I have sat down to write this three or four times, and every time I stop, scrap everything and start all over. For many reasons, the most important being that things are changing so fast – every time I finish, the information I have included is inaccurate. More and more restaurants are closing, businesses are changing hours, closing, opening again.
It starts at the top. The Mayor of New York City, the Governor of New York State and the President of the United States can’t seem to agree on what to do and how to do it. The mayor announced we must prepare to be under “shelter in place” in the next 48 hours only to be contradicted by the governor just a few hours later. The president at that point was claiming everything was just fine and all but denied that there was any virus at all.
Every new bit of news would send some people into panic buying, only for things to calm down again quickly after. I have managed to go shopping in those quiet times. At least once I had almost the entire supermarket to myself, only to walk by the same supermarket just a few hours later and see a line snaking around the block.
And I understand, to a certain extent, that shutting down the city, the ever-moving, bustling city, seems unthinkable. New York is gigantic, the capital of the world, proud to be the city that never sleeps… because it genuinely never does. We have 24/7 public transportation, restaurants that never close, and in Queens a taco truck on every corner or an arepa cart or a momo truck or… you get the picture. We are very densely populated and are very limited geographically (all the boroughs are on islands, except for the Bronx) on how we can expand. So we grow up. While that’s less the case in Queens than in the other boroughs, it is still very much true.
We started with a very voluntary “isolation” and are encouraged to practice “social distancing.” We weren’t sure what any of that meant. Eventually guidelines and patterns started to emerge. Stop shaking hands and hugging, stay at least two meters from each other, avoid large crowds. But nothing very official or enforceable. While most tried to adapt to the new normal, many did not.
Some shows and concerts went on as scheduled, but slowly the trickle of cancellations started until it was a torrent. The city finally started to take it very seriously. I had a couple of practices schedule with my DIY punk band for a show that was coming up. We managed to do one, then we canceled the next one, and finally the show was canceled. As the number of confirmed positives started increasing, new rules started coming out in rapid succession. First public schools were closed. Then restaurants were ordered to half their capacity. Then they were ordered to close sit down/dine in and only open for takeout and delivery.
And here we are, shut down except for so-called “essential services” – supermarkets, grocery stores, pharmacies, etc. No more than 10 people per shop. We are not panicking; in fact, most of us are in good spirits. We are New York City, we have been through 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, several black outs… we got this.
But it is hard with more languages and more cultures than any other place in the world. We all live, work, take the subway and eat together somehow. My area is the most diverse neighborhood in the most diverse city in the most diverse country in the world. We navigate an intricate, nuanced labyrinth of cultural and linguistic differences. When and how you shake hands, hug, kiss, pat on the back… now we are rewired to a new practice, waving from a distance.
How do you avoid a crowd when you are going up and down your building? It is hilarious at times.
And how do we adjust our eating habits? Because we eat at all hours – any time of the day or night – and have our pick of food from any continent, any country. Ten minutes from my apartment I can go to pan-Latino, pan-Asian, Thai, Filipino supermarkets, most of which are open day and night. All of a sudden I have to plan and make a shopping list.
But we adapt, and we will continue to adapt. Farmer’s markets like the Jackson Heights Greenmarket are opening as usual. Local farmers are showing up and assuring us they will keep coming. I can still get local wines and cheeses from the same people I have been getting them from for years.
I have been having strange cravings during these strange times. I wanted sesame chicken, but most of the Chinese-American places around me are closed. I finally found some an easy 15-minute bike ride away. I sat at Flushing Meadows Park to eat it. For me, comfort foods are amalgamation of Queens, starting with Colombian food (my place of origin) to Indian curries, spicy Thai and much, much more. Cheap sesame chicken takeout throws me back to when I first arrived in the U.S. I spoke no English, had very little money and knew very few people. And as I began adapting to the city and the language, I started exploring its people and its food. Chinese-American takeout, where I could order by the number, was one of them. I learned to love new and at the same time “exotic” foods.
Since the coronavirus fears began, I have been bicycling everywhere in Queens. Visiting my favorite restaurants and street vendors, buying lunch and snacks. Elias the Argentinian butcher loads me up with his house-made chorizos: “You want Colombian, Argentinian, Mexican… never mind I will just put a few of each.” Juan Carlos, the new arepa street vendor, wants to make sure I have eaten. I stop by Farine Bakery, where, just like the Jackson Diner, they have a table with lunch bags “for anyone that needs one, no questions asked.” A Muslim store on 37th Ave and 73rd Street has “free hand sanitizers and masks for anyone, with priority for the elderly.”
I myself have been drafted by Centro Corona, a community center that has slowly become more and more active in the community, as a chef. They are an enthusiastic bunch, getting a kitchen ready, shopping and stocking food. They’re also surveying the community to see who will have a need for hot meals, from people whose health requires them to be totally isolated to people going through a rough time (so many jobs just ceased to exist). Another collective of cyclists is being set up to deliver food, groceries and anything those same people might need. Mutual aid is also sprouting in every borough of the city. As Mr. Rogers said about being scared when disaster strikes: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Editor’s note: With the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis rapidly and profoundly impacting many of the cities we work in, we’ve asked some of our correspondents to file dispatches detailing how they and the places they live in are coping with this new reality. Our ninth report is from Queens, which, as of a few days ago, accounted for 32 percent of New York City’s confirmed coronavirus cases, more than any other borough and far more than its share of the city’s population. Click here to read more about the surge at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens and to watch a short video that gives a rare look inside the hospital.