A Pandemic Dispatch from Brooklyn

“The wail of the sirens. My god.”

As I typed these words into what I have been calling my pandemic journal on April 3, 2020, I thought back to another catastrophe I lived through in New York City in September 2001. Back then I was but a very young and very green newcomer, three weeks into what has since become half a lifetime spent in this inimitable city that is now the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic—the inimitable city that is—for better and for worse—my home. “Sometimes it reminds me of 9/11,” I wrote about those sirens on April 3. Yet a crucial difference—at least in terms of the aural experience of living through these two palpably cataclysmic histories in NYC—is that at a certain point in September 2001, the lament of the city’s ambulance sirens seemed to settle quickly into a still more terrifying quiet.

Here in Brooklyn, inside the walls of my tiny but beloved apartment, the screeching of ambulance sirens has been the unrelenting soundtrack of these past six weeks of horror, these weeks of the new banality of everyday life under quarantine. For me and for so many others trying to live through this pandemic as humanely as possible, those sirens have become the barometer of the city’s desperation. The siren songs are more telling and far more haunting than Governor Cuomo’s daily PowerPoints, his routine recitation of those benchmark tabulations onto which pin our hopes and fears—the previous day’s deaths, intubations, and new hospital beds occupied.

At all hours, those sirens reliably tear through my window and muscle their way into my brain and clamp down on my heart. They remind me of the students, the colleagues, the strangers whom I used to see on the subway, on campus, in my classrooms, in the parks, in my neighborhood yoga studio, in my neighborhood Trader Joe’s. Those sirens, in their grim horror, are in many ways the only immediate connection I have left to the topography of my life as I once lived it, to the communities I shared physical spaces with until—suddenly—I no longer did.

As I write this, it has been 32 days since I last exited the front doors of my apartment building and walked into Brooklyn, into the world. The sentence just drools with privilege— it does us no good to deny it. I am acutely aware of that privilege, and embarrassed by it. I can almost feel it slipping down my bourgeois chin.

This retreat from the world has been made possible by the doormen who still report to work and manage somehow to cheerfully deal with the grocery deliveries and Amazon packages ordered by the many privileged occupants of my apartment building on the edge of pampered Brooklyn Heights. I haven’t had to venture into the scary world of the supermarket because this city’s least privileged are working the cash registers of the stores, stocking the shelves with cans of garbanzo  beans, and delivering red lentils and organic milk to those of us who can afford not to leave our homes in order to survive. They are packing and delivering the Amazon boxes. They are managing the package rooms of doormen buildings. Until they get sick and no longer can.

 I can afford to not venture out into the world because New York City’s least privileged cannot afford to not venture out into the world. Another way of thinking about this is to say: I haven’t had to venture out into the world because so many of the students at my school and its wider university—Brooklyn College of the City University of New York—cannot afford not to venture out into the city and make it run. They need the paychecks to -survive more than I need those red lentils—unavailable for delivery for five weeks straight—that now sit in my pantry like a lottery prize.

Many of my students are working in New York City’s supermarkets and laboring to provide other “essential services.” One student—an immigrant who lost his job at a hotel in March and knew he would not receive a stimulus check in April—now drives to a neighboring state to work at an Amazon fulfilment center. Earlier in the semester, when we still had class in person on campus, I had delighted every time this student raised his hand to share with the class his thoughts on the reading for the day—Wollstonecraft, Condorcet, Smith. What I wouldn’t give to be back in that classroom, to hear my students’ voices resound over our decrepit, underfunded campus and to watch their ideas illuminate Brooklyn College’s austerity painted walls. My student—the one who now works at an Amazon warehouse—recently sent me a primary source photograph of a makeshift morgue located outside the Brooklyn Hospital Center. In early February I had excitedly told my colleague, “I hope to recruit him to the major!” These days, my hopes are of a different kind. I hope that he and his family live through this. That they can afford groceries. That they don’t lose their home.

Just the other day, I received a package of aromatherapy hand soaps I had ordered from Amazon. My doorman signed for the package and sent me an email from the front desk to tell me that this package of sweetsmelling at-home handwashing had arrived. I thought again about my brilliant student—the one who now has to drive to another state and subtract the cost of tolls and gas in order to make a living at an Amazon fulfillment center. He hasn’t missed an assignment since we stumbled panic-stricken into the bleary and depressing world of emergency online coursework.

My students are amazing. They deserve so much more. Many of them are suffering. I hear it in the sirens, I hear it in the pandemic journals that they are now writing for my history courses. Thanks to Governor Cuomo’s budgets, the CUNY Board of Trustees is considering a tuition hike for the coming year, or so I’m told. It’s a sick, sick world and I’m not talking about the pandemic.

My fellow historians and pundits galore have been dutifully providing commentary on how we might imagine a post pandemic future that looks better than the present we are all trying to survive. I’m far more interested in what my students have to say. They have hopes and dreams aplenty. After “this,” they write to me, maybe the anti-vax movement and climate change denial will die out at long last. After “this,” maybe we can make sure that all Americans—better yet, all human beings—have access to quality healthcare. After “this,” maybe something can be done about the vast wealth inequality that they don’t need to learn about in my history courses because they know more about it from lived experience than I myself ever will.

What will come after “this”—no one knows. As I write this in late April 2020, I am happy to say that I haven’t heard as many sirens today. I am happy to say that I and my family are safe and well. This morning, my students posted some incredibly smart things to the blackboard discussion boards that now serve as poor substitutes for class meetings. Reading their thoughts and ideas, I felt something like the joy I can still remember feeling in my classroom—that dopamine hit that only teaching incredible students can provide. Next week I’ll zoom into a department meeting and I’ll zoom into a committee meeting and I’ll zoom into the yoga classes that help to keep me sane. The banality of everyday academic life continues. Today, tomorrow, and every weekday for the foreseeable future, I’ll likely have to email a colleague begging shamefacedly for a PDF of an article or chapter that I need in order to meet my writing deadlines. My college’s library operated on a shoestring budget (thanks, Cuomo!) before all of this. Now I’m trying to finish a book manuscript without access to the books in my campus office and the books that the heroes of Brooklyn College interlibrary loan used to hunt down on my behalf.

Before I start to feel too sorry for myself, I think about my aromatherapy soap and I think about my students reporting to their supermarket shifts and I think about the student who fell ill with the coronavirus a few weeks back and whom I haven’t heard from since.

Please consider donating to The Brooklyn College Student Emergency Fund and The Food Bank for New York City.

Brigid O’Keeffe is Associate Professor of History at Brooklyn College. O’Keeffe is also at work completing a second book, Esperanto and Languages of Internationalism in Revolutionary Russia, under contract with Bloomsbury.
Editor’s note: This article was written before the death of George Floyd.