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April 22, 2020, 2:21 p.m.

I spend an inordinate amount of time daydreaming in this quarantine. I imagine myself sitting on beaches and driving in cars. School starts back up again in September, but I don’t want to go back to school. I’d like, instead, to do what my friend Tom did. Tom drove across the world. He and his friends started a campaign called ‘from London to Cape town,’ and this is precisely what they did. They loaded themselves in a van and drove across two continents. We can do the same. I’ll go, if you’ll join me.

MC

Zoom

April 8, 2020, 6:56 p.m.

What link was it again? I try the first link, and then the second. Where, in cyberspace, is my Zoom class? I land in a meeting where there is no one. The whole meeting is just me staring back at myself in an empty room in a distant corner of the internet. I become uneasy and exit.

I try another link and there are my classmates, in little cubes, Brady Brunch style, some visible, some shrouded in darkness, some in New York City, some miles away. 

The professor starts to speak, but mid-sentence she disappears, her tether to the meeting—to our reality—severed. Where did she go? She reappears, dazed. 

The professor asks a student what he thought of the reading. He starts to respond but freezes, suspended in time. His classmates push forward without him; anyone with sub-par internet is left behind. The Zoom game is cutthroat.

The professor asks, Can you repeat that? You were frozen. But when he does, she is thrust, again, out of the meeting by an unknown force. She re-enters and we continue the class. At the end of the meeting we disappear, falling one-by-one off the edge of the virtual world. 

MC

Quarantine

March 24, 2020, 3:02 p.m.

I.

I arrive in New Jersey under the cover of night. Around two days in, I realize I don’t know exactly where I am. How far am I from Manhattan?

I open Google Maps and realize that I am much further from the city than I thought, well into the heart of New Jersey. It dawns on me that I have crossed state lines. Different rules, different leadership, different quarantine.

Phillip

My Uncle is a tall man with soft eyes and an unmistakable Southern accent. He grew up on a ranch in North Florida. When he laughs, it comes from deep in his belly.

He shows me a pallet with several rustic swatches. “What color should I paint my father’s barn?” he asks me. We go back and forth between Colonial Crimson and Patriot Red. Later, we eat grits and sausage.

Phillip sets a whirring box on the ground, a sort of robot vacuum, which travels along the tile in straight lines and 90 degree angles. It leaves a thin layer of soapy water along the ground. Every so often it will collide with a wall and buzz in protest.

Allison

My Aunt grew up alongside my father in Mandeville, a city high in Jamaica’s mountains, where the air is cool and young boys trek through ruddy grasses, hunting birds.

Those hailing from the area, my father included, share some commonalities: a love for nature, and an unusual familiarity with animals that to me, seem exotic, like doves and mongooses. Mandevillians are, in large part, above-average cooks and gardeners. Allison is no different.

She has all the charming quirks of country folk. She brews pungent ginger tea with garlic to ward off illness. (Phillip gapes. “Can’t you make it a little less strong, Al?” he begs. “No,” Allison says in her Jamaican accent, “That would dilute the power.”) She has a designated tree stump with a view, which she calls her “thinking stone,” where she sits to contemplate the issues of the day.

II.

In amusing contrast to their rural upbringings, my quarantine counterparts work for large firms in Manhattan: Phillip is a finance executive for a top pharmaceutical company and Allison is a corporate lawyer. She spends the quarantine poring over dense legal literature, hair caught in an immaculate topknot with not a single flyaway.

I enjoy watching them interact with each other and with their colleagues in virtual settings, assuming slightly different identities as the moment requires. I did not know them very well before the quarantine. Just a few days in and I like them already.

III.

Allison enters my room. “I got some bad news for you.” I look up. “We’re not going back for your stuff,” she says.

She’s talking about the eight boxes I left behind in International House, and planned to go back for. “Why?” I struggle to keep the distress out of my voice.

“If they’re saying there’s a confirmed case in that building, and we’re trying to limit out exposure… it’s too dangerous to go back.”

She’s right. Manhattan is, quite literally, teeming with disease. As a lawyer, Allison works with facts, not feelings. She compares options carefully and selects one.

“But—” I sputter. “My books.”

“What else do you have there?”

“My books, pots and pans, jackets and shoes…”

“How much were they?” she asks. “You have to consider whether the cost of replacing them outweighs the cost of getting them back.”

I say nothing. Then: “Maybe I can get it into storage. I think there are companies that will pick stuff up and store it.”

Allison considers this. “Could work.”

We create a list of storage companies in the area. I make several calls. Some will pick up and store for exorbitant prices, others can’t pick up at all. I finally land on a storage company that will pick up and store my stuff for $100/month—not ideal, but workable.

Manhattan Mini Storage (“We help New Yorkers live BIG lives in LITTLE spaces,” trills the answering machine) are overwhelmed with calls. They can’t pick up my belongings ASAP; I will have to wait three days. I-House is experiencing a mass exodus. I am worried that all my friends will have left and there will be nobody available to meet the movers and hand off the boxes.

On the day of the pick-up, I call to confirm. This thing has to go off without a hitch. I only have one chance.

The lady on the other end says yes, the movers will be there between 12 and 2, but she is surprised my appointment is still happening. All future pick-ups have been cancelled due to the virus.

IV.

I take an ambling, “socially-distanced” walk around my new neighborhood, squinting against the sun, which I have not seen in days. The weather is warm.

Compared to New York City—which, at the time of writing, has 25,000 cases of the virus—Maplewood, New Jersey is truly an idyllic place to quarantine. The area has character. No single house is the same, or even similar. They are connected by winding, uneven sidewalks that are cracked and upended with age, overgrown with moss. From somewhere comes the pleasant tinkling of wind-chimes.

My thoughts drift to New York. How was I to know, last Fall, that I was moving to what would become the epicenter of a global pandemic?

There are spiky, red-orange burrs everywhere in the neighborhood; as I walk, I kick at them absently with the toe of my running shoe. One family, presumably self-isolating, has put up a chalkboard sign on their lawn. It reads: “53 total board games, 24 played, 19 keep, 5 toss – stay tuned for exciting updates.” When I come across passersby, we navigate awkwardly around one another, keeping a safe distance of six feet in the age of Corona. We give each other apologetic smiles. I walk until I get lost, and use my phone to guide me home.

On the evening news, Governor Cuomo demands masks and ventilators; the Olympics are postponed for the first time in modern history; the Dow Jones Index plummets 3000 points; Spain converts an Olympic-sized ice rink into a morgue.

V.

I try to do schoolwork. Reading articles on my laptop is painful, as though I have stapled my eyelids to the screen. I try to read a book for class, but tire of the complicated structure after a mere four pages. Why should I read a fragmented book when the world itself is fragmented? 

The I-House residents are in a frenzy. Some truly have nowhere to go, as the borders to their countries have closed. Many of them are dangerously low on funds. Governor Cuomo issues a 90-day moratorium on evictions, but International House claims not to be a “landlord” in the traditional sense. The residents mount a campaign against the House. They call lawyers, they draft petitions. Some relent, scrambling for boxes and tape. Others take over apartments whose occupants have fled New York City, the new epicenter of the virus.

They fan out across the city and the world, many of them possibly carrying the virus.

Feeling helpless, I try to connect my stranded friends with their respective consulates. I spend the day on the phone with the Bahraini consulate, the Indian consulate, the Ugandan permanent mission to New York. I did International Relations as my bachelor’s degree, so I turn to international organizations and structures for support—it’s a knee-jerk response.

As relatively privileged residents of the first world, my friends hesitate to use the qualifiers generally employed in international law. They will never say they “fled” the city, but instead say they “left New York.” Instead of “displaced,” they say they’ve “been kicked out.” They will not call themselves Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs, but that is what they are. That is what we are.

VI.

A friend from International House texts me out of the blue, asking if I am okay, encouraging me to stay safe. I assure her I am fine. I ask how she is, and she says, “Scared. The world is falling apart.” I am reeling at the steep downward trajectory of this conversation. Her response is disproportionate. Something has happened.

I open the I-House Whatsapp group chat. Some has posted a screenshot of an email sent by the administration: “It is with tremendous sadness that I write to inform you that an I-House resident has passed away from complications from the COVID-19 virus.”

In moments of distress or longing, I travel great distances in my mind.

I am in my grandmother’s backyard in Jamaica, freeing a mango from a tree. I eat it, the juices running down my fingers. I can almost feel the sun browning my shoulders. Other times, I’m back in France, and I’m on a terrace in the city center of Aix-en-Provence, sipping a café au lait with a friend. The vision dissolves and fear bleeds into the image, like a polaroid immersed in ink.

The reality: just a week ago I was a student at a university I had dreamed of attending since I was a teenager. I took my classes at Pulitzer Hall. (Yes, that Pulitzer.) I was assigned readings that moved me, that I forwarded immediately to friends, saying, “You’ve got to read this.” I was beginning to love, truly love, journalism.

My classes ended. My friendships, carefully cultivated over teas and coffees, suddenly became long distance. Everyone left and they will not come back. Most I will never see again. There were no goodbyes.

Now one of us is dead and they won’t tell us who.

MC

Exodus

March 19, 2020, 2:27 p.m.

I. 

There are whispers that International House will close. But they are only rumours. 

I slide out of bed and try unsuccessfully to work on an assignment. It is only a single paragraph. We have to come up with a digital media idea, but I have no ideas. I have only fear. My mind is clouded by fear. 

I write “Media project brainstorm” on a piece of paper and nothing else.

“The House will not close,” the residence administration had written in an email. They had promised. But what are promises amid a pandemic? The building houses hundreds of international students with nowhere to go. They cannot rent; they have no American guarantors. Flights are grounded, everywhere, and the city-wide shelter-in-place is impending. They will be marooned.

I eat bits and pieces of breakfast, three pieces of cubed fruit here, a tangerine there, a piece of bread. I pace around in my apartment, still hungry, casting furtive glances at my roommate’s bedroom, which stands empty. 

I sit down to a conference call with my boss. “We’ll need you to forward all your materials to us by March 31.”

“Yes,” I say, and write this down. “What?” In my dense brain fog, I am struggling to grasp what she is saying. 

“It’s been a pleasure working with you,” she says. “If we have ever have any other work, you’ll be the first I call.”

It takes me several minutes to realize she is firing me. 

II. 

My contract was initially meant to last until May 15. When I ask for a reason for the early termination, they say they are not required to offer one. May 15 was a typo on your contract, my boss offers. Then: we didn’t get funding, that’s why.  

But I know the reason. The virus. 

The call ends. I pace, slippers smacking against the tile, staring around at the apartment I can no longer afford. An apartment in a building that might, just might, close. And if it doesn’t close, I will be quarantined, alone, in a pricey room with no income, for an unknown period of time, and no way to get out. 

I move quickly. 

My aunt lives in New Jersey. I had previously floated the idea of riding out the pandemic with her, and now I will do it. “How fast can you be ready?” she asks. 

“Uh,” I say. “A few hours.”

“I’ll schedule the Uber.”

III.

I dash downstairs to the front desk. “Don’t run,” the doctor had said. “No exercise.”

I ask for my rent. In these uncertain times, International House is taking unprecedented measures, giving residents full rent and dining hall refunds. 

The front desk staff accept my Visa with gloved hands. We stand away from one another, fearing contagion. My bank account explodes.

“Cut and run, cut and run,” I mutter under my breath. I check my phone: five hours until the Uber.

IV.

Back in the apartment, I pack up my life. I yank magnets off the fridge; I roll jackets into bins; I tear the sheets off my bed. 

I attempt to make a list—“pantry, jackets, shoes”—then abandon it. I empty the closet, then the bookshelf, then my drawers, trying to proceed in some logical order so I don’t forget anything. “Gotta go gotta go,” I mutter. Boxes begin to pile up, until I run out entirely. 

I ask a maintenance worker for boxes and am taken into a dark, cold storage room that I have never been in before. I stand there, shivering, as he empties and hands me two large boxes. Three hours until the Uber.

V.

I am heaving, panting with the exhaustion of this sudden move. I want to ask for help but I am racing against time, and the impending shelter-in-place in New York City. I don’t want to pack my things and find myself trapped.

For several hours straight, I lift and bend and pack, doing almost everything the doctor had instructed me not to do after the surgery. “Take it easy,” he had said. “Don’t lift anything over 20 pounds.” I work through lunch and dinner.

Guitar, printer, big suitcase, small suitcase—I have so many things, because I moved to New York by car, not by plane. I leave half of my belongings in the apartment because the building said in an email they would store them. The rest I throw in garbage bags. 

I check my watch: an hour until the Uber. 

VI.

I haul two moving carts up to my room. On my way out, I bump into a friend, David.

“You’re leaving?” he asks, bewildered; just yesterday we had dinner in the dining hall, and I had assured him I would stay. Together we push a big, clunky cart into the elevator, navigating walls and sharp corners. With his help, I get two carts down to the lobby.

I bump into yet another friend, who tells me she is going back to Germany. “You’re leaving the country?” I ask her. “What about your work visa?”

“I feel like there will be exemptions made,” she says. “They’ll let us back in the country, won’t they? They’ll know there are extenuating circumstances.”

I’m not so sure.

At the front desk, I hand over my keys. I inquire about storage. “I left a few things upstairs. You guys will store them, right?”

They say they don’t know anything about that. 

“What?” I check my phone. The Uber is scheduled to arrive in five minutes, and my phone is about to die. I pull out my charging cable and it tangles around my wrists—I’ve handcuffed myself.

“What do you mean you can’t store them?” I show them the email. 

“You are… misinterpreting it,” they say.

A terse argument follows. Voices are raised. David paces. The Uber arrives.

VII.

Outside, the Uber driver takes one look at my belongings and shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

“It will fit!” I nearly scream, heaving my things into the back of the car. “It will fit.” 

One of the front desk managers follows me outside, thrusting a piece of paper in my direction. It crumples in mid-air with the sheer force of the motion. “You need to fill this out if you’re going to give him access to your room!”

“You’re holding an identical form to the one I just filled out,” I say. “It’s the same form.”

He shouts at me for another five minutes until he realizes that yes, I have already filled out that form, and apologizes.

“It’s okay,” I say, but it isn’t. I am rattled and tired. And I am not wearing my mask. “Everyone is on edge.”

He helps load my things into the Uber like a jigsaw puzzle. Miraculously, it all fits. I promise David I will come back for my things. “Come soon,” he says. “I may have to leave the building.”

As the Uber pulls away, I take in a shuddering breath. For a moment I think I might cry, but I don’t. I crack the window and lean away, trying to put as much space between myself and the driver as possible. Just in case.

He puts on jazz, which seems to suit the New York cityscape that stretches out ahead of us. The lights from the George Washington bridge glow like little pearls strung out across the night sky.

VIII.

The next day, I am sitting in my temporary room in my Aunt’s place in New Jersey, trying to change my mailing address for my pending work visa. My belongings are strewn around the room, haphazardly.

I remember touring International House what seems like a lifetime ago now, marvelling at the marble floors and white Greco-Roman columns. Things had degenerated fast. I had fled the building, and I hadn’t fled just anything—I had fled the pandemic.

The International House group chat suddenly explodes with messages.

“Fight it out? Or leave?” 

“Fight it out. The measures they are taking are extremely irresponsible.”

“Where do we go?”

“They’ll be releasing 300 people into the world that were in contact with the virus.”

“Regardless of what that contract says, legally, under an impending shelter in place, they cannot do this.” 

“I left all my stuff in I-House and now they’re closing…”

David forwards me an email from the residence administration. It states that:

(1) A member of the International House staff has tested positive for COVID-19, and has likely exposed us to the virus over several weeks;

(2) This is now a high risk building;

(3) All residents will be required to vacate the premises within a week.

MC

Grim

Mar. 17, 2020, 7:30 a.m.

I.

In the weak light of early morning I wonder what kind of world I am waking up to.

I strap on a heavy-duty mask and take an Uber to my first post-operative appointment in Midtown Manhattan. The subway is out of the question. “Yours was one of the last elective surgeries I did,” says my doctor. My surgery was on Wednesday, and the U.S. Surgeon General ordered all elective surgeries to cease on Saturday. 

I show my doctor my mask and ask if maybe I am overreacting. His response: “Put that mask on when you’re in a room with more that five people and don’t take it off.” 

I procured the mask from a resident of my building. I saw her wearing one and chased her through the hallway, asking pleadingly if she had another. She is Chinese-Italian and has seen the worst of the virus firsthand, on two fronts.

“I’ll give it to you,” she said, “but only because you just had surgery.” She handed me a white duck-bill with an actual respirator, which I now strap onto my face as I leave the doctor’s office. 

Back at home, I watch a news conference where New York Governor Cuomo promises there will be no quarantine. A few hours later, the city-wide quarantine is back on the table. Like a pendulum, decisions come and go. We should know within 48 hours whether there will be a shelter in place. 

“Do you think we will be able to leave? If the shelter in whatever?” asks my friend Pouya. He had planned to drive back to Canada in his car and had even offered me a space, but I reluctantly declined.

“I would bet my money on being stuck,” I say. “You may want to leave sooner rather than later.”

“Grim,” he intones.

With a city-wide quarantine on the horizon, residents of my building pack their things within a matter of hours and buy next-day flights. An acquaintance stands in the middle of the dining hall by her suitcases and backpack, ready to vacate the residence. “I just sold all my things.” She looks at me. “And they just cancelled my flight.”

II.

I receive several calls in quick succession, the first from Maggie, who is teaching abroad in Spain and trapped in her new home because of the nationwide quarantine. She and a friend took over the apartment after two other friends fled the country, leaving vacant rooms. She rushed to buy a ticket back to Canada with a layover in Cairo—“Flights were disappearing right in front of me”—then the Spanish border slammed shut, and she was stuck. “I feel like I’ve lived 6 months in a day.”

Cassandra and Maria call. Things seem calmer in small-town Canada; they are baking banana bread. I follow suit and bake banana bread on my end, as well. Cassandra messages me two startling articles that claim the world will never be the same.

I get a call from Zoe. In a lilting South African accent, she notes: “It’s just interesting to be living in a time like this.”

Lily calls. The sun streams through her window in North Carolina, where she has chosen to live out her quarantine.

My mother calls and vows to support me in a way only mothers can: “I’ll call you every day. Whenever you feel panicked” — she smacks her chest three times — “I’ll bring you right back down.”

Exhausted from my recovery and speaking and everything, I lie in bed and close my eyes. 

III.

Zoom meetings and group chats crop up everywhere: groups for fun, groups for people who want to play piano even though the practice rooms are closed, groups for virtual happy hours, groups to discuss Corona, groups to discuss anything but Corona.

A virtual town hall is held for the Columbia Journalism School. Our career expo is now online. Naturally, twenty or so employers have dropped out, leaving 130. Someone asks about graduation and the dean says that a virtual ceremony or event would most certainly be crap but it must be done. What about partial tuition refunds, the students hiss.

The administration has shifted all of our coursework and reporting to focus, now, on the Coronavirus and have even built a website to display our work. Someone coins the term Coronavirus Class, which I don’t find funny at all. Instead I wonder how it is that dreams can turn to ash before your very eyes.

I grapple with this new virtual classroom. The tinny voices that echo from the laptop that now houses my entire costly graduate program; the abrupt finality of the call, once it has been ended by the host; the completeness of the silence.

MC

Disaster-Preparedness

Mar. 15, 2020, 2:09 p.m.

Have you ever lived through a pandemic?

If you had told me, a month ago, that I would soon be in full disaster-preparedness mode, blanching and freezing vegetables to last several weeks, I wouldn’t have believed you. (I would have asked you what it meant to blanch a vegetable.)

There are whispers that the dormitory might soon be quarantined. Our residents go in and out, without restriction. It’s only a matter of time. I order three frozen meals off Amazon. They arrive in short order, along with bags and bags of vegetables that are not mine. When I run back to tell the delivery man, he is gone. He, like everyone else, is “social-distancing.”

I learn how to do it on YouTube, the blanching. I put on a video of a happy woman from the South who says We’ve got a really nice crop of peppers this year, her voice cheerful with the comfort and levity of another time. In my dim Manhattan apartment, alone, I feel as though I am looking through a porthole. You don’t want to boil the peppers too long, just enough to blanch them, she says. Then you can freeze them. I do as I am told. My kitchen counter is covered in carrots, green onion, and so many yellow peppers. Why did they order so many peppers?

I blanch them, bag them, put them in the freezer, for what? I’m not sure.

I look out my window. The streets are empty, yet the eerie tinkling music from an ice cream truck persists. Someone has released six star-shaped blue and silver balloons into the open air. I watch them until they are out of sight.

MC

Contagion

March 14, 2020, 12:41 p.m.

I thought pandemics only happened in movies and books. Yet here I am, in a self-imposed quarantine in my apartment.

I don’t have COVID-19, but I am temporarily immuno-compromised. I haven’t left the apartment since a surgery I had last Wednesday to correct a chronic issue. This surgery, planned months ago, might be one of the last that will take place at Mount Sinai West Hospital here in New York. So here I am. It happened slowly, then all of a sudden, in a rush: Columbia moved all classes online, providing Zoom conference links to all students.

Our Career Expo, the highlight of the Master’s program, was moved online as well, to our dismay. (How can you hold a career expo online? we wondered.) When I heard, I said, “Whatever, man,” which is what I say when I am hurt, or disappointed.

Columbia undergrads are now being encouraged to move out. My residence has banned guests. They are encouraging residents to leave, but I plan to stay put, because people who leave become trapped in place. One of my former roommates buys a ticket home but finds herself stranded in Spain, unable to fly back to Canada. “Fuckety fuck,” she says. “I’m taking a walk.”

People raid the supermarkets and stock up on toilet paper. Last week, I thought they were being ridiculous. Now, I’m not so sure.

As I write, President Trump has suspended all travel from the UK and Ireland, effective Monday night at midnight. He has already banned travel into the US from Europe in an attempt to stem the flow from Spain and Italy, the twin epicentres of the crisis.

Italy is suffering; they have tens of thousands of cases and their health system is overwhelmed. People sing patriotic tunes from their balconies. I begin to go stir-crazy in my apartment, assessing the New York City streets from my window. I have errands to run but I am terrified to leave.

NHL, NBA, sports, all cancelled. Will the Olympics still happen? Schools, cancelled. Large gatherings, cancelled. Broadway shows, cancelled. Everyone is told to work from home. Our dynamic, globalized world grinds to a halt.

MC