Editor’s note: This essay is part of our two-week blog series, featuring eight autoethnographies from students at Brooklyn College. Read the introduction to the series here, written by Professors Jeanne Theoharis, Joseph Entin, and Dominick Braswell. Follow this link to read all the essays in the series.
“Did you see it on twitter?”
I raise an eyebrow, tapping away on my computer. “I don’t have a twitter.”
The Brooklyn College room erupts when the tweet confirming the online semester was placed on the screen. When it comes to surprises of this magnitude, it usually takes a second, or twenty of ‘em, for me to fully process. The room grew hotter and hotter by the minute as the news continued to spread.
I closed my laptop screen and listened intently to the scholars around me. I remember one student who depended on student services for access to food and rent. While I have never used the food pantry on campus, an advisor helped me with my application for SNAP benefits.
At this point my mind is racing. I knew the situation I faced wasn’t as bad as others, but I wasn’t skipping through daisies either. Anxiety was growing in my stomach as I thought about the whole city being shut down.
I dialed my dad as I walked out into the hallway.
Two rings pass as usual. “Yes?,” he answers.
“School’s gonna be online now.”
He pauses and thinks. The silence is something I am used to.
“Okay. Come home.”
“Okay.” I giggle.
Despite the chaos, I felt better.
“Ah, I gotta keep working.”
I look up to my father, a stoic man with his arms crossed as he sits in his designated spot on the couch. His bowl of hearty soup is on the ground next to his feet, empty faster than you can blink. His salad, however, takes a bit longer to finish. By now his work clothes — neatly pressed white cotton shirt and navy slacks — are replaced with comfy basketball shorts.
“Whatcha mean?” I ask. The television is on Fox News, the designated channel for when my father comes home so he can, and I quote, ‘know what the enemy is thinking.’ I’ve learned to tune it out, but my father’s attention is the highest it’s ever been.
“Pandemic. People gotta stay home, but I gotta go to work.” He takes a deep breath, growing a size or two, and releasing. He then lets go of a chuckle.
“I gots to keep working until I die.”
Since as long as I can remember, my father understood he couldn’t peacefully retire. However, as the cases and death toll steadily rise on the television screen, his confession carried a new horrifying meaning.
The realization must’ve shown on my face, for he starts to hum a tune that comes when he’s doing daily routines. One daily routine is bringing me out of my anxious thoughts. He slowly chews on his last piece of salad.
“I gots to keep working for wunna, cuz wunna love to rob me.”
I chuckle. Then he chuckles.
The air was light for the rest of the evening.
My father was born in Gemswick, Barbados as Clifford Austin Brathwaite. He had to drop out of school at 14 to work in the sugar cane fields to support his family. In his young adult years, he moved onto construction which earned his contracts in the United States. After earning his citizenship, he settled down in Brooklyn, New York.
Pops and I walk down Albemarle, a short cut to the once busy Church Avenue. Albemarle road was never the most populated block, but the pandemic made my father and I the only people on the sidewalk.
Walks with him are usually quiet since I’m usually on my phone and he’s usually in his head. This time, however, he sparks a conversation quite easily.
“I used to party over here, you know.”
This is a man that calls me at 8pm, and every hour after that, when I’m out with my friends. I’m thinking there’s no way this man knows how to have fun.
“Yah.” He drawls out, the reminiscing evident on his face. “When I first came to this country, I would party until the sun came up.”
“Aight, don’t call me when I go out anymore.”
He scoffs. “You different. I still gots to work to provide for you, so I will call you.”
I couldn’t deny that, so I shrug. “What made you stop?”
“Before, money was easy. Contracts for construction kept coming in and I ain’t have to worry about things. Then the jobs stopped. I got down to my last 200 dollars, praying to god that if I come across another job, I would keep it for as long as I could. I got it, then I stopped partying.”
My father found a job opportunity at what is now known as Thriftcare Pharmacy. He started as a security guard and, over thirty years, worked his way up to general manager.
I understood my pops a bit more after that story. I nudged his shoulder as a sign of thanks for the vulnerability.
“Don’t push me over. I turnin’ 70 this year. Too old.” He says with a smile.
I told my father I wanted to focus on him for my project.
“Me? I do nothing.” He replies, but relents anyways.
I ride down Washington Avenue, the road paved nice and even for my skateboard. Not a dent in the street. Very different from our home in Flatbush.
The overpriced restaurants spill out in the streets as people go on about their social lives over lunch. The only difference is that there’s masks everywhere.
Four blocks in, there’s a pharmacy with a ton of local flyers about local events pasted on the glass windows.
My dad stands near the front with a mask on his face.
“Hiya.” I greet.
“Hi. Come lemme show everyone how big you got.”
I go and greet everyone in the area. Some are relatively new to the company, but others have watched me grow into the adult I am today.
“So. What am I supposed to do?” Pops looks to me expectantly.
“Eh, just do you.”
He shrugs as he walks around the shop, ringing people up on the cashier, and joke around with his coworkers.
As I follow him around, I see other benefits for the community. The location is a UPS drop off service, providing an alternative to the US Postal Service that was up to the brim in delays and backlog. Lines to local postal services were down blocks during peak quarantine time in the city. This pharmacy has contributed to a substitution for years.
She remembers me coming in to start an application for my own insurance. That was about a year ago and they haven’t slowed down.
My discoveries lead me back to my father behind the register.
“Daddy, what’s the biggest change that happened here during the pandemic?”
He takes one pause. “Masks.”
My father has been part of a pharmacy that houses “essential services” even before the term was used. Across the city, there were countless ads praising essential workers for their bravery in keeping the city running, going so far as to call the pandemic a “war” and essential workers “soldiers.” This invites disappointment and shifts the blame from the government. The pandemic is measured in deaths, but that does not make it a war. There is no human opponent on the other side of the battlefield that is coming in and ransacking American culture as we know it. What is happening to us — a sickness easily spread and the unprivileged reaping the consequences the most and the hardest — is something that could’ve been lessened or even prevented had the government cared about essential workers before the pandemic hit. Caring about workers who held the city on their backs in a time of excruciating need means substantial financial assistance before the pandemic hit, not empty thank yous with propaganda language that sees people as necessary sacrifices for an illusion evil enemy. Of course, those who are “brave enough” to suffer at the hands of the pandemic are not random, they are mostly low-income people of color. In New York, 31 percent of essential businesses are made up by immigrants. During the pandemic, half of New York City’s immigrant population became unemployed. Unemployment and financial instability resonate with many families in the city, and even across the country. The push for assistance to those who lost their jobs is a step in the right direction. However, the deafening silence of how essentials workers were treated before and during this pandemic reveals how we treat laborers of color in this country.
I rode with a smile on my face. One of the most uncertain times in my life, and I kick on my skateboard giggling about my pops. His hands have built the foundation of stability I’ve come to know and helped New York City for 30 years. The fruits of his labor should be rewarded by a financial stability that matches how important his labor is. These hands hardened from continuous physical labor still hold me softly when I cry out in pain.permission.