It is the first time we acknowledge each other. The Englishman who is a regular at the
neighborhood cafe I frequent in Brooklyn is flipping through his newspaper. He glances
over, his glasses sliding off his nose. He turns to face me and begins to list the countries
cited in the paper that are under lockdown. Although this is our first conversation after a
few years of spotting one another, we begin to discuss the pandemic in depth. We both
are trying to hold on to this moment of normalcy; the encounter with a stranger feels
urgent. It’s the second week of March 2020. As I leave, I tell him to take extra care,
knowing that I won’t see him again.
My immediate family lives in different cities, countries, and continents. We were
generations of refugees, immigrants, aliens, and naturalized citizens who fled endless
global wars in the Horn of Africa. We were already familiar with living under decades of
war and unresolved states of emergency and crisis, the source of our displacement. We
were already living lives of transience. Our diasporic lives had normalized separation.
It is February 2017, a frigid afternoon, and a few months before I move to New York
City. I am sitting by a window in a cafe a few blocks from Hudson Yards and its
surrounding area, a point of transfer and transport. It is steely, stiff, and cold. I feel a
deep hollowing in my stomach. I spent two hours with a homeless woman who came into the cafe trying to sell her hand-sewn mittens. Her entrepreneurial attempt was met
with repulsive glares from patrons. It was a gesture, one of creating invisible borders. It
reminded me of a documentary about homeless migrants and refugees, ones you don’t
hear about in European cities: Calais, Copenhagen, Aarhus, the Greek Islands, Melilla,
I asked her to sit with me and bought her a cup of herbal tea. She kept her hands
wrapped around the hot paper cup; the cracks in between the web of her fingers were
wide; her hands were dried and overworked.
This woman sitting across from me, another stranger, was an elder. An older Black
woman whom I felt compelled to look after. With no home, she bounced from shelter to
shelter for twenty years. She emphasized their volatile conditions and that she did not
belong there. She proceeded to tell me that she migrated to New York City from the
South. We had this in common. She had lived in New York City since the seventies when
her family had migrated during The Great Migration.
That first encounter stayed with me long after my move. Like when I saw a young
man sitting on the stairways to the 7 train in the Times Square – 42nd Street subway
terminal who yelled, refusing the admonishment of passerbyers, “I am visible! I am here!”
Or the balmy summer afternoon in a bustling area of the Flatiron District when a young
blond woman wearing a short skirt and heels, another seemingly figure in the crowd,
bent down on a corner, ripped open a garbage bag, and began to rummage through it. No
one dared to look or react.
Between July 2018 and July 2019, the United States census estimated that 2,600
people were leaving the city each week. New York City saw a mass exodus of its mobile
and wealthy at the onset of the pandemic, roughly 320,000 people, according to the
census. The first wave of the pandemic highlighted new complications and boundaries:
nightly curfews, masked essential workers sought protection from unmasked consumers,
nations became inaccessible, and institutions meant to support in times of duress and
The soundscapes of New York City during the first wave of the pandemic were a
new type of frantic: car horns belting, far longer than necessary, setting off a chain
reaction, ambulance sirens zooming from all directions several times a day, waves of
protesters in the streets as helicopters chop through the skies. A new sound had emerged
in my neighborhood, church bells on the hour. The world is in collapse and renewal, and
lockdown felt like salvage from the conscription of the material world. The rate of
change and time has accelerated, and nothing continues to hold. Silence has its loudest
presence. Relief comes with surrender, repentance, and falling to my knees.
The life I had felt like a dream that I had just awakened from. After emerging out
of the first several months of being in lockdown, my eyes feel like they have never been
used for sight before. I welcome my new use of senses. They burned as they ingested the
light of summer. I observe these new sensations while in the backseat of an Uber,
spotting subway lanterns and half-finished skyscrapers.
A makeshift plastic duvet carrier is a partition between myself in the backseat and
the driver. Early Sunday morning, I rent a car to visit and reunite with my family. I drive
down the highway, out of the city, speeding, the momentum of the road, wind through
the crack of a window, listening to Weldon Irvines’ “Morning Sunrise,” iridescent clouds
puffed on light pink skies that quickly turn orange.
Winter quarantine mornings start with meditation, prayer, passing ancestors,
drinking holy water, staring out of my backyard window at a winter’s sun, scents of copal,
myrrh, pine, oud, bakhoor, lemongrass, frankincense, sage, and practicing the art of
forgiveness. After a night of snowfall and waking up to a powdered dream world, a
sapped tree is flailing in a cold icy windstorm, its pine branches covered in snow powder
and icicles. I spend the morning in a blanket, watching a documentary on the ingenuity
of architectural structures in various ancient civilizations while drinking my morning
coffee. The rim of the spoon is laden with honey and is warm against my tongue. I scrape
remnants of honeycomb off the roof of my mouth as I read poetry for the remainder of
Poetry is a blanket amid the confines of the next series of lockdowns. In Eritrea,
(my place of origin), oral poetic traditions, like music, are an anchor in time and have
been used for centuries to mark special events. In some instances, poetry lines from the
past become hybrid forms and intertwine into present poems for continuity. Poetry has
always been an antidote to the world; prayers laid in verse; a momentary warmth and
protection to shelter into.
It is 530pm, the second day of the snowstorm. The day is a dull light fading into
the background as light grey skies saturate the tops of the sky. I pretend the dark clouds
are countries and the sky is a map of the universe. A plate of glass and a wet and fogged
window screen separates me from the outside world. A streetlamp produces an off-white
halo of light; it is dreary, cold, and serene. The emptiness. The stillness. Silence until
someone starts shoveling, and the friction of the metal collides with the snow on the
ground making a crunching sound; the call to act, shovel, before the freeze. The plower
makes way. They’ve broken through, and the shovel slides down the entire sidewalk. The
shovel is now a plow.
I do not want to push or plow anymore. I head over to the couch and bury my face in the
fold of my mother’s arm while we lay together, the creases where love lives.
A wintered quarantine skips spring and turns to sweltering summer, cicadas
buzzing, cemented into the sidewalks, and mother birds call out to their fledglings.
People tweet incessantly about what is on their minds; the calls online are screams of
injustices that land in a void. Quarantine has brought the modern industrial world to
dwell on flat screens. I spend an enormous amount of time in my parent’s backyard. A
mother bird calls to her young with food tapered inside her beak. I see a nestling bird
drop to the ground from an improper nest. I make a makeshift nest out of a straw basket
and t-shirt. I watch her grow in the basket, her eyes open, and feathers grow. After a few
weeks, she leaves on her own.
After retreating from New York City for the fall and winter months, my friends
from the city are glad its occupiers have left. They are mad that their city was taken from
them, abandoned, and molded into a corporate real estate metropolis. The cafe I like to
frequent in warm weather in Brooklyn is gone. A place where I pondered my survival in
the city the summer after graduation. I stand across the street staring at an
unrecognizable, boarded-up, and empty storefront.
The melancholy I felt upon returning to New York City in the summer of 2021 was
not one I had expected. The air permeated with a foreignness; the energy of the city was
no longer in high drive. Despite the long time away, it felt less like estrangement and
more ominous. I arrive on the day of a massive heatwave; my dashboard temperature
display read 99 degrees, somewhere between the corn-husked farm fields of upper
Maryland and the border of Delaware. When I arrive, I park on a one-way street under a
tree canopy that lines the road I’ve partly exited from the cooled interiors of the car,
leaning against a half-opened driver-side door, one foot on the edge of the sidewalk, the
other still inside the vehicle. The first week of my summer return was accompanied by
July heat waves. In August, hurricane storms of the mid-Atlantic rip from the Southern
states and Gulf Coast and flood parts of the city. There is historic rainfall and intense
flooding in parts of the city. In previous years, construction booms in flood zone areas,
including public housing.
It is winter in Brooklyn; from the view of my bedroom window is a Southern Magnolia
Tree; its origins trace back to North Carolina. It is the only tree in the backyard that
survives the winter months; its dark leathery leaves glisten in the moonlight. The tree is
not meant to survive climates north of Philadelphia. In the summer months, its white
flowers bud and splay over its leaves like teacups floating off its branches. Its creations
and firmness grounds me.
I walk without aim through sets of brownstones on the night of the highest recorded
cases in the city since the pandemic started two years ago. The fog masked the tops of
lights on tower buildings by the downtown district; a light mist coupled with cold crisp
winter air gently stung my face as I walked. The gothic-style cathedrals and churches had
aged beautifully among the rest of the neighborhood. Christmas lights and decorations
are strung, lighting up avenue after avenue. The You Belong Here sign at The Atlantic
Barclays subway stop, a glaring neon pink and white installment that wades amid the
flood of cars, armored police vehicles, and the needling developing skyline of Downtown
Brooklyn does not reassure me.