New York Daily News
SIGNS OF HOPE A YEAR LATER
Frontline N.Y.ers looking to future, but fight’s not over
A year ago, The Associated Press told the story of a day in the life of a stricken city through the eyes of New Yorkers on the front lines and in quarantine as they faced fear, tragedy, isolation and upheaval.
As the United States’ most populous city turned into its most lethal coronavirus hotspot, some of these New Yorkers saw the virus’ toll upclose. Others were suddenly looking from what felt like far away at the city and the lives they knew.
The AP recently returned to these New Yorkers to look at a full year of living through the pandemic in a city that has regrouped but not fully recovered.
THE TAXI DRIVER
Nicolae Hent put it bluntly when he brought his taxi in for service recently.
“I have to make a living,” Hent recalled telling the shop. “If you keep my car two weeks, I’ll go bankrupt.”
Hent grossed $73,000 through the meter last year, $30,000 less than in 2019. With so much of the city’s workforce staying home and tourists staying away, he could drive for long stretches without finding a fare.
Hent realized by early last April that his best hope was to look for health care workers near hospitals. He has some success now in Midtown but still not downtown in the Financial District.
“You can drive an hour, you may not be able to find a passenger around downtown,” Hent said.
Two years from his planned retirement, Hent, 64, has now lengthened his workday, leaving his Queens home around 6 a.m. instead of coming into Manhattan in late morning. That still won’t get him back to his prepandemic earnings, but he said he’s been able to make all his mortgage payments since May after not paying in March and April.
The ride he longs to take is to Boston to see his daughter and granddaughters for the first time since February 2020. Now fully vaccinated, he’s looking forward to his wife’s second shot in mid-April, so they can go.
They saw their other daughter briefly last summer. She and her boyfriend dropped by for a few minutes, but remained outside, on her parents’ 40th anniversary.
“So it was tough,” Hent said. “Not an easy year to go through in 2020. Hopefully, this one will be better, but God knows.”
THE MEALS-ON-WHEELS DIRECTOR
A little before 7:30 a.m. on a recent morning, delivery workers wove around Carla Brown with insulated bags in hand, readying for another day of distributing hundreds of hot meals to homebound older adults.
Brown (inset) ducked into her office, stacked with so many cartons of disposable masks and gloves that she’s given up working inside. It’s one more reminder, she said, that what passes for normal now remains anything but.
“It’s been the longest year of my life,” said Brown, whose meals-onwheels program was swamped last spring when New York’s lockdown stranded many of the city’s elderly.
“I think that’s been the struggle for us, is our new normal,” she
said, as the Charles A. Walburg Multi-Service Organization tries to plan for what’s to come without knowing quite what that will be.
When the virus struck, the organization scrambled to feed 1,000 older adults in upper Manhattan, up from 700 to 800 usually.
Once the caseload began easing in June, the organization was well over budget. Meanwhile, the staff shrank because of virus fears, family responsibilities and enhanced unemployment checks.
College students and some church and service group members volunteered to help. But as the city revived, many returned to work and school. Recently, a bus company has provided two vans and drivers at no charge. But Brown’s organization is still short-handed.
Brown, 54, subbed in to drive delivery routes, her workdays stretching to 13 or 14 hours. She’s stepped away from deliveries this spring but still works six-day weeks, and she worries that next year could bring city budget cuts.
The virus has frozen her plans for new initiatives and kept her worried about her parents, both 78. For months, she stood outside their home during visits, before venturing inside with a mask. Both stayed healthy, but Brown hasn’t hugged them in a year.
Brown found a release when New York let gyms reopen and she resumed workouts. But she longs for pandemic pressures to ease.
“I’m busy cheerleading and trying to get my staff up and keep them up, and then I say to myself, ‘When is this thing going to be over?’ ”
Seething through an N95 face mask, Jesus Pujols railed last April about the indignities forced upon New York’s dead.
An overnight undertaker, Pujols hardly slept last spring. When he did, it was often in the van he used to transport the deceased.
The 24-year-old works for a Brooklyn funeral home that at one point had nearly 500 people in its care, a backlog unresolved until June.
His work weeks stretched past 80 hours, but he struggled most after-hours.
“Sitting in silence, that’s when the hallucinations would come around,” he said. “It got pretty bad.”
Doctors told Pujols he was experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations — a term for imagined perceptions that occur as sleep sets in — and said they were caused by sleep deprivation and trauma. “No sleeping, working until you’re exhausted, and seeing a lot of nasty, very deplorable things,” he said. “Really, that’s what ended up causing it.”
Therapy helped, and so did religion. Pujols now carries a notepad to combat forgetfulness and wears a watch to aid time management.