“It’s an elegy for New York,” my friend texts me. She’s just finished my book. It’s the end of February. We find barstools at a packed restaurant bar before a reading at St. Mark’s Church. “We’re ordering months of medication in case the supply chain fails,” she says, “and hand sanitizer—and masks. Masks, can you believe it.” Like me, she and her husbands are journalists, they’re hearing things from some of our friends in the field. She tells me she thinks people will still read the book, words of reassurance that only provoke anxiety. I think she sounds paranoid, like she’s speaking from a place of some dark cultish extremism.
The next two weeks change the world. Schools close. We need to rush the audiobook recording into three days, taping over the weekend. I take the subway for the last time, without knowing it, one of only three people in the entire car. Days before, I’d waited on a crammed platform for a train so jammed with bodies we couldn’t all press aboard. Now it feels like a late night in the early nineties, a city of emptiness and dread. It’s warm out, but I wear gloves, tiny red ones that belonged to a friend’s grandmother, calfskin from a different century that had known different fear and trauma and loss. The sound engineer lets me into the building, squeezes nervously into the far corner of the elevator on the way up to the studio. We finish the recording Sunday evening. I wait in a supermarket line for an hour and a half and hoist home whatever I can carry. I write an article about homeless college students who have nowhere to go.
The book couldn’t come out in the fall; the fall news cycle would be too busy, the election too much of a distraction. April would be perfect. We would publish in time to do university events, but still close enough to the Democratic National Convention, when social issues, like the ones my book explores, would be on the forefront of discourse. The safety net. Housing. Childcare. The minimum wage. The cost of college. Race. Gender. My book follows Camilla, a young criminal justice student, through her first year of single motherhood, and the entire constellation of factors that keep her homeless, despite her tenacity, her ambition, her blade-sharp mind. I wrote this book like a zealous missionary, to grab people by their lapels, to make them feel the irreversible curse of being born poor in America. April was worth the abbreviated marketing schedule, worth the last-minute squeeze into the catalogue.
Justin, my husband, takes photos of the brokers packing up their computers at the stock exchange. Guards had taken his temperature before they allowed him to enter the building. Normal. But that night his fever spikes. We quarantine from him in the house; he takes the bedroom, I sleep on the living room floor. He changes his clothes before he leaves the bedroom, wears gloves in the kitchen and bathroom, sleeps for two days. My breathing shortens, I feel a boot heavy on my chest.
During the day, I report. Between interviews I tend to Dahlia, who is desperate for my attention and some semblance of solidity. She’s twelve, navigating her first breakup alongside her first global crisis, while her parents are sick. At night, I’m sleepless, processing the scale of what’s happening. My insomnia gradually pivots to my book. I feel drenched in shame for even thinking about it. The next evening, I completely lose it and scream at Justin and Dahlia like a mother out of Albee.
Morning. I’m bleary and breathless on the living room floor. I reach for my phone. There’s a text from my editor: Blessedly, we’re moving publication, to a time a bit later this year when the earth is back on its axis. I take the deepest breath I have in days, my chest suddenly unencumbered. At least this will be okay. An hour later: I have just been told that our April directive (that I wrote you about an hour ago) may be changing. Please stand by. It’s days before the phone rings to inform me of the publisher’s decision. Over those days, I hear that Amazon will not be shipping books as part of their focus on essential goods. All my beloved bookstores have closed.
I’d been patient: My editor got tied up in another project after I submitted my draft. Finally, I got notes. I revised. I waited. And just as I was anticipating my next round of edits, the imprint that had acquired my book was shuttered after its most successful year ever. My venerated and venerable editor, a cofounder of the imprint, was out of a job; my book was orphaned. So began a spell waiting to see which editor would be assigned the book at a different imprint. And then nine months awaiting edits on that year-old second draft, only to be rushed into production, squeezed last minute into the catalogue, so it could come out this April. Publishing.
Privileged problems to have. Our savings had been drained by this book process, but my life was anchored way above the line. My anxiety could crackle through a home to which I held a mortgage, my insomnia borne out beside a committed coparent. I felt left behind by New York’s Gilded Age, but that was in part by choice: to be a writer, and to write about inequality.
The women I’d met at the Brooklyn shelter where I was reporting had no such choices. Privilege is an inheritance game. They were, for the most part, born poor. And over their young lifetimes, the struggle of poverty had become a tightening noose. These were young women who, for the most part, didn’t grow up in shelters. During their childhoods, a Section 8 check could pay the rent, and rents, while untenable, weren’t yet entirely infeasible, even at minimum wage. No longer. Each of them had found themselves alone, with the crushing responsibility of new motherhood, in the shelter on Fourth Avenue. The shelter, and its soup kitchen, was mainly run by volunteers, who stopped coming once the coronavirus threat became a dire reality. The soup kitchen had served its last meal the week before.
Back when I reported at the shelter, the buildings nearby were unveiling their offering plans, which included pet spas and stroller concierge service. I followed my subjects through the vast labyrinth of our failed social service system: the welfare offices where people would wait for days on end to settle a single check; the NYCHA offices where they’d vainly apply for subsidized apartments; the WIC offices where the size of a check was dependent upon whether a mother could still nurse her baby. Beyond the system were the bodegas and supermarkets that took EBT cards, the miles of subway track that led to the end of each line, and the buses that ferried New Yorkers far beyond the city’s glittering nucleus. I watched these women shoulder the heavy yoke of administrative burden; I was a witness to what it meant to lose a public assistance case for reasons of bafflingly inconsistent policies, or a letter that got lost in the mail. I watched it happen to my protagonist who was as organized and prepared to take on the system as anyone I’d known; a woman who, as a teenager, had sued her parents for child support and won.
I saw how literally impossible it was to find stable housing in a city that had handed ten billion dollars of tax abatements to billionaires, a city that housed more millionaires than anywhere else, where even if a so-called affordable apartment came up in the lottery—a lottery for housing, my god—as it did for my protagonist, the minimum income was unattainable for anyone under the line. That was during New York’s age of unprecedented prosperity, of skyscraping new developments, of luxury everything, when the people in power decided to shred our safety net instead of strengthening it. In January, 62,679 people found a bed in city shelters, and thousands more slept in private shelters—or on the street. How many will there be now? How many will there be the next time we’re all instructed to stay “home”?
The call comes the next day. They’re going ahead with the book. The pipeline is open, that’s the way they put it. The printer in North Carolina is printing books. The warehouse is shipping them. Amazon will keep stocking and selling, and so will a direct distributor. Fall will be just as bad, perhaps. I ask what the plan will be should North Carolina close essential businesses. We see no sign of that happening, I’m told, not the way the virus is spreading. In my best good-girl voice, I inquire if it might be possible to look into what will happen if the printer shuts down and if Amazon stops selling books. I think about the Amazon warehouse worker I interviewed, who described how in the crammed warehouse there was no space to escape her colleagues’ coughs and sneezes, how Amazon refused to supply masks and gloves. I feel complicit and conflicted.
It’s no relief to realize this book is more relevant than I’d known when I was writing it, that so many elements of the struggle I chronicle soon will be lived out by millions. I know they’re right, that it’s an uncanny moment in which to publish a narrative about individual trauma, about wide systemic failure, about life in a shockingly divided city. I’m so sorry, my editor writes me after the call. He was on the line but too sick to speak, in the middle of a fifteen-day fever, gasping at home. Justin has a friend in a medical coma. My heart flutters at a terrifying speed for hours on end; with each half breath, I don’t know what’s panic and what’s the virus. I text my book’s protagonist to check on her. She tells me she’s not worried about getting COVID-19. I should drink water with lemon and bicarbonate, she says; she heard it cures the virus.
My half-capacity breaths suddenly drop to a quarter; I’ve had asthma since I was a kid, I’ve been assessing my lungs my whole life. After I put Dahlia to bed the following night, I feel my breathing capacity drop suddenly, now more like 10 percent. It’s 11:30. We text a doctor for advice. He tells us not to go to the hospital unless we think I’m going to die. I don’t know if it’s going to drop again, and if it does, if it will be too late to get me to a place that can help. I don’t know if any place is equipped to help. If this crisis will deem me worthy of a ventilator. We stay home. We cry a bit, not knowing what is going to happen. I tell Justin that at least I won’t have to worry about my book anymore. I apologize for not getting a real job, for thinking that I could make this life work the way I’d hoped. It occurs to me, finally, to feel scared for us, too.
Soon I’m breathing better, but sleeping less. Motivated by an almost ironic cynicism, I search for coverage of North Carolina’s virus prevention plans. There it is, posted just hours before: the governor has decreed all nonessential businesses close up shop by Monday, until April 29, a day after my book’s scheduled publication. Justin sleeps soundly beside me. I debate opening a bottle for a 4 A.M. solitary drink, something I’ve never done before. Instead, until dawn, I just write.
The data begins to accumulate, the millions newly jobless. I text the women I’ve stayed in touch with, women who were working at Applebee’s, or as home health aides, trying to get through nursing school, trying to offer their children a measure of stability without stable housing. None of them reply. My protagonist isn’t working now, but she’s not worried, she assures me. Her partner offers her a stability the system never did. He’s smart, she texts me, and they’re praying, they’ll be fine. I wonder if she’s trying to convince herself as much as me.
The book was printed over the weekend, I’m told, it should be arriving at the warehouse that afternoon. I won’t be able to hold it in my hands unless I buy myself a copy online—shipping has been limited to retailers exclusively. My publicist emails me a picture of two stacked copies. I stare at the picture like it’s a photo of a lover, tumbled from an airmail envelope at an army base. It’s beautiful. I allow myself to feel that before I check the news. Before I return myself to the numbers, the numbers of jobs lost, the number of deaths. Justin’s friend will soon be one. The book’s protagonist will have finally felt the virus encroach; she will mourn two people lost. The next two weeks blur in a panic of writing and emails, careening between feeling zealous purpose and existential pointlessness.
My sleeplessness pulls me into novels about the AIDS epidemic, about slavery. I need relative traumas, ones that may offer perspective. I know what is coming for anyone struggling in this country, anyone who survives the virus. As a country, we’ve lived through worse, I try to tell myself. But who cares. We could have ended homelessness with a twenty-billion-dollar investment in subsidized housing, we could have listened to every scholar, every think tank researcher, every HUD staffer, who knows that this problem is solvable with a tiny fraction of the stimulus package, or a tiny fraction of the wealth of the billionaires who feign their liberalism. I’ve seen the paralysis and failure of our social services system in what, for some, was the best of times. Now it’s the worst of times.
Justin, home from making pictures of makeshift morgues in Brooklyn and the mass grave in the Bronx, catches me in a moment of preoccupation about my book, says at least I’m not publishing a navel-gazing novel. I snap at him in defense of navel-gazing novels. We still want to connect, to feel, to bring another person’s inner life into our own, I tell him in less-polite language. I wrote this book from a place of outrage, to move people to confront the horrors we were willing to perpetuate in the near past. The emergency was there all along. Never have Americans so desperately needed the ability to internalize the pain of others, to spur themselves into addressing our many plagues. Pub dates be damned, books are what will provoke our empathic imaginations. Like this one, they’ll continue to be written and published, sold and read, discussed and passed on. Now more than ever, or same as it ever was.
Lauren Sandler is the author of This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search For Home, out this week from Random House