WATERTOWN, MASSACHUSETTS—Tuesday morning and, as usual, I’m watching a head bob before a verdant if patchily rendered digital landscape. I’m on Zoom, of course, along with a hundred and twenty or so other anti-hunger advocates from across the state of Massachusetts.
For the past year and a half, I’ve worked part-time at a small nonprofit embedded within a much larger nonprofit, first in data entry and now in childcare solutions and case management. Our focus is workforce development: we match clients with and pay for job training. Now that training centers are closed through at least May 4, our students study from home, or try to. We lend them laptops, point them in the direction of low- or (temporarily) no-cost wifi, and otherwise try to connect them and their families to relevant resources. By resources I mean the basics: food and money.
My first few months in the nonprofit human services field were a crash course in acronyms and euphemisms: DTA (Department of Transitional Assistance); TAFDC (Transitional Aid for Families with Dependent Children); SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program). The families we serve are often described as “in transition,” their situation, like the assistance the government offers, by definition (if not in fact) temporary.
Last Tuesday, April 7, we got some numbers. The Massachusetts DTA usually gets about 900 SNAP applications a day; that has jumped to 3,000. Its statewide assistance line usually gets about 2,700 calls a day; now it’s getting roughly 12,000. A follow-up email clarified that the high call volume means many callers are getting automatically disconnected.
Among the recently and unexpectedly unemployed, there has been much confusion about whether and how to apply for federal benefits. I am sympathetic; I have walked clients through any number of benefit applications and experienced this confusion myself. It strikes me that this moment is serving, for those whose previous brushes with state bureaucracy have been confined to lines at the DMV, as a painful lesson in the necessity of a robust and readily accessible social safety net. At least in Massachusetts, it’s easier now than it was two months ago to apply for unemployment benefits, for cash benefits, for SNAP. Still, the onus is on the individual to prove that they deserve the relief the government is offering.
I spent the rest of last week calling the twenty-eight clients in my caseload to see how they were doing. Two months ago, I would have been able to meet with these clients in person. I would have offered them water, or tea, and a chair; I would have, with their permission, closed the door to my office. We might have called one or another overworked department together, on speakerphone, and the minor authority my affiliation affords might have allowed me to press harder for an answer than a client alone would feel comfortable doing. If, still, no answer was forthcoming, I would at least have been able to make eye contact with my client as we spoke about what to do next.
Now, after I get off the phone, I send follow-up emails filled with links: a link to a list of emergency childcare centers; a link to a searchable map of food pantries; a link to a PDF map of food pantries; a link to the application for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT); a link to an application for a Visa gift card whose wait list is now several thousand hopeful applicants long. I call community centers across the city looking for baby supplies, and find one with diapers on hand, but in a neighborhood far from most of our clients’ homes. I distribute rideshare codes. I walk a client through IRS Free File options over Google Hangouts. I review a PDF from the Women, Infants, & Children (WIC) Nutrition Program; due to Covid-19, WIC recipients can now purchase 20 oz. breads with their “16 oz. Bread/Whole Grains” benefits. I ask a client to say hi to her baby for me.
“Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need any assistance,” I write at the bottom of an email. “We’re here to help!”
Miranda Popkey lives in Massachusetts. Her first novel, Topics of Conversation, will be published by Knopf in 2020. (July 2019)
FIRE ISLAND, NEW YORK—We got out early. We packed the car the day that NYU, where I teach, moved classes online. We wanted to stay in the city, our city. But my mother-in-law, who helps take care of our toddler, is eighty-four. My son is two. In the elevator in our building, as on the street outside, the anxiety was rising. So was the prospect of having to wonder, soon, whether taking our toddler to the park would risk his grandma’s life. We drove over the Triborough Bridge, the four of us, and passed the the big tennis stadium, in Queens, where they play the US Open but whose courts are now a hospital. We parked by the clam place, and got on the boat. We got off at the stop near where we’ve now been socked in, with a couple of space heaters and a lot of beans, for going on five weeks.
The house we’re lucky to have isn’t insulated. It’s a summer place, from the era when that phrase connoted not membership in the 1 percent, but rather that brief epoch of American capitalism, after the war, when people like my mother-in-law—an immigrant from the Caribbean with a good career, but not a financier’s one—could thinkably buy a bungalow by the sea, within driving distance of New York, for her family. Now this place is dotted with houses, with lots of glass, from our new gilded age: monuments to the stock market’s gains since 2009. But most of those houses, when we turned up, were empty. There are no services here in the off-season, or grocery stores. (Getting backup Cheerios and beans requires a trip off-island, or having them sent by boat.) The authorities and scant year-rounders, pointing to those lacks should anyone here fall ill, did a good job of urging people, in the days following our arrival, not to come.
It’s familiar by now: people on islands shouting that mainlanders—New Yorkers, in the northeast—should stay away. Even an island that’s not one—Rhode Island—got in on the trend. From Maine to the Carolinas, many islands where second homes and summer denizens abound have pronounced themselves, this spring, closed to visitors. The more permanent residents and select boards of such places, with ample reason and lack of hospitals, let alone ventilators, have asked people from the outside world not to bring the virus.
Many destination islands around the world, places whose sustenance once came from the sea or the soil but is now by attracting tourists, have done the same. In Barbados, where my wife’s family’s from, there’s a mandatory two-week quarantine in place for anyone coming from abroad. Prince Edward Island in Canada, where mine is from, has shut its bridge. (Barbados has seventy-one confirmed cases and four deaths; Prince Edward Island, twenty-five and zero.) In Cuba (726 confirmed cases, twenty-one deaths), friends say their lives are on pause: cut off, by the lockdown there, from their cousins across town, they’re also cut off from the world. With all flights into or out of Havana halted, they feel like they’re back, after the brief opening of recent years, to where they were in the 1990s: no cash or tourists coming in, no way to leave. One thing Cuba doesn’t lack, should its outbreak worsen, is health-care workers.
Among the world’s last island nations to remain officially virus-free is the Pacific archipelago, Vanuatu, that was just savaged by a cyclone. Now Vanuatu’s leaders are praying, as they reopen the airport they shut to holiday-makers a few weeks ago, that the food and aid they need in the storm’s wake won’t also bring unwanted germs. Hard not to ponder, as they do, the vectors of a virus that whipped around the planet thanks to people who take long-haul flights, from Wuhan to Milan to New York and wherever else, but that most menaces those stuck in place—whether in the densely vibrant immigrant neighborhoods of Queens or on remote islands that are most vulnerable, too, to the worsening storms of a warming planet.
Fire Island is no exception to the latter danger. There’s a reason we’ve been urging my mother-in-law, for years, to sell this place. But for now, at least, we’re glad she hasn’t. A barrier island that rising seas want to reclaim, and shall, is an apt place to contemplate the world’s tumbling into a new epoch. Long Island’s Suffolk County, where we are, is now among the globe’s hottest hotspots. (Current count: 22,462 cases, 608 deaths.) The ferry company here, having warned anyone who’s ill or vulnerable from boarding their vessels, has kept to its winter schedule: one boat a day. But every day, as the weather warms, more people come.
The quiet, still, is something. Usually, several planes per hour pass overhead, en route to JFK. These days, we hear none. My wife and I are learning to fish. Striped bass, our neighbors say, are running in the Great South Bay. The way to catch them from the dock, or so we’re told, is with a buck-tail lure at night.
Is the virus here? Of course it is. We stand ten feet from anyone we meet. No man, the poet said, is an island. But no island is an island, either.
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is the author of Island People: The Caribbean and the World, and the co-editor of Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. He teaches at NYU. (June 2018)