NYC in a Time of Lockdown

By Marivir R. Montebon

A day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered to close bars and restaurants and reduce their services to takeouts and deliveries, the first to disappear was my favorite halal street food cart. At first, I presumed that my warm, delicious $6 chicken-over-rice would still be accessible on Broadway because it only served the hot meals on-the-go. But I was wrong. When I walked down to the corner before the 96th Street subway station to buy my dinner, the food cart was gone! Since then, I’ve been missing my halal chicken.

I also missed the days when coffee shops and restaurants were open until late. It’s the best place for work colleagues and friends to hang out to unwind or discuss work. For sure, small businesses, which comprise 50% of the business in NYC, have been hardest hit by the lockdown since early March.

Small business owners were first to cheer after a moratorium on eviction of renters who couldn’t pay rent as a result of the recession is being implemented for three months. That moratorium is until June.

So now the city that never sleeps is actually taking intermittent naps. Until when? Maybe until July or August of this year. I don’t want to hurry. I have tried to make complete sense staying at home. It’s not just an eat-sleep-Netflix-repeat kind of life.

I have managed to perk up our virtual chat rooms on Facebook just to be in touch with everyone. Our FilAm Press Club NY has its chat room. My nuclear family has our own, and another one for my huge clan who are scattered in NYC, California, Cebu, Mindanao, and Siquijor. Then there is my high school chatroom and college chat room and a NY girlfriends chat room as well. So far, I have managed to be sane inside the new apartment in Manhattan.

The internet, despite all the many crazy things it has allowed such as the proliferation of fake news, has redeemed itself in the time of coronavirus – by linking people when physicality so prohibits.

On my workstation, which I call my war zone, is a huge picture of beloved daughter Leani Alnica, who passed on to a greater dimension, in November 2019, due to colon cancer. Staring at her picture, from time to time as I write, is actually energizing. Her smile eases my grief, and I think that perhaps, if she’s still around at this time, it would be doubly hard for her and me. I miss her everyday, but thought that God’s time is always perfect, always meaning to make things better for us.

As I write, my aunt is confined at the Elmhurst Hospital in Queens for she tested positive of COVID19. She was rushed to the ER for fever and hard breathing. Being diabetic and elderly, she is a vulnerable case.  Queens has the most number of COVID19 cases in the five boroughs here.

We have gone crazy in checking her out, through our cell phones and chat rooms. So this is how a COVID19 attack looks like: you cannot go with your loved one to the hospital, she is all by herself. You can only hope that she answers her cell phone or the doctor answers your call.

At the time of my aunt’s confinement, her older sister, who’s left at home was also running a fever. And we could not easily get an acetaminophen for that. Amazon had refused to take more orders for that day that I tried to order online. There was chaos and prayers of hope in my clan’s chatroom.

Now my aunt at Elmhurst is responding well to medication. But she is not yet out of the woods. She needs to be tested again if the COVID19 went away. Doctors said she is still contagious and must continue to be isolated. Meanwhile, my other aunt had to continue to hydrate and take immunoboosters big time, to keep the fever at bay.

A disturbing reality these days in NYC is the spate of suicides. This week, two incidents of suicides have been reported in the Upper West Side alone. And the siren of an ambulance that happens too often triggers my worry (I used to be annoyed by sirens in the city).  Another one goes to the ER, I’d reckon and say a prayer.

My thought goes to the thousands of nurses and doctors and staff in the frontlines of this war against an invisible enemy. I am in personal contact with friends and cousins who are nurses and doctors, and indeed could vouch for their alarm on the shortage of PPEs. It is ridiculously true.  The pandemic is not a political concoction of bringing down Pres. Trump, as right-wingers say. Frontliners are dying and they have to be given enough ammunition to fight the virus and save lives. By the end of this contagion, I don’t like to say it, but doctors and nurses may become among the rare species.

New York admittedly had acted late. The US acted late. No wonder it is now horrifyingly the epicenter of this new virus.  Decisive leadership is of the essence. And also, more importantly, community cooperation is needed. People should behave as prescribed – social distancing.

‘Stay at home’ is the rule every person has to follow. It is both simple and difficult, because New Yorkers are used to moving about so much. But this is the simplest contribution each one of us could do to contain the pandemic. Of course, wearing gloves and masks are a must as well.

Government projects that the worst is yet to come in the months of April and May. So, I sigh, God help us. And we have to be responsible too.

On the brighter side, locking down New York means having to keep the house immaculately clean and to change perspectives – that all we need is to be clean, to have only the essentials – food, water, vitamins, and to exercise (thanks to my nieces in Cebu who dance the tick tock like they’re my dance coaches!).

Money may not even be a main worry now, especially if rent and mortgages are suspended further. In New York these days, what matters is a clean home, a kindly relationship, and enough food supply. Hopefully, we all will become better after learning the lessons a virus has taught us.

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Sonia Goldstein, Worker Activist

 Sonia Goldstein is a lifelong activist for the rights of workers and civil rights causes. She was raised by activists, and has continued this by raising new generations of activists. She previously spoke at the 2017 Clara Lemlich Award ceremony at the Museum of the City of New York about a relative who was almost involved in the 1912 Triangle Fire disaster. 

Interviewed by Annika Fagerstrom

My parents were both very committed to making a better life for themselves. They lived in the co-ops, which were built by the garment workers association. They couldn’t have planning on getting old, because they didn’t have the money. The garment workers built two houses because they believed workers deserved light, cross ventilation, and all that. A large number of them were Jewish, so they had a school for the children in the basement. And an auditorium, and so forth. They really all believed in making things better, and then workers deserved these basics.

My husband was a GI, and didn’t make much, so I went to work as well. I remember once coming home from work. This woman comes up to me, points at me, and says, “You’re Morty’s?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Good.” I don’t know her name, never knew who she was. And that was what living there was like. Everyone looked out for everyone else and everyone cared for everyone else. At that time May Day was the workers’ holiday, everyone got the day off. Everyone, the students got the day off from school, and all the workers did as well. There was a real appreciation for a better life. You know, they worked crazy hours, made very little money, and they focus on a better life for their kids. And for themselves. They had lectures, they had book clubs, they had all kinds of things that made them feel better about themselves.

My parents came into Washington DC, they met there. They never would have met in New York. My mother was the poorest person I know, in terms of her background. She was one of five sisters. My mom’s oldest sister, my mom’s the next oldest, was in the 1905 revolution in Russia and had to hide out. ‘Cause the Cossacks would get her, also they were Jewish, which was a double whammy. She died of typhus because she couldn’t leave hiding to seek medical help because then they would have gotten her. My mother was arrested at the age of nine for stealing a loaf of bread. And I asked her, ‘Why did you steal a loaf a bread.” And she said, “I couldn’t stand my sister’s crying anymore.” So, she was the oldest of the other three. And she told me a lot of story that she probably shouldn’t have but she had a breakdown when I was 10, and I took care of her, and she talked a lot then.

She wanted desperately to learn to read. She told me, “When you walk in the park with a book under your arm, everyone knows you can read.” This was the highest honor for her; her face was alight when she told me this. So, she, when my grandmother sent money for passage to New York, and when my grandmother went to the next town to get her from school, she didn’t want to go.  And I have it on tape, she said to me, “So I gave up my life and went.” She came to this country. And she told her sisters, “everything is paid for so eat everything you can.” But then she was seasick the entire time. Life isn’t fair, sometimes.

When I was born, we lived in Baltimore with my grandmother. We moved to Washington from Baltimore when I was little, I only spoke Yiddish. My whole life was speaking Yiddish, I didn’t know any English. In Washington, no one spoke Yiddish and I was the only person in school who did. I was passed on condition from kindergarten to first grade. But, the first-grade teacher if you gave her the wrong answer you were rapped on the knuckles, so I knew better than to talk. So, they sent me back to kindergarten. All through school I thought I was dumb, all through school. Only later I found out, I had the goods.

I got married in 1947. We were involved in desegregating Washington. Washington prided itself on being separate. So, we had a housewarming party, which involved all colors because that’s who we were. And there was a spy in our group. And the vice squad came to our house, banging on the door, saying someone heard a gunshot. And they went to our closet and pulled out a rifle, which they had brought with them to plant. No one in our house had guns, no one could even afford them. So, they separated the men and the women, and took us down to the station. And I thought after, why did we answer. But there were no Miranda rights back then.

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Joanna Herman, Teacher, Volunteer

Joanna Herman is a retired professor and education activist who has worked and volunteered in a variety of Civil Rights campaigns.

 Interviewed by Erin McNally

I was born in Waterbury Connecticut in the late 1940s to a working-class Italian family. Hard-working and loving parents as they were, my family was the sign of times, racist and close minded. It was not until high school until I got a close glimpse of just how racist my community was.

My sister started working at a summer camp in the ghetto. I listened to her stories of the fun at the camp and all of the activities there. There was one story that changed the course of my life forever: There was a group of African American girls that participated in a dance competition. She told me of their ability and rhythm that was unmatched by the other groups. Solemnly, my sister ended the story that she knew that the group would never win, because of the color of their skin. As it brought tears to my eyes, I knew that I had to do something about this in my life. I made the decision then and there that I had to do something more.

Fast forward years later, and at Boston University, a solution presented itself. It took the form of the Civil Rights Movement. It was the 1960s in one of the most urban places in the country. Being at BU during this time, the Civil Rights Movement was a piece of theater in our hands, having us be part of history because that’s just what you did. There was something in the air then and Boston brought me into the larger world. While attending university, I served as an au pair for a local family. The father was a minister at the local colleges, such as Harvard and MIT. He was also a huge Civil Rights activist and the family home served as a meeting place for activist leaders. They taught me what it meant to be American and how to make it out in the world. College served as the catalyst into my political activism and married both my work and activism into a single outlet.

I came to New York after college to pursue a career in teaching, with my own activist ambition in the back of my mind. I started at a Day Care center in the Bronx and library in Harlem, where I found a connection between activism and my work. After some time there, I started a job at a private elementary school in Manhattan where I furthered my ambition by taking classes out of the classroom, pursuing a policy of finding connections between coursework and real-life education.

I then started working at City College, which I called my home for over 40 years. There, I taught basic writing courses when a lot of my students were under-educated and from under-resourced communities. At City College, there was a large international population, where students had come from Pakistan, parts of Africa and so many other disenfranchised countries. These students were also most likely undocumented and marginal in American society. I found it my duty to service these kids as they had gone to such great lengths to not only come to America, but to further their education and become active members of society. One of the students literally stored himself in a checked suitcase, traveling from a country in Africa to come to the States. For these students, they came from more

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Julie Azuma, Activist

 

Julie Azuma is a Chicago-born New Yorker with an extensive career in social activism, both as an educational activist for children with autism, and as an activist for Japanese-American rights. With a career spanning more than two decades, Julie has used the influence and success of her company, Different Roads to Learning, to speak for those without a strong political voice. Julie’s work in bringing awareness to issues such as the educational gap for autistic children, and the necessary reparations needed after the holding of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II, has sparked important change and started needed conversations about human rights. As she continues to work for progress in our country, she talked about her extensive life and career, and the effect her work has had on herself.

Interviewed by Alexis Perez

I would say that all of the activist work I have done was not calculated, but very natural. It all felt very necessary and essential to the life I was living. Growing up in Chicago, with two Japanese-American parents who had lived in America during the second World War, I felt very personally affected by the history of the use of concentration camps during that time.

During this time, Japanese or Japanese-Americans folks were held in these internment camps right after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Both of my parents had been held in one of these camps, and my mother was even pregnant with me during her year-long imprisonment. This was about as extensive as my history of their experience at the camps was; my family refused to talk about what had happened, or the effect it had on them thereafter. If I was ever to ask about what had happened in these times, my parents would shut down on me. This past was treated as though it didn’t matter, although it was very clear to me that it had scarred my family and others for generations.

My mother, a first-generation Japanese-American, and my father, a Japanese-American immigrant, both seemed to hold significant scars after their imprisonments. These effects were also seen on my distant cousins who were held in the camps, and consisted of a general, underlying fear of authority. I also felt that it made them want to blend into the background politically, and they have not wanted to stick out in the face of authority since. Even discussing the effects or happenings of the concentration camps felt like a can of worms best left unopened.

Not knowing more than this about their history, and the history of other interned Japanese-Americans, caused me to seek out, later in my life, a place to learn and discover more about it. I was greatly affected by the shame and humiliation these events had caused in my family, and was open to meeting with others who felt the same. I sought out a group working for Redress Reparations in California, and eventually, I got involved with a group that met weekly, or sometimes monthly, in the basement of a church to work towards receiving these reparations for Japanese-Americans affected by these concentration camps. We wanted to find a way to stand up for the detention our people faced, and we truly believed we were capable of fixing the issue. We worked tirelessly until we won in 1980, when the bill was passed to start a reparation program. Working with this program for years, I got to meet many famous Japanese and Japanese-American activists that I felt so privileged to be able to enjoy. Since that time, I am still in touch with many of these people, and continue to reach out to this day.

Being a part of that movement, and involving myself later with other Japanese New Yorkers helped me create my space in America as a Japanese-American. We felt as though the Japanese New Yorker experience was different than those in other regions, as we were generally more artistic or bohemian. Prior to discovering this circle, I had always felt as if I had no sense of community. It seemed as though Japanese-Americans were previously pushed into the background, and continued to face oppression because it was assumed that we wouldn’t yell, or make noise about what we were facing. Gathering a community of Japanese Americans, and continuing to raise awareness about what our ancestors had faced, fostered the greatest sense of community for us. Even now, we try to gather as often as possible and have a potluck of Asian food, and it has given us our own, different space to feel a part of.

This has been a big part of my activism over the years–wanting to create a sense of belonging on many levels for those that didn’t have this before. Whenever inviting someone new to come along to our potluck, my mantra is: “I promise you’ll meet someone that you like!” This has been my favorite way to foster community among those who had felt neglected before.

Like my activism for Japanese-Americans, my work for educational support for autistic children also came from what seemed like a place of necessity on my part. Moving into adulthood, I had always wanted many children and imagined myself having quite a few. My older daughter, however, Miranda, was adopted by my husband and me from Korea. We noticed fairly early that she had severe behavioral issues, and was disabled in some way.

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Ethel Paley, Elder Caregiver

Ethel Paley is native New Yorker who in her early life worked as a part of WAVES, the women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve during World War II, before studying at Barnard College and Columbia University where she received a Master’s degree in social work. She has spent most of her later life dedicated to FRIA, and organization that seeks to ensure seniors receive proper care, services, and treatment from nursing homes around New York City. Ms. Paley was the group’s first director and served as a steadfast and hard-working volunteer and board member until its closing in 2011. Her daughter was present for the interview.

 

Interview by Lara Cochran

Funnily enough, it was never my intention to begin work with FRIA.

I had received a degree in Economics and American History at Barnard when I was younger and eventually, after I realized I would not be able to do much work for people without the formality of a social work degree, I went back to Columbia for my Masters. That was when I began my job search.

It was the late 1960s and early ‘70s when I took a few jobs around the city after graduating with my second degree. I had, and still have, a great passion for people. All that I was really looking for was a job that allowed me to work with citizens in New York who needed help that they weren’t being given. At that time, though, there was a huge outbreak in the media reporting on nursing home mistreatment and abuse of residents. It was all especially bad in New York. There were fires and reports of disrespect, but the biggest thing was that these people were actually stealing from the residents. Jewelry and furniture even! It was preposterous how they were getting away with what they were.

Eventually it got to be so bad that the federal government could not ignore it for much longer. They decided to award a sum of money to a woman named Rose Dobrev, who had spoken out about the need for better eldercare and protection against mistreatment. You have to understand though, that this was just money. They did not offer a plan, they did not offer any other form of assistance. They handed her money and expected some sort of result. That was about the same time that I heard of FRIA.

Well, it wasn’t FRIA to begin with. It was an idea.

I did not meet Rose until years later but those that she had already met and worked with were trying to establish an organization that would act as an ally for families of nursing home residents. That was almost all I knew when I went for an interview at an organization that didn’t yet have a name, just a mission and a strong will to see it through. Eventually we settled on “Friends and Relatives of the Institutionalized Aged” – that social-worky enough for you? It was a long name which became so tiresome to say that we shortened it to FRIA and stuck with the nickname until its end.  I started with them in the mid-70s and worked as a paid staff, a volunteer, and a Board Member until their end in 2011.

Many people, when first hearing about FRIA and its objective, assume we were a group that infiltrated and investigated nursing home facilities, undercover. That we would quickly and single-handedly stop any mistreatment ourselves. I wish. However, that’s not the way institutions operate.

There are rules and regulations to be followed, laws to be abided by, and heads of power to appeal to. What FRIA focused on was information. We made sure that we had all of the updated information regarding nursing home residents’ rights, the nursing homes’ rights, whether or not a specific home had complaints against it, and more. We needed to have this information in order to be able to give it to the families who were worried about their relatives living in homes. Most of those that needed help simply didn’t have access to this knowledge or could not find it on their own. We were the messengers.

That’s why we started FRIA’s hotline. It was just one of our projects, but probably the most productive thing that we did. Individuals and families were able to call in and discuss an issue that they had, ask questions about what they could do to right a situation, or how they could get better care for their relatives. I answered calls over the entire three and a half decades I worked at FRIA and it always seemed to be the place where I felt most helpful. I felt I had a purpose and was able to accomplish FRIA’s goal in small ways with each call.

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Deborah, Helping in Sanctuary

 Deborah, a Guatemalan immigrant facing deportation, was interviewed at St. Paul and St Andrew Church in New York where she has been has been living in sanctuary at the church since June.

Interviewed by Jillian Ridler and Valentina Gonzalez

My name is Deborah and I am 32 years old. I came to America in 2005. I had to leave Guatemala because it was not safe for me there. I had no choice, I had to leave. I was young and I left my entire family behind. It was a long and hard journey to get to the United States. I did not know anyone in America but I was so happy once I got here because I was safe. Westchester for has been my home for 13 years. Ever since I came to this country I lived there. It is the place where I feel secure, where I feel safe.

When got to America I was scared I was going to only be able to work cleaning houses all the time. But I was able to do so much more than that. I was with Early Childhood Education. I was just promoted, and I was studying to get my GED so I could go to college and get a degree. I want to finish my schooling, but now I am stuck. I can’t even work anymore and can’t finish my studies. I have to put this dream on hold.

I have been living in sanctuary at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew since June. I had to leave my home to protect my family. ICE told me I can’t be here anymore and I’ve got to leave. Then that was that. I got placed in this church through a program called Sanctuary. They pair people facing deportation with churches to keep them safe. They put me here because it was the first space that opened up. Once I got here, I had to notify ICE that I am not hiding, and that I am here in sanctuary until I am able to see a judge.

I had to get sanctuary because it was not making sense for me to hide. I would not be allowed to drive a car anymore, to work as I used to, not even to go to school. Hiding would change everything. So, I left everything. I left my house, my family, my friends, my community, my job. Everything. I miss them, but I can’t go back yet. I don’t know if I will ever be able to go back.

It’s hard right now because it’s not only me living in sanctuary at this church. I am here with two children. When we got here, my son was 10 and my daughter was two. Now he is eleven and she is three. I feel sad living in the church because the children are suffering. They are traumatized. How’re you going to explain to them, your child, that you can’t leave the church. They don’t comprehend.

My son goes to school here now – but I cannot take him to school any more. I can’t check up that everything is okay with him at school. That is very hard for me. I’m the type of Mom that will show up to school without no appointment and say, “I want to know how my son is doing.” But I can’t do that anymore.

My son, he has been a very good boy. He keeps fighting too because even if Mommy can’t do the usual things with him, he still focuses and stuff. Like he is really is a very busy boy. They have to learn. I can’t have him watching TV all the time. He is fighting because he needs to study, he needs to be focused. I always been telling him that whatever is going on in your life, you have to fight for the things you want. Everybody has their goals and things they want to reach. Our situation isn’t going to stop him. He isn’t going to give up. It may feel like we are stuck a little bit but we are going to get out of this place.

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Kathy Goldman, Hunger Warrior

Kathy Goldman is a New York native, born in the Bronx in the 1930s and currently residing in Manhattan, who has dedicated her life to community activism and issues of hunger, food, and poverty. Her advocacy has focused on reforming food programs in New York City schools, as well as promoting the passage of federal food welfare programs. She founded the Community Food Resource Center which now exists as a part of the Food Bank for New York City, of which she serves as a board member. In addition to all her work relating to hunger, Kathy has helped to begin and manage several senior programs and centers throughout her life. However, she describes her accomplishments as a member of the organization United Bronx Parents as her biggest and most influential.

Interviewed by Lara Cochran

It all started in the Bronx. So much starts in the Bronx – hell, I started in the Bronx! I am the daughter of Jewish immigrants. My father was a Polish carpenter and my mother a Hungarian writer and stay at home parent. We lived in the South Bronx in the 1930s and 40s, back when it was a hub and home for immigrants. It was a time when people lived in neighborhoods that they gave a damn about, with people that they gave a damn about. Both my mother and father were big influences and activists in our community. She started a Hungarian-American women’s magazine that many of her friends contributed to and read while he worked as the secretary treasurer in one of the carpenters’ unions that existed at the time. I know I didn’t think about it much then, but they each very much instilled in me a sense of loyalty to the groups I was and have become a part of. They taught me that compassion and hard work could make change happen.

I truly did not get involved in activism myself until much later in my life. It was the 1960s, around the time that I was living and working in the Bronx with a few of my own kids going to school in the area, when I began to get involved in the work that has defined a lot of my life since then. I was invited to join the United Bronx Parents when it was started in 1965 by Evelina Antonetty. She was a wonderful and smart woman who, one day, was told about a five-year-old that had been suspended from a school in the Bronx and was immediately outraged. She started UBP to reform and change the schools in the Bronx for the better of the children and community members. It was an amazing group that did amazing things for the quality and integration of schools in the Bronx. I believe it still exists today, but I doubt it’s the same.

Back then we did what no one else would even consider doing. At one point, we were actually able to get the test scores and the budgets for the nearby schools and we published them in any newspaper that would take them. People were furious. It was one of the first times that so many parents and students were able to see that they had done nothing wrong. They were victims of a system that hurt them. The differences in the results and costs of the mostly white schools versus those that were entirely Puerto Rican and black was huge. That was what started to get us recognized. They still print those scores today, in fact. It’s really true that when the people get mad, they bring the change.

A few years into UBP a group of about a dozen Puerto Rican women came to see Evelina and I. They wanted to talk about the lunches that their children were getting from school. I had never thought much about school food before I spoke to those mothers. In my house, my children would come home for lunch and eat whatever was left over or I’d give them a dollar to grab something for themselves. But these women and their families depended on the lunches served at the schools. They spoke to us about the food that was being given out. Unsafe, unhealthy, horrible food! And that is what we decided to focus on first. UBP wanted better food (and free food, at that) for the schools in the Bronx.

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