Leaving Yale for the Coronavirus Epicenter

I was afraid I was losing my future. Now I'm afraid of losing my family.

Eric O’Keefe-Krebs
Image of COVID-19 virus. Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

Mom is asthmatic, so I go into CVS alone. It’s seven in the morning. We came early to avoid a crowd. Toilet paper, paper towels, trash bags—in and out. I hold my breath through the automatic doors, past the line, down the aisle.

The place looks looks as it always has, but it’s scary now. Old scenery doesn’t match the new dread. Apocalyptic scenery would help—rivers of bile, swarms of locust, something Biblical, something as otherworldly as this all feels. Instead, you’re afraid against familiar backdrops—afraid at the supermarket, afraid at the pharmacy, afraid in your own home. The nearest hospital is Elmhurst Hospital—where, on March 26th, thirteen deaths in a day signaled to the City that things were about to get far worse. Today, there are so many corpses that they are kept cold in tractor trailers parked on the street outside.

Ten minutes and five fumbled credit card swipes later, I make it back to the car and sanitize furiously. The safety perimeter my family has constructed with hand soap and raw ginger diminishes with each day. A friend’s grandfather, first. My cousins’ aunt, second. An electrician my dad did his apprenticeship with, third.

“When I pray, I always start with the whole world,” Mom tells me as we drive back, “and then I narrow it to my family—so God doesn’t think I’m selfish.”

I have class in an hour, and Mom has work. We strip the groceries of their packaging, wipe down fruits. There’s nowhere to go, nothing to do but reduce risk of infiltration. Nothing gets in, nothing gets out. Dad’s already out in a manhole somewhere keeping the internet on. Last week, he got a letter asking for his continued support as an essential worker. So, on nights when I stay up too late—the nocturnal college student is a hard part to stop playing—I hear his alarm through the wall. He slouches through the hall, the bathroom, the kitchen, twenty minutes of TV news, and out the door.

Drive around the city with him and he’ll point out every building he’s wired, every bridge he’s climbed, every manhole he’s descended into. He has never felt safer at work, he tells us at dinner to calm our nerves. “No cars on the road.”

We’ve been flipping through old family photo albums after we eat. It’s the first time in forever all five of us—Mom, Dad, my two older sisters, and myself—have consistently shared a meal, with plates and silverware set up and literally nowhere else for anyone to be. Except Dad. Dad still has to go to work.

Middle Village, Queens is a geriatric and innately morbid neighborhood, boxed in on three sides by cemeteries. In the mid-nineteenth century, when property values in Manhattan rose, hundreds of thousands of bodies were exhumed from city cemeteries and shipped to the Brooklyn-Queens border. Even our park, which used to be a swamp, has a few headstones in it. Transplants and gentrifiers like to talk about the city as a collection of atomized, interchangeable commuters, always onto the next thing, the next address. But my neighborhood’s most notable trait is how infrequently people leave. Most of our neighbors’ families have lived here for two or three generations, mine included. Dad grew up four blocks from where we live now; of his three siblings, he moved the farthest.

Tonight’s photo album: “Home Improvements, 1991,” from when Mom and Dad first moved into the house we’ve lived in ever since. My family is one of tradespeople, people who work with calloused hands and make things. Carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, ironworkers. As one of the first to go to college, I balance the desire to earn enough money to hire contractors and the desire to be skilled enough that I’ll never have to.

In the photos, I see my family as they were thirty years ago: Aunt Donna scrubbing the corners of the bathroom; Aunt Ginger leaning on a paint-stained stepladder; Uncle Dennis poking his head out from the hole where a sink once was. Peering down from what would become my bedroom, Mom captures Papa, trowel in hand, kneeling over a freshly poured driveway. The driveway leads to backyard that for twenty-two years we shared with Aunt Dolly, the neighbor who became a second mother to my Mom soon after my parents moved in, then a second grandmother to all of us kids. I used to stand on the toilet and talk to her across the driveway. My bedroom window looked into her kitchen. She’s gone now, taken by the coronavirus last week.

Today I’m back in the baby-blue room my crib was in; where I peed the bed; where I had bad dreams; where my mom lay next to me all night when I was too nervous to sleep before the first day of school; where I developed my internet addiction on a second-hand laptop; waded through endless piles of homework; lamented crushes; studied for the SAT; worried over acceptance rates at the colleges I wanted to attend; and packed my bags when it all paid off.

Now, the room I devoted my life to getting out of is where I go to college. In the digital lecture hall, I see the other students, mostly at home like me. Surrounded by baby blue or lilac, their fellowships canceled, their moms passing through the background, their internships denied, their dog interrupting—their short-term, mid-term, and long-term plans upended. Movers and shakers, all stagnant for the time being.

On the stairs, my sisters weep. The assistant principal of their old high school—a forty-two-year-old man, the heart and soul of their all-girls Catholic school—died from the virus, leaving three kids and a wife behind. The local news reported on the death, a thirty-second memorial with clips from students and faculty who knew him. Nothing about Middle Village was ever news before, aside from the occasional downed powerline.

In the kitchen, Mom leans on Dad’s chest. “You can’t go back to work.”

Now, Dad goes to work with a mask.

It’s not the first time he’s done so. A few days after 9/11, he was working near Ground Zero as part of the recovery efforts. He was told that the air was clear, that it was safe to breathe. Dad didn’t believe it. He wore a mask. Every year, he gets a physical to keep an eye on whether the toxins that have taken the lives of over 2,000 first and second responders have caught up to him. So far, so good.

Fancy schools like Yale, for those from blue-collar backgrounds like myself, are means of getting out. They offer pedigree and knowledge and a spot on the corporate board of your choosing. They’re places meant to carry you away from your small bedroom, from the eternally-on TV, from arguments over money, from your neighborhood nickname and the people who still use it. The virus has forced students like me back home, with nothing more than school-wide, half-baked emails full of aphorisms about the immateriality of community connecting us to our brief stint in the ivory tower.

But that community, focused so much on personal achievement and enrichment, feels small right now. The lonely climb up the class precipice tricks you into thinking that all ascension is in spite of where you began, not because of it. Staring through the mosaic of webcams during class, I don’t think about the lecture hall we should all be in or the future my fellow Yale students and I were forging together. I see what my classmates have to lose, too—the pasts that could disappear.

Two months ago, I feared that the virus would take me back to Middle Village—to the world of working-class familial obligation I sought to escape. Now I’m wondering what I was striving for, newly in love with what I’ve run from. My community is people who make things. People who make errands into a communal affair. People who glean hours of coffee-and-Entenmann’s-fueled laughter from nothing. People who always show up, usually unannounced. People who render walls invisible and distance meaningless, a patchwork quilt of family and near-family who embody everything “relatedness” means. People content with going nowhere, and doing it together.

Then I was full of aspirations. Now I fear the virus will take Middle Village from me, and that I’ll be reduced to remembering it before I ever got the chance to leave.

Eric O’Keefe-Krebs is a writer from Queens, New York. He studied economics and anthropology as an undergraduate at Yale.
Originally published:
April 20, 2020


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