What Day Is It? Life and Money During a Pandemic

Life and Money in NYC During a Pandemic

On March 4th, my husband and I had an eerie feeling we should do a grocery shop. The store was bustling as usual, but I chuckled at the sight of an empty toilet paper shelf. In a health crisis, of all things to hoard–toilet paper, really? I snapped a pic, and posted it to my Instagram, probably inadvertently adding to the panic.

A month later, and the situation has drastically changed. Schools in NYC are shut down for over a month. For the past two weeks I’ve been working from home until who knows when. And two Fridays ago was probably the last time we’d browse a bookstore for a while.

I haven’t said much about the coronavirus pandemic, and that’s because I don’t know the right thing to say.

I can tell you firsthand that choosing to live in a crusty-punk cheap apartment when you’re 23 is probably a decision you won’t regret 10 years later. But a global health crisis is something I’m experiencing in real time, just like everyone else. I’ve done a lot of random things in life, but I’ve never been through anything like what is happening now. So acting like I know exactly what to do in a time like this feels disingenuous. I have no tips to offer.

Still, like most people, it’s hard to think about much else lately. Recently I made the mistake of looking up how many cases there are in my neighborhood. There are around 200 within a 20-block radius, which made me never want to leave the house again, and it’s many times that in less affluent areas.

But amidst the startling numbers, hockey stick-like charts, and red-hued maps, I find myself seeking out a bit of humanity through personal stories. Wondering how other people from everywhere else are handling this. Like the team in India who I conference with every week. The ones with the shoddy Internet at home, and the family bustling in the background. They can’t social distance the way Americans can–will they be OK?

If that’s you, too, wondering how other people are dealing with the pandemic, here’s how I’m feeling about the world right now, whether the crisis is affecting me personally, and what I’ve been up to for the past few weeks.

What We Stocked Up On

When we had a sense that we’d be quarantining at home for a while, I found myself blowing off a dentist appointment and standing in a snaking line at our grocery store, paying $50 for not that many items. This would be a common theme, as evidenced by our monstrous food bill. Normally, I’d fight that number, but right then? Frugality was not top of mind.

Prescriptions were next: we stocked up on several month’s worth of medications and specialized pet foods for the cats.

We didn’t bother trying to get extra hand sanitizer or any face masks. Soap at home will be just fine.

Not knowing when the quarantine would end, I stopped by the hardware store to buy some supplies for a project I could work on at home. 

My husband and I argued over what constitutes a critically-low supply of toilet paper. He thought six rolls was plenty to last a few weeks. I thought we were skating on thin ice. Because whenever I was at the store I’d scan the toilet paper section, which was often empty. So about that toilet paper shortage…

It’s taken a couple tries, but we finally tracked down yeast and flour to make bread.

Weeks later, and some grocery stores have developed a system: walking by some of them and you might mistake the store for a nightclub, letting in a limited number of people at a time, with a line forming on the street. Others have seniors-only shopping hours in the morning. So far the shelves around us are still pretty well-stocked.

As for now, we’re not taking the subway, so are limited to what’s available in our mom and pop stores close by. Which means items just cost more. But I’m glad we have our smaller grocery stores, since I’ve seen bigger stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods absolutely mobbed.

I’ve also heard that slots for grocery delivery are booked for weeks, so we haven’t even attempted those. While we are putting ourselves and others at risk by shopping in person, we’re trying to take precautions by shopping less frequently, keeping the trips focused and short, not manhandling items on the shelves, and wearing masks/washing hands frequently.

We’re also spending a small fortune on croissants from the new coffee shop that opened at the most unfortunate time, and on takeout from the few places that are open in the neighborhood. Considering spending in other areas has decreased, we feel good about this.

Mom Is Wondering How to Do Basic Things, Like Buy Gasoline

No one needs to worry about my husband and me. But my mom is in a different boat.

Like most people who work blue-collar jobs, she can’t do her factory job from home. While I sat at home in my sweatpants, she was still showing up to work every day, and her company hadn’t said a peep about worker safety or shutting down or reduced hours until recently.

The good news is that my mom has a paranoid streak. When I was in college, and there was a news story about a riot on campus, she’d often look for me in the crowds on TV, always assuming I was doing something bad.

Needless to say, she’s taking the pandemic seriously on her own. That means no hanging out with friends. No more eating in the kitchen with coworkers. Instead, she eats her lunch alone by her machine. And at home there are new, mom-mandated protocols: my uncle is being forced to quarantine jackets he’s worn outside of the house. (No, I didn’t question the logic of what happens to the rest of his clothes that have been worn outside).

Financially, my mom was affected by the last recession. She lost her job and was unemployed for well over a year. But even though I worried, with her astonishingly low expenses, extended unemployment benefits, and no other major catastrophes, she got by OK. 

If she loses her job now, though, it means an early retirement. I think she can swing it, but she also has the safety net of two kids who can help her out, which is something not everyone has.

Speaking of helping out, it was only through poking and prodding that I found out my mom’s company reduced her hours and she needs to file for unemployment.

This pandemic has exposed many stark class differences, but one that stands out to me is how uneducated people and non-English speakers rely on in-person interactions to do things.

Something as simple as an office being closed can mean real consequences for many disadvantaged people. Normally, my mom would go to the office in person and can get by with no literacy skills. But with now her only choice to do it online (on what computer?), she’s lost.

I told her to send me the info and I’d file the claims for her. As I listed what I needed, she said “this is too complicated, forget it,” but dutifully texted me pictures of the info a few days later.

Another predicament I never imagined: how to fuel up my mom’s car, as most of the gas pumps are now self-serve only, and she can’t pay cash. I made her an authorized user of one of my credit cards for emergencies, but she doesn’t actually know which buttons to press to pay with a credit card.

A Burst of Inspiration

With lots of folks at home and encouraged social distancing, the message track was we should maximize all this “extra time.” Then came the opposite track: now we should stop trying to be productive.

I don’t think it’s about being productive or lazy. It’s about how you care for yourself. That’s going to look different for everyone.

And if people DO have more free time now, it’s usually because of a loss of work, they’re a full-time influencer whose job it is to be on social media, or like me, “extra time” was an illusion, so they neglect other things in their life.

Once I was settled at home for the long-haul, my first instinct was to get moving. What can I do right now? How can I get a sense of control? This is my own coping mechanism, with or without a pandemic, for how I feel good about myself.

I’ve been curious about video, so I’d learn iMovie.

First thing I did was neglect my online life: this blog and scrolling through social media. Then I got to work on elaborate-for-me video setups. I learned that it was OK that my husband burst into the room while I was recording video–I could make a separate voice over later. I could use filters to make my voice sound like Elizabeth Holmes. And wait–how DO Youtubers get those bird’s eye shots??? Well, now I know that it’s actually pretty hard without the right tools. While my video won’t likely see the light of day, because the concept was questionable, it still feels good to know that I’ve picked up a new skill.

Keeping News Consumption at a Minimum

That last week at work, a coworker burst into a meeting I was in and said, “a friend of mine knows someone who works in the governor’s office. We’re going into lockdown.” Which of course freaked everyone out. And of course it wasn’t true.

The key phrase: “A friend of mine knows someone…” A red flag for questionable information. I needed to be extra critical about how I was consuming news. 

I signed up for text alerts from the city for the real scoop on what’s actionable.

Like lots of folks across the country, I’ve also found comfort in Governor Cuomo’s no-nonsense style in his daily conference briefings. Then I watch the news at 6pm for half an hour a day. It’s impossible to not look up articles every now and then, but I’m not letting it take over my whole life. I’ve also found staying away from Coronavirus posts on social media to be super positive for my mental health.

I Touch My Face a Lot

One thing I’ve learned is that we are collectively gross people who are passing invisible germs to each other constantly without knowing it. And now I’ll always imagine germs as glitter.

I also learned that I touch my face. A lot. Which is why I need a face mask, STAT.

My dusty sewing machine could finally be put to good use. I spent a Saturday afternoon making three prototypes to find the best fit, because I can’t be a normal person who makes the easiest option. I’m still refining the prototypes, and with my perfectionist nature, I’m sure that once I have a workable mask, the virus will be a thing of the past.

DIY Face Masks

Back to Basics

With no real place to go, I’m seeing opportunities around the house I never considered before. It’s brought out the homesteading, “make do” spirit in me. My husband and I experimented by putting a scallion stump in a glass of water. The next day, we were amazed how much it had grown.

While a bunch of scallions cost less than a dollar, we’re not saving much money, but it feels immensely satisfying to be able to pluck some cuttings from your own “garden.” From scrambled eggs to scallion pancakes, there are so many recipes where I need just a small amount of scallions.

That one success made me curious about what else we could cultivate at home, and I’m looking to level up with easy herbs to grow at home.

And with that well-earned yeast, my husband made bread for the first time. We’d been buying a fresh loaf for $5-$9, but this cost only a few cents for ingredients.

Self-Isolating in NYC

The wine store is one small business that’s doing OK right now.

My mom said my cousins in a far-flung country saw news about New York City and called her, concerned about me. The news stories and the numbers are panic-worthy–hundreds dead in NYC every day–but daily civilian life hasn’t descended into Mad Max territory yet. At least, not where I am.

The streets are quieter, except for birds, sirens, and the 7pm hooting and hollering for healthcare workers on the front lines.

My husband and I are operating as if we already have coronavirus, and our primary jobs are to not infect other people.

I spent the early quarantine days zigzagging around people on the street, like they were lepers. If I didn’t, then it seemed like no one else would. We stopped taking walks in the park, because there were too many people getting close to us. A few weeks ago, we were the only ones out with masks. Now the majority of people are wearing them.

At home, our lives aren’t much different from before. We are both already inward-facing people. My husband loves to read and most of my hobbies revolve around the home, too. In normal times, there are plenty of days where I don’t go outside at all.

There are new positives from staying at home: I get to hang out with my husband every day, all day! We get to lunch together. There are new opportunities to care for one another. We get glimpses into what the other person does for work (I thought he played chess all day. I was wrong.)

Even though we’re “quarantined” at home, I don’t have the extra time I foolishly believed I’d have. There are still 10 home projects that are sitting there, untouched. I still have the same work deliverables, the same timelines, the same performance expectations. I know this is a good problem to have, but finishing my face masks will have to wait until after hours or the weekend.

If anything, work is bleeding into my home life, and that’s something I had trouble with even in normal times. Now it seems impossible. My appetite during the day has diminished. Sleep quality isn’t the same. And having a meltdown about work away from home is one thing. Having that same meltdown at home is something else.

As I’m writing this right now, it’s past midnight, and my boss is sending me meeting invites. Our jobs never really were 9-5, and working from home really magnifies that.

My #1 Work-from-Home Mistake

I made the mistake of not smuggling my work monitor out of the building. So now I’ve got 30 windows open on a 13-inch laptop.

Even though my job is mostly digital, I wasn’t used to working from home. I started out committing every classic work-from-home mistake: slouching in my bed in sweatpants, not keeping regular hours, eating greasy chips randomly throughout the day. My back was killing me. So I’ve had to course correct.

In our 700-square foot apartment, my options were limited. Most people in New York City don’t have extra rooms aside from a kitchen, living room, bathroom and bedrooms. No existing dining or kitchen table to take over. But we did luck out with a pass-through room, which I’ve used as a dumping ground for sewing supplies. So I repurposed the messiest area in our apartment into a work-from-home area. I found a wireless keyboard laying around and used a shoebox to elevate my laptop. So far, it’s a much more productive space than my bed.

As for our jobs, my husband and I both work for big companies, but that doesn’t mean we’re safe. While we have jobs now, we’re both expecting layoffs to happen. In his industry, he saw a similar company cutting executive salaries to avoid layoffs.

And my industry, advertising, is definitely affected by the economy. When thinking about risk in advertising, you have to compare your salary versus billings. One reason why I have a job now, is because I’m stretched across four brands. It used to be one person per brand, so now I do the work that four people used to do. The work has decreased on three of them, but collectively they’re covering my salary. If the work continues to decrease though, I’m on the chopping block.

Dreaming About Exactly What I’m Going to Do When This Passes

I wonder what life will be like After. Will I ever shake a person’s hand again? Will I always carry a face mask in my bag, just in case? Will $1,000 emergency funds be a quaint thing of the past?

While I know I’m tremendously lucky to not have been affected much so far, I’ve been daydreaming about the things I’m looking forward to, like:

I’m going to invite myself over to visit my best friend’s, whether she likes it or not. No more being polite.

Wait, why DON’T we have a mending party, if all my friends know how to sew?

Kids aren’t small forever. Our Utah spring break trip is cancelled, but the first trip After should be for my husband’s son, so he can see his cousins.

While I’m quarantining I spend most of my time on the inside, looking out. One of the best home decor decisions we’ve made is removing the curtains from our living room windows. The other day, as I was walking past the kitchen, through the window I noticed pink little sprouts on the tree in the backyard. Every day they’re changing. Change can and will happen, whether I like it or not. Just like it always does.

Anyway, how are you doing?

Feature Image: The Luxe Strategist

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