Remembering NYC’s First Heartbreaking Covid-19 Wave Through Poetry

An excerpt from The Long Pause and the Short Breath 

It’s been just over a year since the coronavirus pandemic was declared a “pandemic.” Last spring, as the virus swept through New York City, it quickly became the country’s epicenter. Writer Nicole Freezer Rubens coped with that horrifying time through poetry. Her work makes up the book, The Long Pause and the Short Breath. Read on for the inspo behind her poetry and excerpts from the book in light of this anniversary…

What made you want to document the lockdown, especially that harrowing first part, through poetry?

I have been writing poetry since I was nine years old. I always wrote for myself. When lockdown began I was thrilled to still be able to walk outside in Central Park. The streets were desolate and haunting. While I walked I began to write about what I was witnessing. As a native New Yorker who loves her city like an old friend, I was devastated to see what had become of the city that never sleeps. For me, writing was a means of coping and processing. Every few days I wrote something and at least I accomplished that. After a short while, I realized I was crafting a body of work.

What do you hope readers get from the book?

My goal for the book was to record what I witnessed day to day, living in my beloved New York City when it was the first epicenter of the pandemic, and create a compact slice of life of what we were experiencing. I hope The Long Pause and The Short Breath can be one part of global history that can be used in the future to document this life-altering time.

How do you feel now, with vaccines being distributed and hope on the horizon?

One year later, looking back, I am still quite shocked about the scale and repercussions of what the world has lived through, not only relating to the virus but also the reawakening of social conscience and justice.

I also try to focus on the positive aspects of human nature demonstrated by people’s kindness and creativity. I absolutely see the light at the end of this dark tunnel. I am proud and most grateful that we were able to successfully get a vaccine so quickly and am extremely hopeful that the events caused by Covid-19 have caused a much needed reset for all of mankind.

April 2, 2020

Today I learned
that my friend Lisa’s
100 year old grandmother
tested positive.
I immediately sent Lisa
the CNN article about
the 102 year old woman in Italy
who recovered from Corona.
There was a photo of her
with a yellow frosted birthday cake
that was bigger than she used to be.
2 weeks ago
Lisa’s grandma got up,
got dressed
and her son took her to McDonald’s
for an Egg McMuffin
and a cup of coffee.
She loves their coffee.
He bought her another scratch off
but I don’t know what she won that day.
Today she’s at New York Cornell
in a lovely room
with a river view
and an oxygen tank.
All hospital rooms are now ICUs.
Her grandson is a doctor there
and he can dress up
from balding head
to rubber shoed toe,
and see her.
This is a luxury.
They think she may not know it’s him
beneath the disposable paper suit,
but I think she does.
And in her mind
she’s thinking about
her well lived life
and biting into her next Big Mac
while waiting patiently and gracefully
for her coffee to cool.

April 13, 2020

It’s Monday of week 5.
The weather is bad.
Severe rainstorms are ripping through
and threatening
the outdoor tented pop-up hospitals.
60-70 mile per hour winds
are blowing germs
and oxygen lines.
Tornadoes rake the south.
Mississippi and Georgia
lost some people
to a different, non-novel disaster.
Shards of sharp metal
that yesterday were small planes,
are now shredded in heaps
like paltry helpless haystacks.
A half a million are
powerless without power.
Fridges filled with stockpiled food
are now dark cabinets
starting to smell.
I knew my local grocer
would have no lines.
I dressed up
in my makeshift mask and gloves,
armed with a Clorox wipe
in my hand
and shopped.
Upon return
I spent 43 minutes
wiping and drying
my bounty.
This is a new day,
a new way that may linger
for a long time to come.
Cuomo says
“and this is a long day”,
but together
we will return
to some kind of normal.
This Corona pause
will be a marker
on our collective timeline,
like pre and postwar buildings
commingled on the avenues in New York City,
that are blatant but quiet monuments
to another grand before and after.

May 30, 2020

This is the verse
I did not want to write.
This is the plot twist
I did not see coming now,
but it has been coming for centuries.
George Floyd
was murdered in Minneapolis
at the white knee
of some brutal police.
There is no way
to make sense
of the video
we were all still home to watch over and over
on repeat on our scratched
and cracked screens.
This is the news story
that finally outran Corona.
This is the novel festering nightmare.
The nation is setting itself on futile fire
in protest.
As we actually approach reopening
and Cuomo has deemed it
NY Forward,
I had started to think about my last entry
to this chronicle.
I planned to end it
with the positivity
of all that was created
out of the world
that was locked down,
together apart,
bound by hateful air
that would rest
and bring permanent renewal.
The world was to be a different place after,
much of the change
for my children’s future good,
but it is no different than before.
The long rest culminates in unrest
and 40 million jobless Americans.
We have taken 2 steps backwards.
America is spiraling from grace.
Black and brown
beaten down by Corona
is the same story
as the crushing,
infinite shots fired,
knee on the neck
that is another plague
for which only the few
seek a vaccine.
For the first time in 11 weeks,
I feel sick.

June 8, 2020

New York City is open,
coincidentally on the 100th day
since the first case here.
Phase 1 has begun.
I am excited for the first time
since that week
when I thought the death toll would peak.
Free masks and New York State Clean
hand sanitizer are being handed out
atop the subway stairs.
I took a bottle
as a limited-edition souvenir
of this very strange time in my life.
I positioned it on display
on my bookcase.
The fountains outside
the shuttered Met Museum
have been turned back on.
Once more they spray
as they sing and dance
over the black stone basins
now shining and reflecting
the flags at full mast again.