The sirens never stop. There are so many that I have nightmares about ambulances speeding down the street three or four abreast like chariots, wheels flying off, whips cracking, horses’ mouths foaming. Then I’m jolted awake by an urgent mechanical groan, as if the driver is flooring their horn right next to my bed. Sometimes, rarely, there seems to be a lull, and then, suddenly, far off, a distant rising and falling line of sound. It must be a hallucination, I think; I am finally losing my mind, making sirens out of silence. But then the sound gets closer and shriller and starts to bore into my ear, and I know without a doubt that it’s real.
My brain keeps translating the sirens into metaphor because it can’t bear what they really mean: Thousands of people are struggling to breathe. Thousands of other people are risking their lives to try to save them.
I live three blocks from Elmhurst Hospital, the public hospital in Queens that turned into a global COVID-19 epicenter overnight. New York City has the most cases on the planet, Queens has the most cases in New York, and Elmhurst Hospital has been flooded with hundreds of patients from Elmhurst, Corona, and Jackson Heights, the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the city. Witnesses describe what’s happening there as a tsunami, a siege, a warzone, an apocalypse. The hospital is operating at five times its ICU capacity. Health care workers wear their masks and other personal protective equipment over and over again. Patients are cut off from everyone they love. Frantic family members call for updates and can’t get through for days. Ventilators don’t get freed up till somebody dies; immediately another patient is hooked up. There is no space to put all the bodies, so a refrigerator truck parked by the hospital serves as a makeshift morgue.
The need for social distancing means that I have to physically distance myself from the suffering that has flooded my neighborhood. But I don’t want to be distant. I want to remember the people who had to fight for their last breaths here. The mother of a student at Queens College, where I teach. A trans activist who worked for decades to organize and care for our neighborhood’s many vulnerable trans women, helping them get access to AIDS tests and immigration assistance and bailing them out of jail. The priest at my church, who preached extemporaneously in Spanish and English with equal hope and faith, and who placed a wine-dipped wafer on my tongue the week before the churches closed. All of them died last week. The sirens bring me closer to them.
Most Elmhurst residents can’t #StayHome and order takeout. They are the ones delivering the takeout. They are delivering packages, stocking shelves, ringing up groceries, cleaning subway cars—essential employees forced to keep going to work with a cough and fever until they can’t breathe. Or they’ve lost their jobs as waiters, bartenders, barbers, caregivers, and now they aren’t sure how much longer they’ll be able to afford a home—an apartment, a basement, a bunkbed—to stay in. Elmhurst is 71% foreign-born and over 93% people of color. Even before COVID-19, most of its residents were struggling to keep up with the rising cost of shelter. And its population density is particularly lethal in a pandemic: Elmhurst has some of the highest numbers of people per room in the city. There is no way to self-isolate when you are sharing your bedroom and the air you breathe with two or three other people.
A few weeks ago, when I began to feel what was coming for my neighborhood and the world, my body began to rebel. I couldn’t eat. My throat closed when I tried to swallow. The next day, while I was lighting a candle to pray, I abruptly shat my pants. I assumed I was becoming an embodied metaphor or cliché, literally shitting myself from sheer fear. But my sister, seriously sick with presumed COVID-19 in Oregon, told me that these were classic presenting symptoms. I called the NYC helpline for advice and the matter-of-fact doctor who spoke to me told me to self-quarantine. I was sick in bed for almost two weeks—chilled, exhausted, parched—and then my symptoms calmed. I still don’t know if it was COVID-19 or terror.
I am one of the lucky ones. I’m a professor who lives alone and I can teach and write from home. I’m still being paid. But in a crisis like this, my ongoing distance from friends, family, and the people around me feels intolerable. Before the virus arrived, I used to walk down Broadway or Roosevelt Avenue every day, the 7 train roaring above me, surrounded by the sounds of people speaking to one another in Spanish, Mandarin, Bengali, Nepali, and other languages I couldn’t begin to guess, exhilarated by being one body among tens of thousands. Now, after almost a month of total self-isolation, I open my window to the sirens as a way of feeling closer to all the neighbors I can no longer hear or see—many of whom are bearing the brunt of this pandemic.
My neighbors are not the only people I’m yearning to be closer to. In Washington State, my father begins his second month of self-isolation. He has a preexisting lung condition. Just a few miles away from him, my grandmother, who lives in the same town as many of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, celebrates her 94th birthday alone. My sense of personal and general dread keeps expanding exponentially:
When will I see my family again? becomes Will I see my family again?
When will I touch someone again? becomes Will I touch someone again?
When will I chat with my landlady Lily again, and when will I buy a steamed vegetable bun for lunch at Fay Da Bakery, and when will I walk to Northern Boulevard in the golden hour and get a drink at the Queensboro and marvel at the Manhattan skyline glowing like the Celestial City? becomes Will our whole shared beloved world be reduced to emotional and economic rubble?
The sirens connect my individual sorrow to our common grief. I’ve been finding other sounds to connect me to mutual consolation. The night we lost our priest, Father Antonio Checo, my neighbors Gabriel, Pathapong, Katie, and I read psalms and prayed prayers together over the phone. We sang “Amazing Grace.” In the midst of death, forbidden the comfort of touch and the grace of one another’s physical presence, sound becomes our daily lifeline, our hope to hold, our last intimacy.
The pandemic has turned up the volume on so much pre-existing clamor—the grinding gears of exploitation and government lies—but we are countering these sounds of alarm with the sounds of community. With my friends Candice and Sandy, who are home alone in Manhattan and the Bronx, I call members of Congress about rent relief and de-carceration, cheer for essential workers each night at 7, and read stories to nephews, nieces, and neighbor kids on FaceTime. We’ve been making and sending each other scraps of sound throughout the day: true confessions, affirmations, freestyle rhymes, a jazz piano version of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” I listen, on constant repeat, to the song they collaborated on last week, “Hug Me Through the Phone,” gloriously sung by Sandy to an old Motown background track she found on YouTube:
Hug me through the phone
Don’t wanna feel alone
Hug me through the phone
I need to feel your glow
One day we will all be free
We’ll break down walls
Fight all disease
We’ll stop the wars that
Make them rich
Never since I was born have I spent more than a day or two without the presence of another person. Now, in my solitude (and its attendant, barely suppressed grief and fear), I’ve fallen into an unexpected “isolationship” with a Facebook friend I’ve never met—someone I’d never spoken to before the pandemic. Each night we put our phones next to our pillows, turn on their speakers, and leave them on until morning. The sound of their speech slowly fades into the sound of their breathing. I shut my eyes and listen to their embodied presence: it’s the most socially close I am able to be. I am summoning presence through timbre, through our shared and scared laughter, through the sound of steady currents of warm air leaving their lungs, which I can almost feel on my face.
When the sirens blaring through my dreams wake me, I think of the long-ago church bells that used to toll death knells: one toll for each year in the life of the departed. I imagine hundreds of villagers at work in kitchens or fields stopping to listen as they count the years, guessing and grieving the one who has gone. Now all the sounds blur together. Each of the hundreds of overlapping, shrieking, keening wails represents a life, and perhaps soon, the sounds of mourning that life.
In their intensity, though, the sirens also give voice to the full-throttled anger that comes from knowing that the devastation was preventable, and that it is falling hardest on the people who are least equipped to bear it.