Corona City: Voices from an Epicenter
Corona City chronicles life in New York and New Jersey, the nation’s first COVID-19 epicenter, during the four terrifying months of March through June 2020. Photographs capture the surreal landscapes and scenes in this usually thriving metropolis. Short writings lay bare the challenges, fears, losses, and triumphs of real people in their own words. Readers will meet COVID-19 survivors, frontline workers, business owners, journalists, mask makers, quarantined people, and many others. Emerging from this mosaic of voices is a grassroots history of an unprecedented time.
The story behind Corona City
Fear and uncertainty permeated the very air we breathed in New York and New Jersey in early March 2020.
Neighbors and loved ones grew suddenly, seriously ill. COVID-19 patients overflowed our hospitals. Ambulances zoomed along city streets, sirens wailing. The stock market crashed. Workplaces closed. Broadway went dark. Shoppers hoarded toilet paper and paper towels, meats and chicken, even garlic, leaving some supermarket shelves empty.
Simultaneously, conflicting reports jammed our news circuits: Don’t wear a mask, they stated, but wear gloves. If you touch surfaces, sanitize your hands. Sanitize your groceries. Sanitize your mail. Then the mandate to wear masks arrived.
Amid it all, we were alone in our homes—locked down.
Meanwhile, the Center at Mariandale, a retreat house that sits majestically along the Hudson River, closed its physical doors. The campus, sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of Hope, is in Westchester County, New York, close to the epicenter ravaged by the coronavirus in those early days.
In the spirit of the sisters’ mission, Mariandale wanted to provide services for a panicked, terrified public. It wanted to create community. There was only one place to bring people together—online. Mariandale did so with the help of Jane Hanley, its administrator, and Karen Bernard, its program coordinator. They very quickly began offering new programming on Zoom. It had to be free. After all, income everywhere was wiped out.
The Catholic call to service felt familiar. I’d grown up with it. So I created COVID-19 Diaries: Writing in the Age of Pandemic. I designed this four-week workshop as a place people could share experiences and bear witness wherever they were—on breadlines, front lines, or unemployment lines, in sickbeds, or at home, anywhere.
Thirty-five people joined us. They wrote stories, straight from their lives and hearts, free of political agendas or any preconceived notions. Their words held power. Clearly, an intimate history of the pandemic was emerging. Collectively, their voices formed a mosaic of how life really was in the age of the coronavirus—what it sounded like, smelled like, felt like.
Mid-series, I joined forces with one of the participants, Sherry Wachter of Magic Dog Press. We both envisioned Corona City, an anthology of these voices.
But the project needed even more viewpoints. Adhering to the six degrees of separation idea, I invited the Mariandale writers to draw in others in their sphere. I did likewise, even holding a second COVID-19 Diaries Zoom forum.
The sixty-one writers whose work is included in this book (and an online gallery supplementing the book) include COVID survivors and those of us who, like me, lost someone they knew to the virus. Among the others are nurses, bestselling memoirists, two owners of small businesses deemed “nonessential,” teachers, a doctor, mask makers, a laid-off news photographer, an EMT captain, an opera singer, a nutritionist in a nursing home, gardeners, a pianist, an addiction counselor, a mother of three, a cancer patient, and a Corona Courier, one in the army of citizen cyclists who made free, safe, contactless deliveries throughout New York City to anyone who needed groceries and other supplies.
A call for photography during the lockdown yielded twenty stunning portfolios of images taken from the Bronx down to the Jersey Shore.
At a certain point I realized we’d fulfilled the Mariandale vision: People had come together and written about their extraordinary experiences and states of mind. They’d created community now and a record for the historians of tomorrow. It was time to publish.
You, the readers, complete the experience and the mission when you buy and read a copy of this anthology.
One hundred percent of Corona City sales benefits Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than two hundred food banks that feed millions of Americans through food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, and other community initiatives. The nonprofit points to a solitary, staggering statistic: more than 54 million Americans may go hungry in 2020 because of the coronavirus.
That means hunger threatens Americans’ well-being and survival as much as the virus itself. In this important respect America is not great. It is greatly, historically, massively weakened. All of us are diminished when any of us lack life’s basic necessities.
As this unbridled American tragedy continues, we in the New York Metro Area realize the whole country is now “Corona City.” We feel for the suffering and death in the new epicenters and the healthcare workers who imperil themselves to treat patients, some of them victims of their own behavior.
And we realize the virus isn’t done with any of us yet. We could see another wave here in the Mid-Atlantic states. At least our citizens seem to think so. People are already stockpiling paper products, sanitizers, and masks in advance.
Thank you for caring enough to read us. Keep reading. Keep holding honest, informed conversations. Keep adding to the collective conscience that will remember what we are enduring. And never for a moment, especially now, doubt the power of a camera, a pen, or the people.
Praise for Corona City
“This book gives a glimpse into the high cost of an all-too-real pandemic affecting individual lives, minds, and hearts. I have been a proud resident of New Jersey or New York nearly all my life, and I grieve the toll this virus has taken on two states I love. I applaud Corona City for bringing us these stories.”
—Christine Todd Whitman
Former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator
Author, It’s My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America (Penguin Books, 2005)
“Illuminating firsthand accounts, beautifully written and closely observed, that add up to the panoramic big picture.”
Author, What I Found in a Thousand Towns (Basic Books, 2017)
“Together, we mourn and celebrate in this tangible history for future generations. Read this book to remember and find the hope within yourself and our collective human story.”
—Chloe Yelena Miller
Author, Viable (Lily Poetry Review Books, 2021)
“…a heartbreaking, necessary, and moving act of witness.”
—Sue William Silverman
Author, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences (University of Nebraska Press, 2020)
“This extraordinary book allows the reader to enter the hell realm that New York and New Jersey became in spring 2020—a hell realm populated by extraordinary, selfless angels. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed vulnerabilities and weaknesses in our nation. But it has also revealed the ever-present magnificence of the human spirit. With exquisite, powerful writing, Corona City reveals the true, on-the-ground scope of this turning point in human history.”
—John E. Welshons
Author, When Prayers Aren’t Answered (New World Library, 2010)
“As a COVID-19 survivor and psychologist who lives and works in New York City, I find this phenomenal and timely book to be both validating and healing.”
—Dr. Heidi Horsley
Executive director, Open to Hope Foundation; Adjunct professor, Columbia University
Author, Open to Hope: Inspirational Stories for Handling the Holidays after Loss (Open to Hope Foundation, 2011)
Sample Corona City excerpts
Corona City Contents
COVID-19 Broke My Heart
My Wake-Up Call
The Days the World Changed
Volunteering on the Very Front Line
Suddenly Sick (by Laura Carriere)
When the first announcements of a strange new virus called COVID-19 hit New York City’s news, I was working. We allergy/immunology nurses stopped what we were doing and watched the Channel 7 broadcast with fear. At that point in January, the first case was being reported in the United States. I explained to the other nurses that I’d been working in infectious diseases when Ebola hit the US. Read more…
What It Was Like (by Maureen F. Bowe)
Numerous times over the past three months, people who know I’m a nurse have asked, ‘What’s it like?” I immediately know what they mean: What’s it like being on the front line of the COVID pandemic? Normally, I tell them it’s been fine. Some days I ramble on. Most often, I simply say, “It’s been tough.” If I say more, I’m afraid the floodgates will open about what this pandemic has really been like for nurses like me. Read more…
Lost and Found and Lost (by Lorraine Ash)
The long hand of COVID-19 snatched Barbara from our family. Barbara, one life of 8,952 lost, according to the latest death chart. Barbara, who I just found after untangling reams of genealogical records andcrossing a desert of family estrangement. Barbara, who I was never supposed to meet. Read more…
The Piano (by Linda Morales)
That evening I sat at my piano. I had to prepare Burgmüller’s “Arabesque” and Lady Allyson’s “Minuet” for my master class and recital. The Virtual Piano Camp was going to start April 17. Already in lockdown for more than a month, I woke up almost every day afraid that if I breathed the wrong way, or if my chest felt too tight, I might be stricken by the invisible monster. And if I had it, might I, too, die? Read more…
Memorial Day 2020 (by Jan Barry)
Bury ’em six feet deep
Or stand six feet apart—
Clutch your heart,
Adjust your face mask—
Memorial Day is very
Different this year—
Corona City: Voices from an Epicenter
Edited by Lorraine Ash
Published November 22, 2020 by Magic Dog Press
Trade paperback $35.99 US
Ebook $9.99 US
Audiobook under production
© 2020 Lorraine Ash Literary Enterprises, LLC