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In an unprecedented time of stress and resilience, many Brooklynites are at the front lines of responding to the coronavirus crisis, and many more are encountering a new normal, as we adjust to changing work, education, housing, and even access to basic amenities. Listen to stories from people across the borough as part of our ongoing local oral history archive.

Want to learn more about the topics in this episode? Check out the following links.


Episode Transcript

Adam Whittaker What am I looking forward to? I don’t — I look forward to … it feels like there should be some kind of … at some point, there needs to be some kind of reckoning with the whole city of the loss.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That's Adam Whitakker. He had his wife Naomi Raquel Enright, and their son, Sebastián, live in Park Slope, where they have been on lockdown since mid March. 

Adam Whittaker I remember after 9/11, it didn’t really feel like the city came to grips with everything until a year later when they read everybody’s name. And that felt, like, cathartic, and that the city could move on. But I think there’s going to have to be some kind of moment like that in New York, where you can sort of comprehend the tens of thousands of people that have died, often with no dignity, and move on somehow. I don’t know how you’re going to do it. But, I look forward to that moment. 

Adwoa Adusei In mid April, we put out a call for oral histories about how people have been experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic in Brooklyn.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Through remote connections with sometimes wonky wifi and crackly phone lines, about a dozen volunteers and staff at BPL spoke with people from all across the borough about what the last few months have been like.

Virginia Marshall Today is April 21, 2020. And, I can hear a little bit of sound in the background. Is there something that’s on, like TV or something?

Adam Whittaker No, that’s just my kid. Hard to keep him quiet. Can’t turn off a 9-year-old. 

Virginia Marshall No, you can’t. [Laughs]

Maria Luisa Gambale If you could just start by saying your full name.

Enuma Menkiti Yes. Enuma Menkiti.

Maria Luisa Gambale And if you can just let us know where you're calling from.

Enuma Menkiti I'm calling from Kensington, Brooklyn. The night that I went to the ER, I remember thinking, like, if I have to be intubated or stay here and if he has to go to the ER, who’s going to take care of our kids? Who will risk themselves, you know?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Enuma and her partner Persol have two daughters. One is two and the other one is eight months old. Enuma and Persol both got sick with COVID-19 around the same time, sick enough to have to go to the ER.

Enuma Menkiti and her family in Kensington, Brooklyn. (Courtesy Enuma Menkiti)

Enuma Menkiti I just remember being so frantic, you know, because, walking out of the house, saying goodbye to my children and wondering whether I would see them again. I remember I tried to write a version of a will on a piece of my journal because — I’m 40, so I guess I should have these things in place, but I don't. I haven’t done end of life planning. Then, that moment, going to the hospital, thinking, like, "Oh God, I just left everything in complete disarray, and what if I don’t see them again? What if I’ve left a mess for them to clean up?"

Adwoa Adusei Enuma and Persol recovered. In the meantime, they tried to figure out where they could have contracted COVID-19. It’s a calculation many Brooklynites are going through.

Enuma Menkiti My partner works at Rikers Island, so anyone knowing that we got sick, the natural assumption there, because so many people got sick at Rikers — he lost eight of his coworkers, inmates were sick as well — so, the natural assumption would be that we caught it from him. But when I put together the timeline of symptoms, it seems like he was sick last, and so, in that case it might actually be me who was the initial person. There was all sorts of theories I came up with in my head. You know, wanting to blame somebody, but at the end of the day, it could have been me. I could have got it from getting coffee at Dunkin' Donuts, I don’t know. We’re right in the hot bed of everything here.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Today on Borrowed, we’re going to be playing clips from the Brooklyn COVID-19 oral history collection that we started back in April. This archive is ongoing, but we wanted to bring you these voices and let you know we’re still here and we're listening. 

Adwoa Adusei And we want to acknowledge the protests that have been going on across Brooklyn and the country in response to the deaths of Black people at the hands of vigilanties and the police from the onset and continuation of the pandemic: including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Tony McDade. Over the last few days, marchers walked down Flatbush, right outside of our Central branch. Though our locations are closed, know that we stand with those who took to the streets to express grief and outrage at the inequities in our city and nation. Black Lives Matter.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Libraries have long prided ourselves on being these safe havens for the communities we serve; and we know we can’t be physically open right now, but we are engaged in ongoing conversations among our staff and between the people of Brooklyn about what this moment means and what it will mean. We've always stood for racial justice and we are committed to a collection which includes diverse authors and diverse characters, and we’ve pulled together a book list of anti-racist reading recommendations, and we've also got another children’s book list to help parents instill concepts of racial justice early. We’re going to link to both of those on our show notes page because we know education and action can help during these times, and we’re sharing these so we can all start reading and then do the work.

Adwoa Adusei Today, we're bringing Brooklyn's stories of the pandemic. I’m Adwoa Adusei.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And I'm Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You’re listening to Borrowed.

[Music]

Hannah Marshall This disease, for a lot of people, it’s very mild, and that's good, or asymptomatic. But for the people who get sick, they get really sick. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Hannah Marshall. She called in from Prospect Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn, where she is a first year OBGYN resident physician. About a month into the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City, she was redeployed to treat COVID patients at SUNY Downstate University Hospital. 

Adwoa Adusei As of May 29th, over 55,000 people have contracted COVID-19 in Brooklyn, and 6,700 have died. 

Hannah Marshall The kind of emotional toll that this pandemic is taking on everyone, on health care workers, on community members, on families that have their whole, multi generation deaths from this disease. Because I’ve seen that in my patients in the hospital. Father and son die, husband and wife die. I think there’s going to be a generation of doctors who have PTSD and anxiety and depression. Because we’re going through such an intense time, and you — there’s no time to process all the trauma we’ve been seeing every day.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras One way that New York City has been celebrating and showing our care for health care workers and essential workers who have to be outside, going to and from work during the pandemic is with the 7 p.m. applause. 

[Clapping, cheers and honking]

Adwoa Adusei That’s the sound of the clapping, container banging, and car honking at 7 o'clock on April 7th, along Greene Avenue in Clinton Hill. You’ve probably heard the applause if you live in New York City. It’s something a lot of people talked about during their oral history interviews.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras But, you can’t hear the clapping everywhere. 

Hannah Marshall I don’t think I’ve actually heard it. I’m either in the hospital or, I don't know, asleep? I'm not sure, but I’ve never actually heard it myself. I’ve had a lot of strong feelings about this whole country’s reaction to this crisis, especially the label of healthcare workers as heroes. We did not sign up to be martyred. It feels like it’s much. .. the lack of personal protective equipment, and hazard pay, extra pay for the emotional work, the risks that we’re putting ourselves and our families through. 

Hannah Marshall and her colleagues on their first day treating
patients in the COVID-only SUNY Downstate University Hospital.
(Courtesy Hannah Marshall)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It’s not only health care workers who are included in that nightly applause.

Michael T. Mingo Sr. Now I am an essential worker. I work for a vitamin company where I pack vitamins for people who get vitamins sent to them monthly. 

Adwoa Adusei This is Michael T. Mingo Sr., a lifelong Brooklynite who recently found a job during the pandemic. 

Michael T. Mingo Sr. I work at Brooklyn Navy Yard on Flusing and Vanderbilt. When I leave the Navy Yard, and walk up Vanderbilt to catch the 55 bus on Bergen, for about two blocks, everybody who works where I work, we get applauded.

Adwoa Adusei Another essential worker, Karen Marshall, who works for the city, further described the emotional toll the pandemic has taken. 

Karen Marshall Actually, I have to say it like this. Working for the City, now it’s really important ... Yeah, I feel like part of the group of folks who — yeah, I still have to get up every day in the morning and do my job. I'm a special officer for the Human Resources Administration — it’s the old term welfare. The public usually is an incoming of homeless, those from shelters, those who just got out of incarceration, who got released. Also, too, those who are mentally ill, you know, or functioning. So, it gets hairy. And also, too, of course the concern, you know, of getting sick. So, I do have that fear. Unfortunately, those in my location, those who are case workers, I know about five or six have passed, unfortunately. And when you hear, "Oh, have you heard so and so?" "Oh, yes, unfortunately they passed." I’m like, "Oh my God! I just saw them the other day!" You know? That type of thing, you know? That really hits home, for me. It’s sort of like taking my life in my own hands ... It’s sort of like that, in a way. You know, just to trudge through. I feel like a firefighter, that's how it is — not saying that I am, but I still have to do what I need to do.

Adwoa Adusei Many people have been inside for the past few months, to help stop the spread of the pandemic. And, as with everything, people's experience of the shutdown is very different, which is one of the reasons we wanted to start the oral history project, so that we would capture the different experiences of quarantine.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras For Michael Mingo, the Brooklynite who works at the Navy Yard now packaging vitamins, he said that the shutdown reminds him of a very specific time in his life.

Michael T. Mingo Sr. For me, I’ve spent over fifteen years incarcerated. I’m not proud of that. It’s actually a sad thing to say, but it’s the truth, and I don’t hide my truth. This is actually a form of incarceration, Virginia. I’m not behind no bars, and no one is telling me when I can eat or use the bathroom or go outside, but I do have to be inside at a certain time and there are certain places I can’t go. Most of the time, if I’m incarcerated, I’m in a cell. Six by nine, six by twelve the most, and I’m in there 23, 24 hours a day. That's what’s going on right now, 24 hour lockdown, no visitation, no yard movement, everybody's in their cell, just going through the days. The food is being sent to the cell. Being outside, I’m outside right now. I’m sitting on Dean between Troy and Schenectady, and this is a street that used to be — right now it’s nice, it’s beautiful outside, little breezy, but it’s still good — this is the street that used to be flooded with people. People would be outside, setting up their tables, getting ready to play Spades, sending people to the liquor store to get their bottles of liquor and things like that. There’s no one outside except for one other person. I’m always with people who are outside, outside on the front lines. We have no other place to go. You've got people who have places they can go and sit down and be inside. We don’t have that. I’m around people, I’m speaking for the people who don’t have a stable living situation. We’re on the move 24/7, 365. So for people like us, Virginia, it’s not normal. 

Adwoa Adusei Michael has lived in many different neighborhoods all over Brooklyn. Right now he’s living without a stable home. But for a good portion of his life, Bed-Stuy was home, and he’s been back there in the past few weeks.

Michael T. Mingo Sr. I’ve seen Brooklyn at some of our darkest, darkest parts, when the homicide rate was up in the 90s. Will it change for the better or will it change for the worse? That all depends on the people you’re dealing with. The people in my community, they’re looking positive, they're looking at what’s gonna be best at the end of the day. I’m seeing a lot more care and concern for other people. At one point in time, New York, especially Brooklyn, we never had that. When I lived in Bed-Stuy in the 80s and 90s, we wasn't giving nobody courtesy and consideration. If you ain't living out here, you wasn't from around here, you was a potential target. Right now, what I’m seeing, if you’re new to the community, people are coming out, trying to see who you are, introducing themselves, it's actually like TV.

Derek Smith I saw a quarter sheet flier on my neighborhood grocery store. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras One of the organizations that has really changed the neighborhood during the pandemic is a mutual aid group called Bed-Stuy Strong. Derek Smith is one of its early members.

Derek Smith And it just was very vague. It just said: "If you want to be there for your neighbors …" and I think two days later was I joined, which was maybe March 16. 

Georgia Frances King I have live in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood as a gentrifier for the past year and a half, two years or so. I’m about to re-sign my lease and I have been looking for more ways that I can give back to the community.

Adwoa Adusei Georgia Frances King, an editor and self-described gentrifier is another early member of Bed-Stuy Strong.

Georgia Frances King I was very aware of the privilege that I was probably going to live through this crisis with my health, hopefully, and suddenly I had a way that I felt that I could give back presented to me, and that was back when Bed-Stuy Strong had less than 400, 500 members. And at the time of recording this I think we’re about to hit 3,000, including 400 active volunteers. And I just, through being one of the earlier folks, started seeing different opportunities that I could make myself helpful. In addition to delivering groceries to elderly, disabled and immunocompromised folks, and because I am a social person, because I am an extrovert, I was starting to organize some livestream events.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Aside from the necessary work of delivering groceries, and creating social engagement for people who are really feeling this isolation, Georgia talked about the community that popped up around trading sourdough starters and scobies, which are starters for kombucha.

Georgia Frances King So, I spent a weekend, I worked out everyone who had starter and everyone who had scobies and I walked around and I did socially distant pickup of everyone’s fermented, yeasty goodness. And then I took them back to my house, sanitized everything, left them for a couple of days and then had other folks who wanted one of those things come by my stoop and pick them up, which was another way to have conversations with strangers in a safe, socially distanced way. So many Lysol wipes, so many Lysol wipes involved in this scobie and sourdough starter swap. 

Adwoa Adusei I can certainly related to the need for kombucha, because I experienced my own kombucha shortage early in the pandemic. But, fermented products weren't the only food items that were being shared. Other food items were also going around Brooklyn.

Eric Tien So we prearranged 100 care pakages of all these different kinds of veggies and then also chicken. 

Adwoa Adusei Eric Tien lives in Bensonhurst, and he got involved in South Brooklyn Mutual Aid pretty early on. In his oral history interview with volunteer Zoe Grueskin, he recalled one of the organization’s first grocery deliveries.

Eric Tien The volunteer drivers started arriving and we didn’t have our routes ready and they were like, what’s going on? We waited around for half an hour. someone even donated a commercial freezer so we can store the chicken. The first time, we didn’t have a place to store the chicken. It was supposed to come frozen but it was room temperature. And it was a health problem, so we had to run around and asked a neighborhood store if we could use their freezer so we put all our chicken in their freezer. They were just being nice.

Zoe Grueskin Wow, just a normal grocery store?

Eric Tien Yeah. It was a small store, it was kind of like a corner store and they had an outside freezer and we just put 500 pounds of room temperature chicken in it.

Zoe Grueskin Literally 500 pounds?

Eric Tien Yeah, yeah.

[MUSIC]

Jane Wong It’s sort of been like, little acts of kindness, people sharing groceries, trying to do it in the safest way possible. Like, you’ll wipe something down and then leave it outside someone’s door.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Jane Wong lives in Kensington. Though a lot of the help has been through new mutual aid groups, there's also just a lot of informal neighborliness.

Jane Wong The funniest thing for me was, we went outside on the balcony to do the applause at 7 p.m., and one of our other neighbors was at his window doing applause and he said he hadn’t been able to find meat online. So, we had just managed to get a lot of packs of chicken, so I wiped one down with Lysol and put it on his doorstep, then knocked and then ran inside my apartment and just left it there. So that’s the weirdest kind of exchange I’ve ever had with a neighbor, I guess. 

Adwoa Adusei Although kombucha and chicken seem to have been really popular in Brooklyn during this time, and there's magic in that, it wasn't just chicken that was being shared.

Liam Malanaphy I've been a professional magician since junior high school, I suppose. But, if you prefer, my real job is I'm an attorney, a criminal defense attorney in Manhattan. I’d say the majority of my shows are private birthday parties for young people here in Brooklyn, although I do plenty of school events in Brooklyn as well, and it occurred to me that I could try to do a show on Zoom, right in the living room. So what I did was I sent out an invitation and said that we’re going to try to do an afternoon magic school and maybe teach a few tricks. That worked out so incredibly well. 

Micah Langer I hear a dove in the background …

Liam Malanaphy Yes, my other co-star is Latte the bird. Latte does come out every show. He gets to appear somehow, through something and the kids love to see Latte. I hold the bird up very close to the camera and I say, "Okay everybody, pet the bird." And everybody puts their hands up to their cameras and I see them all petting the bird and I say, “Oh my goodness he’s so happy, look how happy he is, he’s smiling!” And of course you can’t see because he’s got a beak, he can’t even smile. [Laughs]

Adwoa Adusei The pandemic has been hard on kids, too, especially in Brooklyn where indoor and outdoor space can be limited. One of our volunteer interviewers, Maria Luisa Gambale, talked with Jonah Zinoman, a 10-year-old who lives in Cobble Hill.

Jonah Zinoman Schools being closed  that .. I really don’t like that. that’s how I got to see my friends and play with them at school. Now all I can do is call my friends and some of my friends don’t even have phones yet. So I can’t even contact them. So, it’s crazy.

Maria Luisa Gambale Who do you see now? 

Jonah Zinoman Pretty much just my mom, and people in my building

Maria Luisa Gambale How does it feel in your building? How does it feel different?

Jonah Zinoman Social distance. Usually I’d high five people, because I know a lot of people who live in my building. So usually I high-five people, or, you know. And now I really can’t do that. I have to stay six feet away. It feels kind of weird.

Maria Luisa Gambale How did you get used to that? 

Jonah Zinoman I haven’t. I’m still stressing over it. I’m still so tempted to give them a high five but I know I can’t.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Naomi Raquel Enright, whose husband Adam we heard from at the beginning of the episode, talked about what it’s like to explain the pandemic to their son, who’s in fourth grade.

The Whittaker family on their stoop in April 2020. The photograph
was taken by Jeremy Amar, who documented families on his block
during the COVID-19 shutdown in New York City.
(Courtesy Naomi Raquel Enright)

Naomi Raquel Enright We’re certainly not being too detailed in terms of numbers, but certainly telling him how serious it is and how we don’t know yet, there’s no vaccine and that scientists are working, racing against the clock to figure out a way to protect us from this. I think it comes up all the time when he does his Google Hangouts with his class. But they’re all saying things to each other, like, “I just want to say, stay home, stay inside, stay safe, you know, I hope you’re okay.”

Sebastián What’s hard is that, like, I can’t go to school and I can’t see my teachers for real. And I have to call them to see them and it’s hard. 

Christina Li I haven’t gone outside. My parents won’t let me. I think I forgot how fresh air smells like. [Laughs]

Adwoa Adusei Christina Li is sixteen and lives in Borough Park, Brooklyn. She’s finishing up her junior year of high school online.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras For Christina, there are extra worries when she thinks about returning to the outside world when New York City starts opening up.

Christina Li I’m kind of afraid in the sense that, like, the world has been like, kind of saying the reason the pandemic is happening is because of Asian Americans, and I’m Asian. So I’m kind of worried like if we do return to normal, when I'm able to go outside again, I’m kind of worried in the sense that people might disrespect me or look at me differently and try to blame the pandemic on me just because of my race. That’s an additional thing I’m concerned about. Okay, this happened during March when schools were still in session. I remember I was in gym class and this ball hit me in the leg and when I looked up at them, they started laughing and they screamed, "coronavirus" at me and then they kind of ran away. And I don’t know if its because I’m Asian or if they were just immature and like to joke about things. But afterwards, it made me more aware of how people see me in society, especially because of what’s going on now.

[Music]

Adwoa Adusei Thanks to our oral history contributors: Christina Li, Jonah Zinoman, Adam Whittaker, Naomi Raquel Enright and their son Sebastián, Liam Malanaphy, Jane Wong, Eric Tien, Georgia Frances King, Derek Smith, Michael T. Mingo Sr, Karen Marshall, Enuma Menkiti and Hannah Marshall. And we're still collecting oral histories from Brooklynites. This is history-making, and it's happening right now. It's important to us to include as many diverse voices as possible.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Right, because this might be a virus, which isn’t human, but the disparities that we are seeing with this virus, they’re happening amid the racism and inequality in this country, so those affects are human. It’s helpful to caputure these things as they're happening because these stories, they show the neighborhood-level, the human level impact of the pandemic. And we could not be doing that work at all without our volunteer interviewers. You heard some of their voices just now, asking questions. Those volunteers are: Maria Luisa Gambale, Zoe Grueskin, Micah Langer, Julia DeAngelo, Maura Johnson, Adwoa Adusei, and myself, and Virginia Marshall, Ariane Loeb, Fritzi Bodenheimer, Izabela Barry, Raquel Penzo, Brad Bailey, and Anna Zemskova.

Adwoa Adusei If you have a story you’d like to share with the library, email ososproject [at] bkylnlibrary [dot] org or visit our website to read more about the project.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And there are so many more interviews that were collected from Brooklynites about this Covid-19 pandemic. We couldn’t include all of them here, but please go online and listen to them.

Adwoa Adusei Just visit bklynlibrary.org/osos and type in “covid” to hear the oral histories collected as part of the library’s Brooklyn Covid-19 Stories project. You can also use that map to hear other oral history interviews that are part of Our Streets, Our Stories ongoing local oral history archive. We’ll put a link to the map in the show notes of this episode as well.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And by now you know that there are always so many people behind the scenes at the library, working to make things run. So we want to say a special shoutout to our archivist Deborah Tint, for cataloging these oral histories, as well as Natiba Guy-Clement and Taina Evans for their guidance, and Diana Bowers-Smith and Sarah Quick for their help with outreach. And, our web team has developed an incredible oral history map on our website. Tom O'Dea and Maya Wagoner have put in a lot of work over the past few months to get that up and running, so a huge thanks to them as well. 

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Adwoa Adusei, and Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed will be back in a few weeks. Until then, we’re listening to you, Brooklyn. Stay safe and healthy.

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