March 17 is a date I believe I will remember for the rest of my life.
It was a Tuesday—I think I’ll remember that, too. I just looked it up on my phone’s calendar to be sure I’m correct: March 17 was St. Patrick’s Day. I had no idea until just now. I don’t remember if I wore green or not.
My subway ride in to work was different that day. Maybe the subways had been different for a while, and I just hadn’t noticed. I haven’t seen so few people on public transit in my life, certainly not during rush hour on a weekday. A group of four men got onto my car and pulled off their caps for tips, harmonizing on a barbershop quartet version of “Over the Rainbow.” I nearly burst into tears.
March 17 would be my last day of work for the foreseeable future. I went into the office, did what accounting needed to be wrapped up, and went to visit one of the restaurants I worked for. It would be their last day too—dining in at restaurants was already banned, they were just doing delivery and pickup to get through inventory. Most of the food in the kitchen was donated later that evening.
It was such a weird feeling, being out of work. I’ve worked hard my entire life, always writing but always having a side hustle. I’d been working in the restaurant industry consistently for seven years—I figured if a restaurant went under or downsized, I would always find work somewhere else.
The streets were quiet, the people looked uneasy. It felt like the whole world was shutting down, maybe because my entire world was.
I took some food when I left, but I passed by a homeless man on my way home. I saw him nearly every day, sitting where he always did, back against a bright red brick wall, and he asked—quietly, as he always did—“Change?” I shook my head no and kept walking. “It’s OK,” he replied kindly.
How will he eat when there’s no one on the streets?, I wondered. How will he survive?
I dug through my bag and turned around. “Would you like some bread?” I asked, and gave him a six-pack of fresh rolls. He looked at it like it was solid gold.
When I got home, I wasn’t ready to go inside. My boyfriend, James, lost his job the Friday before: we were both unemployed. I haven’t been unemployed since I took my first job cleaning the salad bar at Godfather’s Pizza in Knoxville, Iowa. I’ve washed dishes, made food, folded sweaters, cleaned apartments…but I’ve never been unemployed.
I finally turned my key in the door and went inside. James was bright eyed and feeling positive: “I’ve made a list of things I want to accomplish,” he told me, “books I want to read and things I want to write down and online classes I want to take.”
“That’s all great for you,” I said in a low, hushed voice, “but I don’t get to think about all the fun, creative things I can do. I have to figure out a way to support us.”
I don’t know why I said that. I was still in shock. I felt like I had failed somehow.
“You know we’re in this together,” he said, “right?” But I didn’t feel like that in the moment: I felt alone. I felt lost.
Of course, I know I wasn’t really alone. By April 1st, I could count the number of New York friends that still had a job on one hand, all working from home. By May, even my mother in Iowa would be working from home.
“This doesn’t feel real,” I kept saying. Some days, it still doesn’t.
I keep thinking about the “Over the Rainbow” quartet. Growing up, I loved The Wizard of Oz more than anything. Of course, the movie is iconic (as is the underrated sequel, Return to Oz starring a young Fairuza Balk), but my love didn’t stop there. We painted my childhood bedroom emerald green, the walls lined with framed pictures from The Patchwork Girl of Oz, a pair of stuffed stockings donning a pair of ruby red slippers sticking out from under my bed. I had a jar filled with broken yellow bricks–-chunks of broken brick my father spray-painted yellow, but insisted were real pieces of THE yellow brick road-–and the top shelf of my bookshelf held every Oz book by L. Frank Baum. My most recent additions to the collection include a set of graphic novels written by Eric Shanower, with art by Skottie Young, and a bag from Coach’s Oz collaboration. It was a gift from my boyfriend for my 30th birthday.
I was wearing the bag that morning, on the subway, while the quartet sang. I held onto the dangling bag charm, a small ruby red slipper, my lucky rabbit’s foot. “Birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh why can’t I?”
The bag has been hanging on a hook since March 17.
How long would we be quarantined? When could we go back to work? Would there be work to go back to?
James and I didn’t know what to do. The world bought up all the toilet paper and pasta. From their mansions, celebrities urged us to stay inside, losing their sanity with every Instagram post.
My mother wondered if I wanted to come home for a while: I saw my fellow New Yorkers flocking to their humble beginnings to wait things out. I talked to James about it, but we wanted to stay in our apartment, surrounded by books and movies and clothes and cats and all of the things that remained unchanged by the outside world.
James and I did the only thing we could do: figure things out one day at a time. We stocked up on food, stashed a six-pack of toilet paper under the bed, and prepared ourselves for a simple summer.