By Matthew M. Colson for Alabama Daily News
From day one, the coronavirus pandemic has been politicized. This politicization has been thrown in our faces day in and day out. But understanding the political nature of a thing is not understanding it. For that reason I decided the only way to truly understand was to do something peculiar – sit down and talk to people. New York City has been the undisputed epicenter for the coronavirus in the U.S. so I thought it only appropriate to speak to some New Yorkers. However, the NYC experience is not all these individuals share. They or their families are also all Alabama natives. We didn’t talk about politics or death rates or mandates. We spoke about how a historic event has shaped their experiences, their families, and their lives. Obviously, conditions have changed for the better since I spoke to them in May but writing about their experiences helped me grasp a better understanding about the world outside my door. I hope reading about them will do the same for you.
Nathan Tubbs stood at the bottom of his basement stairs, looking up and discussing the events of the day with his wife, Lesley, who stood at the top. The flight of stairs was a quarantine fence line, separating Nathan from his wife and three children. Nathan and Lesley communicated like this for three full weeks with the only other interaction being the few short minutes when she would bring him meals dressed in full PPE. Nathan had been symptom diagnosed with COVID-19 by his physician. Nathan and his kids were in a low risk category but his wife was a different story with more than one existing health condition. Of the few things we knew early on, we knew the elderly and those with serious pre-existing conditions were most susceptible to the virus. Lesley and Nathan knew this too which is why they took immediate and extreme measures.
Originally from Clanton, AL Nathan moved to Brooklyn, New York twelve years ago to start a church. He accomplished his goal in 2011, establishing Cornerstone Church at Bay Ridge. On top of leading a ministry, he works as a 7th grade school teacher and is active in the Air Force Reserves. I got exhausted just listening to Nathan describe his life even outside of dealing with the Coronavirus. Nathan vividly recalls his last day in school on March 19th expecting a two week shutdown. “I remember going grocery shopping that day at the Army base thinking we’ll stock our pantry and just hang out at home for two weeks. Two days later, all the plans we made went completely out the window.”
On March 21st Nathan started to run a mild fever and he immediately quarantined himself; he wouldn’t interact with his family again until April 10th. This separation was the biggest challenge for Nathan. He communicated how incredibly hard it was to hear the bustle of the house but remain excluded. Luckily, he had plenty to keep his mind occupied and relied heavily on his faith. He continued teaching through remote learning, held remote church services, caught up on reading, wrote letters and set small goals to accomplish each day.
For Lesley, he said the biggest challenge was balancing the kids’ remote learning and keeping them occupied while also coping with her own version of a quarantine. During those weeks, Lesley didn’t leave the house either. Nathan explained a conversation they had, “She said, ‘I’m just going to treat the next three weeks like you’re on Air Force duty and you’re gone.’” They relied on church friends to drop food off and even after Nathan’s quarantine the most she would get out would be to take a car ride with him to get essentials. They’ve kept their social circle to about ten people with strict social distancing. At the time I spoke to Nathan in mid-May he said they still had not expanded their circle but had relaxed on social distancing within it.
Nathan shared a story with me that painted a vivid picture of life during COVID. Along with their anniversary, Nathan’s birthday also fell within his quarantine so once he emerged from the basement his wife asked what he’d like for his birthday. Nathan’s answer: a Shake Shack burger. Fortunately, there was one Shake Shack open for take-out only business on the outside of the Staten Island Mall. The family piled in the car and made the trek. After picking up the food they noticed that the massive mall parking lot was totally barren – the perfect setting for a one-family tailgate. They pulled out some game-day chairs and set up. He recalls, “It was the first time the kids were able to run. For one hour they just ran their little hearts out with no restrictions. They just ran. It was very apocalyptic. This area would normally be packed but there was nobody – just the Tubbs family, eating Shake Shack, while the kids ran around.” Apocalyptic indeed.
It’s hard to think how anyone could stay positive but Nathan found a silver lining. “Sometimes I’m away for a month or two and rushing out the door in the mornings. It’s been good to reconnect with my family; to read books to my kids and play board games with my daughter in the morning because all I have to do is walk three feet to my computer to start my day. I’ve been able to eat all three meals with my wife for seven weeks now. You see the performers at the circus spinning plates and as a family that’s what we’ve been doing for so long but for the last two months we’ve been able to put the plates down and rest. Are we going to look back on this one day and actually miss this time we’ve had together? I hope we can learn to live a little more slowly.”
“If anything, this time has only strengthened my belief that this is the greatest city in the world.” These are the positive words of Austin Monceret, a Hoover, Alabama native who moved to NYC in 2018. Moving to New York had always been Austin’s dream. His family and friends told him he should manage his expectations but this only caused him to double down. Austin’s path to NYC took him from Minnesota to Texas to Colorado and finally the Empire State where he works for DiligenceVault, an investment technology firm.
COVID-19 popped up on his radar a bit sooner than some because back in January Austin took a trip to Milan, Italy with some companions who had recently come to Milan by way of Tokyo. He recollects, “In February, when the virus started to trickle in from Westchester we all got really worried and I had already been hyper-sensitive to it. I was a little bit on edge.” The first change to his daily routine was to pick up his bike in place of the subway for his work commute. Regarding the subways, he said, “I don’t have an opinion on whether the subways should have been shut down but logically speaking it was a COVID bomb.”
March 13th is when he remembers a lot of people starting to work from home while at the same time a friend of his began quarantine. “I got to thinking, this is real, people are taking this seriously. So I packed my bags and got the heck out of New York.” His plan was to jet-set on a vacation to Puerto Rico. To his dismay, Puerto Rico began lockdown shortly after his arrival. To avoid being stranded he quickly re-routed to sweet home Alabama. Upon arriving, Austin promptly self-quarantined and signed up for a COVID-19 test which eventually came back negative. He spent six weeks in Alabama with his family and told me, “My mind and soul pours with gratitude that I was able to have family during this time.”
On April 26th Austin returned to his home in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. He explains when he returned, “It’s so quiet I can go outside and not even know I’m outside. There are no senses being activated and it was scary and sad.” Since returning, he restricts himself to trips to the grocery store and leg-stretching walks by the Hudson River. He told me that while he and his roommates have been blessed to avoid the virus they all know people who have died.
Workwise, he and his company have had to make some pretty big adjustments but haven’t experienced much of a slowdown. In fact, they are full steam ahead opening up branches all over the world. “We have not laid off anyone and instead we’re hiring people,” he said as he spoke about a phone interview with a man in Singapore. Factoring in a disaster plan is something that he thinks will be a more common aspect of businesses from here out.
When asked about seeking out an antibody test Austin said he had plans to get one and was being educated by his personal physician. I asked Austin what he thought of New York City officials’ response to COVID-19 to which he replied, “Pretty good.” From his perspective, the city shut down appropriately based on the information that was available at the time. Apart from any specific policy, he mentioned that Governor Andrew Cuomo has been a uniting energy for the city. However, he mentioned now that we have a clearer understanding it was time for low-risk individuals to get back to work. I was heartened to hear him say that “fearful” was not a word that described his experience.
I asked Austin how he thought these events would linger as we move on. He said, “Manhattan is expensive and I haven’t spent much money over the last two months. It’s opened my eyes on how I can subscribe to this wonderful city in a different way.” He went on to explain how some weeks he barely saw the inside of his apartment simply due to the way New Yorkers live. “The entire island of Manhattan is your living room, your apartment.” He sees New Yorkers figuring out ways of re-discovering home life which I found to be a fascinating observation.
Victoria Preston’s family is from Eutaw, AL in Greene County. She lives in Brooklyn and works as an actress and part time for a catering firm. After work went cold for her in early March and the city going into lockdown later that month, things got repetitive fast. “Dinner became a big thing. Planning each night’s dinner all of sudden became a highlight of the day,” she said. Otherwise mundane pastimes became daily activity staples to stay sane. She said she and her roommates’ daily routine consisted of sculpture and art, defeating an 18,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, and finding innovative ways of exercising while cooped up.
As an actress Victoria shared that she is conscious about her weight to a fault and sitting around all day was an issue. Eventually she was able to get out and walk a few miles a day which served as a major pressure reliever. She’s also found relief in positive meditation. “Every day I wake up at 8:30am and meditate immediately for thirty or forty five minutes. I began to feel clearer and more positive so that turned into a necessity.”
Going out for groceries posed a challenge because she normally would take a subway trip. The lockdown caused her to use a store that is closer but fifty percent more expensive which made budgeting for meals a new focus. “The last place I would want to go is the subway because it’s filled with people and you have to touch the poles and everything,” she said. While she avoided the subways she did feel that they needed to remain open due to essential workers commuting into Manhattan.
Unfortunately, both her catering job and any acting jobs dried up and she had to apply for unemployment. She said the unemployment process went smoothly and allowed her to get by and even save some. “It sounds awful but I make so little that I’m enjoying not having to work and do what I want,” she told me. She doesn’t have much hope that her catering job will come back anytime soon so she is making moves to act full time.
When I asked her where she was getting most of her information she told me that she relies heavily on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings. “I would not know was going on without him. He is easy to understand and it was comforting hearing his opinion.” Victoria has had no personal run-ins with the virus and had not made any plans to get any tests at the time I spoke to her. When I asked about antibody tests she said that she heard Gov. Cuomo speak about it but she just didn’t feel the need to go out and seek one out yet.
When she spoke about positives that may come from this experience she said it has forced people to slow down and just “be with themselves.” Her perspective is that many people have used this time to refine their passions and skills that often get lost in their hurry-up lifestyles; perhaps these debilitating situations can hopefully lead to personal innovations.
Adapting to all these changes has been tough for her but she shared a funny anecdote that gives her and her roommates a slice of novel comfort. On any given day there is a man who sits on a chair on the corner that can be seen from her balcony. Oddly enough, this man’s hobby is to yell expletives at police as they drive by. She said, “He does it about 6 times a day and sometimes he even wakes us up with it. So that guy’s still there…doing that every day. It reminds us that not everything has changed.”
Growing up in Clanton, AL myself, it’s no coincidence that I spoke with another Clantonian who lives in New York City. Thompson Conradi attended Chilton County High School, then Auburn University before pursuing a career in film visual effects. This took him to New York City where he now works for a VFX firm. Thompson is credited on such films and shows as The Martian, The Revenant, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and Luke Cage. With his firm based in Atlanta, GA there was a natural disconnect regarding severity when the virus started affecting New Yorkers. After the CBS headquarters was evacuated, Thompson and his coworkers took the initiative to spur their corporate offices into a plan of action. Almost immediately a remote working plan was rolled out and smoothly implemented.
Before Covid, Thompson would get up early in the morning to get his two daughters ready for school then make the thirty minute commute from Queens to Manhattan. He usually gets home around 8:00pm, relieves his nanny, and gets the girls ready for bed. Now, after Covid-19, things have slowed down for the family but are no less busy. “I get up around 8:15am now and get June ready for kindergarten on the laptop. I start work at 10:00am while Olivia struggles to play by herself but she’s getting better at it. I get to have breakfast and lunch with the kids every day.” He still utilizes his nanny but to mainly help out with essentials such as groceries and chores. “I think I’ve only left the house six times since March,” he said. Remote work has been a big topic during the pandemic. Thompson said he would probably be much more productive working at home rather than from the office if the kids were back at school although he does miss the social interaction. His office would have an after-hours social every Friday so now they’re doing “Beer-O’clock” via Zoom.
While the pace has been enjoyable, the monotony has been a challenge. “The biggest thing is lack of attention for the kids. With online classes June only sees her teacher for one hour a day and only gets to freely talk to her friends for thirty seconds a day. For me the only worry is work staying stable.” Fortunately, the visual side of the film industry operates post production. This means all the work Thompson is doing are on films that have already been shot. Eventually though, there will be a lag.
At the time I spoke with Thompson he hadn’t considered getting any tests. While he had some hesitancy in putting himself in a testing environment, the main reason was that there wasn’t any subjective motive for him to get a test at the time. “It wouldn’t change anything for me. I like the possible bliss of thinking I’ve already had it more than the possibility that I haven’t had it and I’m waiting it out.”
The mood in Queens had already started to lighten up from being very tense according to Thompson. He told me “Now people are getting back closer to normal. Most people are wearing masks, not necessarily correctly. People aren’t panic buying as much but toilet paper and soap are still hard to get.” Nothing so far has inched Thompson toward the idea of leaving New York. “I feel like I’m somewhere that’s handling it well although we have the most deaths. I’m very glad I’m not somewhere like Atlanta or Florida. I love being here and everything about the city,” he told me.
To cope with the monotony and stress Thompson said he’s taken up a couple of hobbies. One is becoming a master at the video game, Animal Crossing. His other hobby, which spoke more to me, is making homemade ice cream. Using the ice cream maker his mom sent, Thompson said, “We’ve literally not gone a day without homemade ice cream and I’ve gotten pretty good at it.”
Much like Victoria’s experience, the changes due to the virus made the city seem like a silent stranger. But then, the other day for the first time in a month, he heard the familiar sound of people getting into a fight over a parking spot which gave him his own sense of home. “I think this is something that my kids, even at this young age, will remember. This hopefully is a once in a hundred year storm and it’s been nuts being in the middle of it.”
We all have different experiences in this life. As I watched the news coming out of New York, the large number of deaths, the national attention – I decided that personal, first-hand accounts were needed if I wanted to really understand what was going on. And so I’m sharing what I learned with my readers. These accounts are not meant to be full accounts or dramatized by any means. Instead their purpose is to give the reader a glimpse into the perspective of another. Maybe by sharing perspectives we can also share understanding.
A common thought shared with me by these four Alabamians was that, while this is an undoubtedly stressful time, they are experiencing a sense of togetherness. Whether this is because they all live in NYC or not is speculative but I think it’s worth pondering.
While talking with Austin I got to experience this for myself. At 7:00pm neighborhoods in New York City do what they call the 7pm Clap. Residents go to their balconies, rooftops, windows, and sidewalks to all clap in unison in support for healthcare workers and each other. It just so happened Austin and I wrapped up at 7:00pm and he walked the phone down to the street so I could hear the clapping. It was an awesome sound but there was more. Every night after the clapping a member of the New York Philharmonic named Ethan Bensdorf performs a trumpet serenade for the neighborhood from a rooftop adjacent to Austin’s building. Everyone is perfectly silent and still. Austin told me a police car had just pulled over to listen as it started. Even at street level over the phone and a few buildings away I could hear the music clear as day. Austin said it can be heard for several blocks. After a few moments I identified the song as “I Just Called to Say I Love You. It was a powerful and haunting moment. When it was over Austin said to me, “There’s not a lot you can hate about this moment.”
Matthew Colson is free-lance writer, speaker, and social commentator.