Working on the New York COVID-19 Front Line: Confusion, Chaos, and My Most Significant Meal of 2020

March 30th will stay with me forever. The massive USNS Comfort pulled up to Manhattan as helicopters flew over empty streets and silent skyscrapers. Fear, panic, and death wafted through the air. This was real. My entire life would be changed.

Dance, entertainment, and events are dependent on large groups of people, which isn’t conducive to social distancing. My career wasn’t just paused; it was thrown into a dark hole without a single exit sign.

 I was squashed beneath the heavy hand of COVID-19. I wasn’t concerned with the prospect of getting the virus, but I was scared out of my mind about what I was supposed to do with my life. “Intro on How to Survive an Economic Shutdown Due to a Worldwide Pandemic” wasn’t a course I had to take in undergrad.

I should have escaped with Jeremy to my parent’s home in Virginia to live for free while collecting the cheeky $600 unemployment check each week. That would have been the logical, financially savvy thing to do. Alas, I’m too stubborn for my own good, and I needed to stay and fight it out. I was smack dab in the middle of history and I wasn’t going to leave.

Heroic? Stupid? Only time would tell.

I managed to snag an online coding job writing SEO-friendly blog headlines and meta descriptions, but it wasn’t enough. I scoured through the mostly empty job boards looking for anything to help me get by while waiting on hold with unemployment for five hours a day. The first weekend in April, I finally struck gold. I got a job at a COVID test site. I was headed to the front line.

Ten hours later I groggily woke up to my 4am alarm, chugged some coffee and set off on my two-hour commute. Each passing train car was filled with slumped over bodies and overflowing shopping carts. I kept a keen eye out for other commuters and dashed towards the fullest car, hoping it wouldn’t reek of BO and urine. I clearly stuck out: white, young, female. 

Things only got grislier as I waited at Penn Station for my LIRR train. I didn’t mind the sleeping bodies sprinkled about. They were like easy to spot landmines I could maneuver around. I was more perturbed by those stumbling around in drugged-out states. The image of the man scratching his entire calf away down to the muscle with blood pooling on the concrete tiles is not something you forget.

It felt like I was in the middle of an apocalyptic zombie movie, and I’ve seen enough of them to know the blondes are first to go.

I dashed towards my train as soon as the track number appeared, and 40 minutes later I was at my stop. The final leg of the journey was a 20-minute Uber ride to get me there at 7am for the 8am go time.

Things were a chaotic mess.

Huge tents had been thrown up to process the thousand anxious clients filing through each day.  There were 70 staff members sitting around, and the consensus was no one knew what was going on. Finally, a woman bellowed, “All newbies come here!” She gave us the run down and explained that as support staff, we would either be directing traffic, registering cars to be sure their IDs matched the paper work, or running to the supply tent to get the nurses things like gloves and test kits. Seemed easy enough for $30/hr plus overtime, and there was the nice added perk of three catered meals a day. To think, I used to diss government jobs!

Two hours of commuting kicking off an 11-hour shift followed by two more hours to get home was my “new normal.”  I adjusted to the early alarms, and the added closure of the subways from 12am-5am for sanitation enhanced my journey immensely as I knew I would be sitting in a clean, safe car.

It was emotionally taxing and physically draining. There were far too many cooks in the kitchen, and every day there would be a new rule or seemingly random change as the DOH, military, and local police instructed us with conflicting information. For example, at the start of the shift we would be instructed to only fill in the name, address, and birthday on the registration forms. Then halfway through, some man with a walkie talkie would come running down the lanes yelling “Why aren’t you putting the county information on this?!”

Weeks passed and the pandemic began to loosen its grip on New York. As our clientele decreased, support staff started getting kicked off the line. Downsizing meant someone was gone every day, just like a game of Survivor. Who would outwit, outplay, and outlast? How ironic to find myself in a job dependent on the virus thriving!

And now let me introduce the most significant food item I ate all year: The bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast bagel from Bagel Chalet.

Bagel Chalet
Bagel Chalet
Bagel Chalet
Bagel Chalet

After my painstakingly early alarm and 2 hour commute, breakfast was the light at the end of the tunnel. When I saw the Bagel Chalet bags on the table, I knew it would be a good day. The fluffy, and ever so chewy bagels held a solid portion of eggs topped with hot, melted American cheese. The star of the bagel sandwich was the ample portion of outrageously crispy bacon that gave a delightful crunch and the perfect level of salt and fattiness.

I associate BEC sandwiches with early morning road trips, time spent wandering around the streets of Manhattan, and lazy Sunday mornings. The crunch of the bacon and meltiness of the cheese feels like an old friend and the sensation of sinking my teeth into the warm bagel comes with a shot of nostalgia-induced dopamine coursing through my system.

In a side by side breakfast bagel showdown with other New York institutions like Bo’s or Best Bagel and Coffee, would it compare? Maybe, maybe not. But the Bagel Chalet BEC sandwiches gave me 10 minutes of comfort and happiness amidst the covid maelstrom surrounding me.

“It’s the little things” is one of my mom’s mantras that I grew up hearing. While I saw the validity of the phrase, it also seemed like a cop out  for making yourself feel better when nothing of real significance in your life is happening.  

I finally understood the power of it when COVID hit.

The virus beat me down, chewed me up, destroyed my industry,  and took away the purpose and meaning of my day to day existence. Appreciating the little things became more than just a cute saying on embroidered pillows and inspirational posters, it became a necessity for making it through.

This BEC sandwich was the ultimate little thing from April through July of 2020,  earning it the title “Most Significant food of 2020”.

In case you missed my other most significant meals….

My 5 Most Significant Meals of 2020

The true hallmark of a great dining experience is one that makes you smile with a fond nostalgia every time you think about it. So instead of sharing my best eats of 2020, I’m going to share with you my most significant eats. Enjoy!

Hungry for more insight onto life of an artist in NYC? Check these posts out!:

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sorry your 2020 was tougher than most Katie. Hopefully things start to improve now!

    Liked by 1 person

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