thanks for telling me. Umm…” I pause. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling like I’m going to take a shower now.” She smiles.

“Haha, ok. Well, thanks again for sharing. I’m on it.”

She showers; I go to my room, put on a McCoy Tyner record (Rest in Peace), and call a friend to vent, yes, but also to admit that I probably shouldn’t be running to the drug store now to buy spray-on sunscreen.

(By the way, even though it would have helped my “case,” I didn’t tell her that if I don’t treat my eczema, it can spread everywhere… and I mean everywhere. Why not? Because some things shouldn’t have to be shared.)

II. Tatemae/Honne[3]

-Good morning, Ms. Marshall! (laughs) How is school stuff?”

– Ha… oh, you know, same as always, cooing “good job!” “Wow, great job!” “Good job!” to a bunch of five-year-olds on videochat… they’re so cute, oh my god. We had to mute M today because he kept jumping up and down while screaming “HARRY POTTER!” and waving his pencil around like a wand. You can’t make this stuff up.

Oh, how I wish I could have been there to see him jump up and down. And his classmates. How I miss how they raise their hands, their silly non-sequiturs, their smiles with new missing teeth on a semi-monthly basis, their tears when they get an answer wrong or don’t want to go to the Y after school.[4] I miss taking them to the bathroom, or to PE, and reminding them to enter “Ghost Mode” in the hallway. I miss picking them up from Music and playing Mozart or improvisations on the Mr. Softee Theme Song in piano for them and watching them dance and shriek with laughter. How I miss singing them little songs.

I worry about them… how, perhaps especially in kindergarten, these kids aren’t going to school to learn that 2 + 2 = 4, but instead to socialize with their peers and with adults who aren’t their family members. How some of these kids undoubtedly come from dysfunctional homes, with parents who are doing the best they can, but when “best” falls short. How I miss the students with whom I can’t interact, like D… my special girl D, and of course A and B. B’s troubled, but he’s a good kid—he’s got a great heart. His light shines so bright. D… do you remember that time you stole my fuzzy jacket, put it on upside-down and backwards, and ran onto the schoolbus? “I want MS. MARSHALL to ride the bus with me! Can she be my bus monitor, PLEASSEEE?” How I miss holding hands with her and A and doing our Special Bus Walk: one-two-three HOP! One-two-three HOP! I wonder if they remember… I wonder if they know how special they are, how smart and beautiful they are.

How I miss my special girl D’s one-of-a-kind hug, where she throws herself at you like a linebacker and looks up in your eyes, smiling with her mouth wide open and her eyes sparkling like the moon dancing on ocean waves.

I hope to God they’re OK.

RW… and EK. I ran into them outside of school on no less than three occasions, and each time they ran up and squeezed me, and walked next me in fast strides to keep up with my long legs — even though I slowed down to meet them because such moments were utter gifts, and I recognized that even then. I truly love them… all of them. Rihanna and I took a walk once around the school when she needed to cool off, and she opened up to me about her life… about her home. About her mom, whom she told me was dead but in reality is in jail.

And EK… he’s got the soul of a poet.

I hope to God they’re OK.

C. He’s a great kid… and the boys of Ms. S’s class. They’ve got that Brooklyn swagger and, what are they, 8 years old? I learn so much from them. All of them. Oh boy… 306 was a handful, but they are all shining stars.

ZB. I hope to God you’re OK. Actually, I take that back.

I know you are. You – all of you – are so, so loved.

-Hey, you still doing school stuff?

-Yeah, thanks for asking. Just finishing up filling out the attendance. It’s amazing; the parents somehow can’t seem to figure out how to fill out this very simple attendance form we’ve devised and are instead writing “Present” on no less than three different web portals, which doubtlessly takes more effort than just clicking “Yes” on the form we put up on Google Classroom.

-Haha, that sounds crazy.

-It is, haha. Sometimes I feel like my job is largely playing IT for confused parents.

But they’re not just confused, they’re overwhelmed. And it’s nobody’s fault, because everyone is doing the best they can. How many of these families now have to balance working from home, or having lost their jobs altogether, and log on with their kids for “remote learning” every day? How many of these families are working at the grocery stores, scrambling to find someone who can stay with the children during the school day/?

How I wonder what to do with G, who’s only been on a handful of times. Or A, who has been on maybe once. B, who has already been held back once, and is about four inches taller than the other kids in class and, all things considered, should probably be held back for another year because he just isn’t on level.

Every time I fill out the attendance chart, I scan the work on Google Classroom, hoping to see these children “present.”

The tears I’ve cried, wondering where they are.

III. Tryst (3/28/19)

– I wanna do something today. How about you?
– Yeah, me too.
– Wanna hang out? I’ll come meet you in Greenwood, and then we can go somewhere.
– Yes! How about Coney?
– Sounds great. See you at 4:30-ish?

It’s not like I planned it this way. I didn’t plan ANY of this. He took one of my Japanese classes at the graphic design studio/shop/classroom/self-described “mutant space”[5] in the East Village from November until February. I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams that we’d bump into each other at Public Records on February 29th, which I went to on a whim, and never EVER would have guessed that we’d start texting and then calling each other, talking for seven hours at a time until the sun starts to rise. I never thought I’d have so much in common with a guy, that something like this would – could – happen so effortlessly.

We HAD to meet.

And so after a brief stroll through Greenwood Cemetary, we walked down to 36th street, caught the N train (after he got a turkey club sandwich at the deli), got off at 86th street and walked to Coney Island.

It was drizzling.

We walked under the F, talking about nothing in particular but with the excitement, anticipation, and present-ness that so easily comes from recipriocated feelings. Soon we were by those two CubeSmart buildings, and eventually ended up at the Luna Park apartments. My heart skipped a beat when I realized we had inadvertently ended up at my lunch break walking route… which meant that we were close to school… Which also meant that I had to show him.

– See that big building over there that… um… looks like a school? That’s… my school.
It felt like I was showing him my hometown, and not just because of PS90, but because Coney Island is perhaps my penultimate “Happy Spot” in New York. It’s where I’ve come since I first moved here to reset… to get in touch with myself when things feel crazy. I spent my 31st birthday walking the boardwalk into Brighton Beach, puttering around the shops. I came here almost every day in the beginning of September, swimming in the morning back when I was still waiting tables at the Mafia Restaurant and enjoying the empty beach and sunkissed water. I brought my mother and stepfather here when they visited over Thanksgiving in 2018; I even brought my friends visiting from Japan and took them on the Cyclone, which I consider “Instant Therapy.”

And now I’ve taken him here.

Soon we went to the boardwalk, admiring the rollercoasters and, in particular, the Thunderbolt.

-The first time I came to Coney in 2014, I remember looking at this rollercoaster and thinking that anyone who rides this thing is out of their fucking mind.
-Really? It doesn’t look that bad.
-Would you scream if you rode it?
-Probably not.
-NO?!? Oh my god, what are you, an alien? I’d lose my mind! After the first drop it looks really pleasant, though… I wish you could ride it, like, after.

We gazed at it admiringly for a good ten minutes. I was dying to touch him, to hug him, to hold his hand, but I waited. The time was soon, but not quite yet.

-You know that movie Requiem for a Dream?
-… oh, yeah, I do. It’s really intense.
-Yeah. And the music!
-Yeah, oh my god.
-Anyway, you know that shot where he’s standing on the pier with his girlfriend and later on just by himself?
-They filmed that on this pier.
-But that was before Hurricane Sandy. I think they redid everything after that.

So there we were, at the last bench that overlooks the open Atlantic at the end of the pier. We were seated facing West, looking toward Sea Gate (and the harshly lit Ford Amphitheater).

-Tell me about your students.

So I did. About K119. About floating around the school for a month as some kind of a music/Japanese/art/ELA teacher. About bringing trumpet to class and the kids piling around me on the floor, learning to produce music from this tangled mass of brass by “making a fart sound” with their lips. I told him about D… about how she looked at the world map in her classroom so intently, and found “Christmas I.”—short for Christmas Islands. And how I gave her a collection of New York City maps the next day, and told her how smart and beautiful she is. I told him about R, and EK…

And I started to cry. It wasn’t necessarily from a place of sadness per se, but from one of grief. And also from love. From gratitude, and the feelings of just missing these kids and their joy, their energy, their sadness, their anger, their mirth, their spirits, their souls.

That’s when I grabbed his arm, and he immediately put his arms tightly around me, and a new phase began.

It’s also when it started to pour, but we stayed out on the pier for a while after that.

Coda: Full-Circle Moments

I remember seeing my sister get picked up by the school bus when I was about three. The idea of a magical car that came not only to take you away from home, but to bring you to a place where you could learn stuff? The mere thought sent me into fits of jealousy and despair so deep that I’d bang on the windows, crying, begging the bus to take me too.

This isn’t to say that my home life was terrible; nothing is black and white. I occupied my days frolicking in old meadows, sounding out the big words in Calvin and Hobbes comics, leafing through and admiring piano scores, and figuring how to play chords on the old upright piano that was hopeless out of tune.

Luckily, I have perfect pitch.

But there were punctuations of violence so dark, so hopeless and lost that I literally blocked out periods of my childhood. Although I was picked on (“weird,” “tall” and “annoying” with homemade clothes and bagged lunches thrown together by an overworked, chain-smoking single mother hustling as a lunch-shift waitress and a largely absentee, drunken father), school was my refuge. My teachers were my protectors, and I recognized this even then but increasingly so with that 20/20 vision of retrospect.

School saved my life.

And when I think about school getting cancelled until the end of the school year, I can’t help but wonder if we’re really protecting our kids.

And, you know, I get that this whole coronavirus thing is new, and scary, and it spreads quickly, and it can affect anyone. But, much like how the Left responded after Trump’s election in 2016[6], I see this culture of self-policing and moralizing complex issues that might best be at least initially examined through a more logical lens, and I can’t help but wonder if we’re really protecting ourselves.

Is it really my roommate’s business to imply that I’m not taking this seriously? Is it really necessary to shut down the entire city – country, world – and jeopardize the livelihoods of millions for a virus that is on-par with pandemics of the past that were not accompanied by the algorithmic hysteria of the present era? Is it not concerning that this discussion isn’t happening—and that, if you ARE curious about these questions, that you’re accused of “not taking this seriously” or being a “Coronavirus Jerk”[7]? Does no one else see the Orwellian implications of “shelter in place,” or the Foucaultian undertones of self-policing one another with #stayhome hashtags and the like?

Is this going to happen the next time an illness breaks out in our increasingly trans-national world?

Is there something I’m missing here, or am I just crazy?

In the end, I guess I was going to the grocery store three whole times a week as a kind of inner protest. And I do mean “was”, because in this case, maybe taking action on my intellectual inklings isn’t the answer. Writing can be, but here in the physical dimension, I don’t want to upset my roommates… to the extent that this is possible.

I also have to live my life and take care of that little girl inside of me.

And I’m grateful. I have a meaningful job, I can still engage with these kids as best as I can and, because he lives alone, my roommates offered their unsolicited blessing to see my new friend.

… you know, so long as he doesn’t take the train.[8]

[1] And I thank the Higher Power Whom Some of Us Choose to Call God for that on a daily basis, because if I were stuck in #quarantine in Sunset Park Chinatown (which, in the 20/20 vision of retrospect, is the perfect place I could have landed in New York City back when I first moved here in 2018) with that childhood frenemy who moved to New York, like many of us, to “follow her dreams” but was, in actuality (and like many, and which I say without moral judgement), a loner stoner/alcoholic hiding vodka bottles under the sink, I would have lost my mind.

[2] Our other roommate.

[3] Japanese concepts for “the mask one wears to maintain a harmonious social atmosphere” and “one’s true feelings,” respectively. Ah, Japanese… a language worth learning simply for the pithy vocabulary that captures beautiful, universal truth-concepts that English requires a small dissertation to explain. Indeed, my (350-page) dissertation was, in some ways, dedicated to this translation… metaphorically, perhaps.

[4] Once, I sang a song to Z when he reallllly didn’t want to go to Dance. “Z. Moore, Z. Moore, don’t you cry anymore, Z. Moore, Z. Moore…”

[5] Called SSHH: Sixth Street Haunted House. As of May 2020, the shop could no longer afford its lease.

[6] Which is to say, with vitriolic black-and-white intolerance for those with differing opinions. Now let’s be clear: I think Trump is a Narcissistic buffoon, and I think his stance on immigration goes against what this country is supposed to be all about. However, blindly hating Trump only plays into the two-party system that has created a toxic atmosphere unable to accommodate a true exchange of ideas in the first place.

[7] As so eloquently put by Vice. See:

[8] Turns out it takes an hour and thirty-seven minutes to walk from Green-Wood to Bushwick.

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