It is late on March 9, and Yimel Alvarado is at her regular Monday gig, a nightclub above a Mexican restaurant in the Corona section of Queens. This is where she feels at home, where the usually robust crowds of gay and transgender patrons applaud her teasing banter.
Drink up, she often says as fans toss money at her feet. The night is getting away.
But Alvarado is not herself tonight — hasn’t been for days. Her Cleopatra-like eyeliner only accentuates the exhaustion in her gaze. Just a cold, she says.
At some point, the concerned bar owner reaches for the tequila. The two friends knock back shots while, nearby, a few spare patrons kiss and huddle for cellphone selfies.
The same denial and dread hover over the densely populated neighborhoods beyond the restaurant’s door, inside apartments subdivided by drywall and need, up and down the bustle of Roosevelt Avenue.
In one building, an immigrant from Ecuador worries about the many relatives living in her cramped apartment, including her frail parents. A family member, her brother-in-law, has a persistent cough.
In another, a couple from Bangladesh get a call from their daughter in her Ivy League dorm, who warns that they risk illness by going to work and sharing close air with strangers — her mother at La Guardia Airport, her father in his yellow cab. She begs them to stay home. They do not.
But an Uber driver is so haunted by the coughing of two recent passengers that he has stopped picking up fares. Thirty years ago in Nepal, he fled his life as a Buddhist monk, tossing his red robe under a tree. Now he prays as he disinfects his black Toyota.
Around the corner, a Thai chef who commutes by subway to Manhattan has been sending worried texts from work to his less-concerned partner at home. He frets about the growing number of confirmed cases in the United States.
Is it here? The deadly coronavirus?
A crucifix in Rosa Lema’s home in Corona, Queens.
At Elmhurst Hospital a short walk away, an emergency room doctor has noticed a surge of patients with flulike symptoms. Now there is confirmation of what she and her colleagues knew was inevitable: the hospital’s first case of COVID-19, the life-threatening illness caused by the coronavirus.
It is here.
But messages conflict. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has declared a state of emergency, while President Donald Trump continues to downplay the virus. A “containment area” is about to be established in the small city of New Rochelle, while a dozen miles south, the hurried hustle of Manhattan flows uninterrupted.
Soon, this pinpoint on the map of Queens, where so many cultures converge, will become the global epicenter of the kind of health crisis not seen in the United States in a century. Very soon.
For now, the weary-eyed Alvarado continues her performance, fortified by little more than the dose of tequila. Determined but unwell, she mouths a ballad in which a woman addresses the wife of her lover.
Ahora es tarde, señora …
Ahora es tarde, señora …
Too late now, señora.
Just about 2 miles separate the 69th and 103rd Street stops on the 7 train in northern Queens. Yet beneath its elevated tracks sprawls the world.
Within this span are five neighborhoods in the Queens jigsaw — Woodside, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Corona — whose combined histories reflect the evolution of New York: the Dutch and English settlements and the fields of wheat and corn, the railroad lines and the sprouting developments, the garden apartments for white Protestants only and the ash heaps immortalized in “The Great Gatsby.” Then housing for the masses, the faces ever-changing.
To walk down Roosevelt Avenue now is to journey from the Himalayan peaks to the arid Mexican plains, to hear the music of intermingled languages and dialects, all within three dozen short blocks.
In the perpetual dusk cast by the subway tracks above, vendors sell woven baskets from Ecuador and leather sandals from Mexico, while Indian grocers display their produce and men carry skinned goats to halal butchers. Dentists and doctors offer their services from narrow storefronts, as do self-proclaimed healers, the curanderos, found among the statues and candles in religious-goods stores, available for counsel.
The lively rhythms of the street follow the percussive beat of cumbia, the thump of reggaeton, the call to prayer. Fueling it all is an international buffet of the sizzling meat tacos of southern Mexico, the steamed dumplings of Nepal, the Indian curries, the Peruvian ceviche, the Colombian buñuelos.
Source: New York State Office of Information Technology Services/Geographic Information Systems Program Office. (The New York Times/Scott Reinhard)
And everywhere, people. Many work the service jobs that animate the city: driving, cleaning, cooking, building — up at first light to line the subway platforms, hard hats and coffee cups in hand. Many are distrustful of authorities, vulnerable to exploitation or simply too afraid to call in sick.
By the tens of thousands, they spill from brick tenements with narrow courtyards, from small houses with grapevine gardens, from basement quarters with little natural light. If lucky, they live with family or friends; if not, they live among strangers, paying for a bed or maybe just a couch.
Imperfect conditions for social distancing. Perfect for contagion.
SATURDAY, MARCH 14
‘This virus has spread much more than we know.’ — Cuomo
Alvarado lies sick in the gloom of her tiny bedroom, a crucifix on the wall above her head. Pink satin curtains are drawn against the late-afternoon light, five days after her cabaret performance in the upstairs lounge at El Trio restaurant.
Since then, a low-grade panic has taken hold in the city outside her modest Jackson Heights apartment. The subway turnstiles are being disinfected twice a day. The Diocese of Brooklyn has suspended Sunday Mass obligations for Catholics. The New York Police Department has alerted its 77 precincts that COVID-19 is now categorized as a pandemic.
Capt. Jonathan Cermeli, commanding officer of the 110th Precinct in Elmhurst, cannot believe the abrupt change in events. Only a week ago, at a 12th birthday party for his son, friends were discussing an issue that seemed entirely unrelated to their lives.
You guys hear about this virus?
Now Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared a state of emergency. His office will say it was in frequent contact with the city’s hospitals and regularly briefed elected officials and the public. But two local City Council members, Francisco Moya and Daniel Dromm, complain of receiving little guidance from City Hall.
“We felt like we were on our own,” Moya will later say.
Alvarado, 40, is also on her own.
Along with other houses of worship, St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in Woodside closed in March.
Like so many immigrants living in the country without legal permission, she has no health insurance, no primary care physician to call. She has been refusing offers of help from her roommates — who see her as their nurturing mother — and has barely let on to family in Mexico that she is sick. She has relied on prayer and citrus-infused tea to treat what she has been sarcastically calling her blessed cough.
But now the woman always up for a sassy selfie is not answering her phone, and her text about a cough has spooked her younger sister in the Bronx, Olivia Aldama, who senses what this means: Her beloved Chiquis is sick.
Aldama, 34, finishes her shift at a dry cleaners and hurries by subway to Jackson Heights. She enters Alvarado’s darkened bedroom to find her sister moaning in her sleep, her cellphone buried in the sheets. Her breathing is labored, her lips parched, her tongue like white paper; she needs to go to the hospital.
I’m here, Aldama says, hugging her. I’m here now.
Aldama may not know everything about the sibling in her arms. That Alvarado slept on the streets when she arrived in New York about 20 years ago. That she was a sex worker, enduring verbal and physical attacks under the elevated tracks in Jackson Heights. That she may still be.
What Aldama knows is that her sister was identified at birth as a boy — a gender that Alvarado later realized did not fit but which she and her family still discuss as part of her past.
Growing up in Tlapa de Comonfort, a city in the mountains of southern Mexico, the child preferred playing dress-up with the family’s four daughters, incurring the wrath of their father. Tensions built up over the years until one day, brimming with drink and shame, the man pulled out a knife and shouted, Kill yourself!
The only choice was to flee. But before being spirited across the border by smugglers, the teenager joined her mother in the cool of the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. There, the mother entrusted her own to the Virgin.
The new immigrant eventually found acceptance in Jackson Heights among gay and transgender people who had also fled intolerance in Latin America, and blossomed into Alvarado, who found her calling as an entertainer in the gay clubs around Roosevelt Avenue.
She has also become the bawdy, big-hearted matriarch of what is known as the Familia Alvarado, a tight-knit group whose members she has fed, clothed, counseled and often taken in. Over her apartment door hangs a sign that reassures: We Are So Good Together.
In recent years, though, Alvarado has been going out less, gaining weight and drinking more. She often stays here in her bedroom, creating her glamorous outfits at a sewing machine or sketching dress designs in a notebook. She also jots down comforting aphorisms she comes across.
Before giving up, try.
And before dying, LIVE.
Yimel Alvarado, left, came to New York City from Mexico about 20 years ago and found a home in Jackson Heights.Credit…via Olivia Aldama
Now, as Aldama struggles to help her sister sit up, a young Salvadoran man knocks on the door. He has been living in the apartment, sleeping on the couch since Alvarado learned that he was robbed at a homeless shelter.
Together they dress and guide the delirious Alvarado toward the stairs. She sits and begins to ease herself down the steps, one by one — only to stop, exhausted.
A taxi is called. But the driver, suspecting that the woman slumped on the stairs has the virus, apologizes and leaves. In a fleeting moment of clarity, Alvarado speaks: Call an ambulance.
The ambulance carrying another possible COVID case pulls up to the trauma entrance of Elmhurst Hospital. The salmon-colored colossus traces its roots back nearly two centuries to a penitentiary hospital on what is now called Roosevelt Island, which treated the incarcerated, the poor and the neglected long before this 11-story complex opened in 1957.
Others might see a drab municipal hospital short on amenities, tending to mostly the disadvantaged and uninsured. But Dr. Laura Iavicoli, 49, considers her safety-net hospital to be “the most magical place on earth,” with a skilled, committed staff and a diverse mix of patients who offer fresh challenges every day.
But never a challenge as daunting as this deadly virus, which first appeared late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan, 7,500 miles from New York. Now it is here in Queens, where the recent confirmation of coronavirus cases at the hospital foretells dark days ahead.
At first the hospital considered itself prepared, with an interactive staff exercise about the virus in late January, a series of routine drills and access to four negative-pressure isolation rooms in the emergency department. Assumptions took hold, including that the virus would behave like other contagious diseases the hospital had prepared for but never seen, such as Ebola.
But assumptions are toppling. Influenzalike illnesses are rampant, while coronavirus cases are ticking up. And with access to testing severely limited, doctors are sending many patients, including some who may have COVID, home to isolate.
Hospital administrators are researching the 1918 influenza pandemic, communicating with medical experts around the world and meeting every night in a conference room to review models and statistics. But Iavicoli has become convinced that this virus cannot be outsmarted.
The hospital’s initial isolation plan — based on protocols from several countries and agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control — hinged on yet another assumption: that the coronavirus reveals itself with fever, coughing and respiratory distress. Now doctors are realizing that diarrhea and malaise can also indicate COVID, which means that some contagious patients may have been inadvertently missed.
Every day, more emergency department space needs to be repurposed as isolation zones. The area reserved for treating coughs and minor cuts is now COVID. The critical care area, originally with seven beds, will soon have 20, all for COVID.
Green oxygen hoses snake across the floor, while blue air-filter hoses rise to the ceiling. Sick people cluster at the entrance, slouch in chairs, lie on stretchers along the dull pink walls.
Now paramedics in protective suits wheel in another: Alvarado.
She is placed on a bed in the hallway, next to a young woman holding her stomach and crying out in agony. Briefly snapped from her delirium, Alvarado looks over with evident compassion, but soon she is gone again, speaking in the language of hallucination as she stares at the hospital monitors in the corridor:
Yimel Alvarado performing last year at El Trio restaurant in Corona, on the eve of her 40th birthday.Credit…via Olivia Aldama
That’s why I don’t watch television. They keep changing the channel.
Without the oxygen she received in the ambulance, Alvarado becomes weaker. A sip of water causes her to convulse in coughs, sending Aldama running for help. A nurse rushes over to check the oxygenation of Alvarado’s blood.
Several hospital workers are soon gathered around Alvarado. First in English, then in Spanish, they ask: Have you traveled? Have you had a cough? Have you had a high fever? For how long?
Aldama repeats the answers she heard her sister give to paramedics in the ambulance: No. Yes. Yes. Four days.
Alvarado is wheeled beyond a set of glass doors. Hours later, a doctor emerges to inform Aldama that her sister is in critical condition with pneumonia and would be dead if she hadn’t been brought to the hospital.
Five days ago, Alvarado was performing at a nightclub; now she is in intensive care. By morning she will be unconscious, intubated and encased in a plastic tent.
Earlier on this Saturday, Trump asserted that the country’s relatively low number of coronavirus-related deaths — about 50 so far, he said — was because of “a lot of good decisions.” Tomorrow he will describe the virus as “something that we have tremendous control of.”
But these upbeat assertions belie what is being experienced at Elmhurst Hospital, where COVID cases and flulike illnesses continue their ominous rise. Near midnight, Iavicoli talks by phone with two other emergency department supervisors, Dr. Stuart Kessler and Dr. Phillip Fairweather, to assess the damage of another harrowing day.
Iavicoli, who has expertise in emergency management, recommends an aggressive requirement that emergency department staff wear full personal protective equipment — gown, gloves, goggles and N95 mask — at all times.
The three doctors agree. Now the entire department is officially a “hot zone,” based on a new assumption: Everyone is likely to have COVID.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 18
‘I do want people to be calm, because we’re going to win this.’ — Trump
A stillness settles over the city. Events by which New York measures time — the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, for one — have been canceled. Schools for more than 1 million students are closed. Religious services are suspended. Transit hubs are empty. Skyscrapers are vacant. Broadway is dark.
Coursing through the quiet is a palpable anxiety, a collective bracing for the blow to come.
In the upstairs apartment of a two-family house in Woodside, Dawa Sherpa, the Uber driver from Nepal, tries to scrub away what he cannot see but fears is present.
A patient being wheeled into Elmhurst Hospital in March.
He cleans the stairwell, where the shoes of his three sons, 18, 13 and 6, form a neat row up the steps. He cleans the bedrooms, the kitchen and the living room, which features a torn map of the subway system and a large Buddhist shrine with three key figures: Shakyamuni Buddha, Guru Rinpoche and Chenrezig.
On the altar sit seven silver bowls that are filled with water in the morning and emptied at night, a silver chalice brimming with an offering of amber-colored tea — and a large bottle of hand sanitizer.
Dawa is 50, short and husky, his black hair flecked with gray. Born in a speck of a farming village on a mountaintop in the Himalayas, he moved with his family to Kathmandu, then was sent at the age of 10 to a Buddhist monastery, where life became a spiritual boot camp of prayer, chores and study. Failure to know one’s lessons could result in a beating.
When he was about 20, he jumped over a monastery wall to see what was going on in the world. He never returned.
The former monk traveled to China to help his father’s import business, then to Japan, where he worked at a Toyota factory, and then, in 1996, to the United States, which he understood to be “a freedom country.”
He gravitated toward Jackson Heights, married Sita Rai, a woman he had met at a wedding in Kathmandu, and began assembling a familiar immigrant resume: clerk in a school supply store; cook in a Chinese restaurant; driver for a manufacturing firm; delivery man for Domino’s Pizza; taxi driver, working a 12-hour overnight shift.
Four years ago, Dawa switched to driving for Uber, shuttling customers around the tristate area in his black Toyota SUV. In recent weeks, he has listened constantly to the news radio station 1010 WINS in his car for updates on the pandemic’s progression.
Then, two weeks ago, two customers coughed in his back seat. He drove home and systematically wiped down the seats, the door handles, everything, in mists of Lysol spray. He hasn’t driven for Uber since.
And it may be a trick of the mind, but Dawa does not feel 100%.
Not a half-mile away, dozens of families flock to a commercial stretch along 73rd Street, a few steps from Roosevelt Avenue. This is the Little Bangladesh section of Jackson Heights, a medley of groceries, restaurants and shops that cater to immigrants from Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, Sylhet.
Gone for now are the days when men discussed news events in Bengali over samosas and tea while women browsed the saris in the boutiques and children made difficult selections in the sweet shops. Gone is the sleepy air, redolent of spices.
Instead, uneasiness has set in as people mill together in a determined search for food and supplies. With schools closed, children will be staying home, taking classes online for who knows how long. So mothers heap bags of rice and tins of oil into the family cars while fathers carry out slabs of meat to store in newly bought freezers, as if stocking up for a lengthy siege.
At first, Elmhurst Hospital considered itself prepared for the coronavirus.
All around, people are falling sick. A sergeant who analyzes crime statistics for Cermeli at the 110th Precinct. A jeweler who helps to run a soccer league in Corona. The pastor of St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Elmhurst.
Along and around 73rd Street, lines snake outside grocery stores, and some pharmacy shelves have been picked clean. The same scene is playing out in other areas nearby: Little India, Little Colombia, Little Manila. People who have known faraway conflict are steeling for war.
FRIDAY, MARCH 20
‘We have not gone through something like this across our whole city in generations.’ — de Blasio
In a brick building in Corona, 11 members of an extended family from Ecuador, young and old, live in a three-bedroom apartment. Two are sick: Rosa Lema, 41, with a fever, and her brother-in-law, with a violent cough.
Now, late this afternoon — on a day when Cuomo announces a shutdown for much of the state — Lema is notified by telephone that her mother, Vicenta Flores, has fainted during a dialysis session at Elmhurst Hospital, and a family member needs to take her to the emergency room.
Lema, a petite woman with high cheekbones and sleek dark hair, spent days disinfecting the kitchen and the well-trafficked bathroom, with its shower handle for her parents to grip. She encouraged her mother, who is 77, to stay in her small room between dialysis appointments and bought sugar-free Robitussin for diabetics to treat what she thought was her mother’s minor cold.
These precautions were futile. Lema calls her brother Jorge Lema, who lives nearby. He rushes to the hospital.
It was never the plan to jam so many people into Rosa Lema’s apartment. To stuff the living room bookshelves with clothes. To pile dusty boots and sparkly children’s shoes outside the front door.
But a few months ago, her sister Carmen and her family appeared at her door in Red Cross blankets after losing their home in a fire. So now six adults, five children, two cats and a dog live packed together, amid the discarded baubles that Flores has picked up while collecting cans for deposit money, which she sends to her mother in Ecuador.
Jorge Lema calls back, worried; a line of more than 100 people is unspooling from the emergency room. Rosa Lema tells him to alert the hospital staff that their mother is in a wheelchair, sick and listless.
Times Square, normally full of bustling humanity, fell empty as people began to stay home.
Soon her brother calls again, this time with a doctor who has questions. Has Flores had a fever? Has anyone else in the family been ill?
Yes. Both Rosa Lema and her mother have not been feeling well. But if her mother has contracted the virus, Rosa Lema wonders where. At the dialysis clinic? During visits to another Queens hospital where her 83-year-old husband, José Redentor Lema — Rosa’s father — had been recovering after complications from pancreatic surgery?
What about the living room, where Flores sits during the day, playing with the cats or stroking her granddaughters’ ponytails? At night the sofas become beds for Rosa Lema’s sister, her husband and their twins; he is a tile layer who became ill when the virus swept through his construction crew.
At Elmhurst, hospital workers lift her mother onto a bed and wheel her away, leaving Jorge Lema to take in the long trail of the sick and worried, some so depleted they are lying on the ground.
Rosa Lema thinks about their mother’s toughness. Cooking corn cakes over open flames for the family in their hometown, Biblián. Raising six children while her husband traveled the country building roads. Then, when her children emigrated to the United States, raising some of their children.
Once she was in Queens, the tiny woman, not 5 feet tall, learned to navigate the big-city streets as she collected cans. She even emerged from a six-week coma after being struck by a car.
Ella va a estar bien. This is what Rosa Lema will tell her siblings. She will be fine.
A large Buddhist shrine in Dawa Sherpa’s home in Woodside.
But what will she tell her father, who has recently been moved to a rehabilitation center? He is so attached to his wife of 52 years that he always asks the same thing if she is even a minute late coming home.
Where is Vicenta? Where is Vicenta?
SATURDAY, MARCH 21
‘NYC, I need you to stay home.’ — Dr. Dave Chokshi, chief population health officer for New York’s public hospital system
A mile and a half away in Woodside, in another brick apartment building, Jack Wongserat, the chef, has shared his fears of the coronavirus with his partner, Joe Farris, who has not been as anxious. Until now. Jack has a 103-degree fever.
Theirs has been a New York romance: A Thai immigrant named Jack, short and compact, meets an Alabama native named Joe, tall and thin, in a bar on the Bowery in 2005. They engage in the pro forma exchange of telephone numbers, but then Jack surprises Joe by calling.
“He courted me,” Joe says.
In the city’s close-knit community of Thai cuisine, Jack, 53, is known as exacting but nurturing: rigid about hygiene and promptness and then, after the last curried dish has been served, available for a glass of Riesling and an encouraging chat with colleagues new to America.
Drawing on his own life — born in the Thai city of Ubon Ratchathani, losing both parents when he was young, emigrating in 1990 with no prospects — Jack tells them to be strong. He spins stories about his luck at casinos, and invites them to watch his beloved Giants and share spicy food he has cooked that will taste like home.
They nickname him Mama.
The building in Corona that is home to the Lema family.
His partner, Joe, 58, grew up in the small city of Jasper and studied music at the University of Alabama. He taught English in Taiwan for a year, then moved in the early ’90s to New York. After a long stretch waiting tables, he shifted to market research, and now works as a project manager from the apartment he has shared with Jack for two years.
In one corner are Jack’s small shrine to the Buddha and a mismatched collection of china for the restaurant he hopes to open one day. In another corner sits the digital piano he bought for Joe to reignite his passion for music.
Now, on this Saturday morning, Jack is texting Joe from their bedroom.
11:43 a.m.: My test is positive
11:43 a.m.: Dr. said drink more water
11:45 a.m.: Take the Virus medicine
11:50 a.m.: Start separating fork spoon
11:50 a.m.: Use the mask protection
11:50 a.m.: Every time
12:07 p.m.: Sorry about that
MONDAY, MARCH 23
‘The hardship will end. It will end soon. Normal life will return.’ — Trump
The skies are leaden, a wintry mix falling — all in keeping with the mood of Queens.
Inside Elmhurst Hospital, Flores is on a ventilator, unconscious and alone. Visitors are not allowed, but many in her family’s small apartment in Corona are too sick to see her anyway, including two grandchildren sharing a nebulizer meant for asthma. Rosa Lema, Flores’ daughter, is so ill that she has gotten tested for the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, Alvarado remains sedated and on a ventilator in her clear plastic cocoon. With the help of an English-speaking member of the Familia Alvarado, her sister Aldama has been calling twice a day to check on Alvarado, whose own test result has finally come in: positive.
Rosa Lema, center, wearing black, with members of her extended family.
COVID cases have all but overtaken the emergency department. Just weeks ago, the prevailing wisdom held that the hospital’s four negative-pressure isolation rooms could handle whatever infectious cases came in. The thought now seems absurd.
For Kessler, the emergency department’s director, the days are one protracted crisis under fluorescent lights. A Queens native who grew up in Bayside, 7 miles to the east, he has hound-dog eyes and a seen-it-all air earned from decades as an emergency medicine physician in big-city hospitals.
But he has never seen any disease progress like this virus, and he is urging peers around the country to reject conventional thought and prepare for something entirely unfamiliar. His words of caution do not seem to register. If you haven’t lived through it, he decides, you cannot understand it.
Outside the hospital, gunmetal barricades guide a trail of rain-battered people toward a testing site in a tent near the emergency department entrance. Bent beneath umbrellas, hunched against the cold, they form a daily column of dread.
Francisco Moya, the local councilman, drives past the line after delivering 1,000 face masks to the hospital where he was born 46 years ago and once worked as an administrator. The son of Ecuadorean immigrants who settled in Corona, he is a familiar, bearded presence around here, having also served as a community organizer and state assemblyman.
He is heart-stricken and angered by the sight of so many people, many of them uninsured immigrants, huddled in desperation. It seems like a scene from some war-torn country, not his own.
As the city’s confirmed cases double about every week, Moya is among those sounding the alarm. On social media and in calls to City Hall, he asserts that Elmhurst Hospital is over capacity and in dire need of doctors, nurses, ventilators and personal protective equipment.
José Redentor Lema and Vicenta Flores celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Corona.Credit…via the family of José Redentor Lema and Vicenta Flore
It is true: Many in Queens are in short supply of nearly everything, save despair. But dozens of local organizations are working to fill the void.
A few blocks from Elmhurst Hospital, a young imam from Bangladesh is converting his mosque, An-Noor Cultural Center, into a makeshift storehouse; the prayer room’s carpet will soon be covered with donated halal food. With the wizardry of his 13-year-old son, he is also posting daily videos on social media to keep his isolated congregants informed.
In Woodside, an out-of-work contractor from Ecuador volunteers his services on Facebook to fellow congregants at Aliento de Vida church. “My brothers God bless you all,” he writes. “If anybody is in need of supplies or has an emergency and needs transportation, I offer to take you completely for free.”
And in Jackson Heights, an old Lutheran church hums with assembly line precision. The building is now a Buddhist temple and headquarters for the United Sherpa Association, a resource for immigrants from Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Among its members is Dawa, the Uber driver, who is active in its youth sports program.
On the second floor, where a white scarf, called a khata, is draped over a beam as a sign of welcome, volunteers are making care packages for the sick, homebound and scared.
They have been scrounging round the clock for gloves and face masks and hand sanitizer, with members in the import business calling contacts in Asia late at night. But they cannot seem to get enough of a once-plentiful item: Tylenol.
Farris, who lives a short block from the Sherpa building, has been on the same quest. His partner, Wongserat, is trying to stay fit during his illness, doing stretches on a blanket he has laid on the floor beside the bed. But his dry coughs are incessant.
Seeking to ease Wongserat’s pain, Farris walks the unnaturally quiet Queens streets in search of isopropyl alcohol, zinc, vitamin C tablets and Tylenol. None at the Duane Reade drugstore. None at the Walgreens. The best he can do is to secure two thermometers.
José Redentor Lema and Vicenta Flores celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Corona.Credit…via the family of José Redentor Lema and Vicenta Flore
Farris is also unwell. He is coughing and has lost his sense of smell, which is said to be a COVID symptom. The other day he put his wrist to his nose and could not detect his cologne.
The two men at least have a plan. They wipe everything with alcohol swabs and keep separate silverware in plastic containers marked with their names. Farris sleeps in the living room.
Even so, Wongserat seems to be thinking ahead. While Farris putters in the kitchen where Wongserat’s spices take up four shelves, he hears his partner mutter alarming words as he shuffles past.
I’m not afraid of dying. I’m 53. I’ve had a good life.
TUESDAY, MARCH 24
‘The number of new cases continues to increase unabated.’ — Cuomo
Less than 1 mile to the north, in East Elmhurst, Mahdia Chowdhury is home from Cornell University and losing sleep in her family’s small second-floor apartment, in the bedroom she shares with her two teenage brothers.
Outside, the ambulances are so common that at night their lights paint her bedroom ceiling red. Inside, her father, Shamsul Chowdhury, is getting sicker by the day.
A few days ago, he stopped going to his mosque and returned the yellow Toyota Prius that he leased with a partner to a taxi garage in Long Island City as she had begged him to do because of risks to his health. Too late.
Now, every night, he comes to her room to ask whether his “dysentery” — his term for a fever and diarrhea — means that he has COVID.
No, she fibs to reassure him. You’re fine.
Although her parents sleep in the same bed, Mahdia Chowdhury is not as worried about her mother, Tarana Chowdhury, 47, who still works serving food and cleaning up in the United Airlines lounge at nearby La Guardia Airport. It is mostly empty now, the once-constant roar of jets overhead all but silenced.
Her father is the one who concerns her. Setting aside her college assignments to research COVID symptoms, she has become convinced that he is infected and, as a diabetic and smoker, at great risk. He is 48.
Just days ago, Mahdia Chowdhury was in the library of her hilly campus 240 miles away, cramming for midterm exams. Now she lies awake as her brothers sleep. Shamsul Chowdhury seems weaker. He scarcely touches the rice the family leaves outside his bedroom door, beneath a talisman of a blue eye meant to ward off evil.
She thinks about their father’s quiet sacrifices. In the Bangladeshi city of Sylhet, he owned land and had a master’s degree. He was part of the privileged class.
The earnest and meticulous Shamsul Chowdhury gave all this up in 2009 to provide more opportunity for his children in the United States, where, instead of managing operations at a bank in Sylhet, he took Mahdia Chowdhury and her brothers to school every morning in the taxi he drove 10 hours a day.
He no longer seems as depressed as when they first arrived, though the family’s finances remain a worry. He fears that he became a New York cabdriver a generation too late, that the taxi industry was collapsing even before the pandemic, that he and his wife may never afford a house.
Now he shuffles to the bathroom in loose pajamas and flip-flops, shielding his eyes against the light. Do you think I have it?
A New York romance: Jack Wongserat, a Thai immigrant, and Joe Farris, an Alabama native.
Mahdia Chowdhury, petite and practical, her thick black hair kept at shoulder’s length, usually handles the family’s paperwork, a familiar job for a first child of immigrants. She will be the one to decide what to do.
Should she hold off on sending him to Elmhurst Hospital, rumored to be overrun? Or should she get him there while she can? She envisions herself frantically dialing 911 some night, only to find that all the ambulances have already been dispatched.
Another squalling ambulance hurries down their block, another sick person being taken away. From her window she has seen the used rubber gloves left by paramedics on the street.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 25
‘If I could just say to every American: We’ll get through this.’ — Vice President Mike Pence
Wongserat demands to be handed a takeout container to fill an order. He becomes annoyed when one is not made available, then sits down to dial the telephone.
But there are no takeout containers. There is no telephone. Nor is he back working at a Thai restaurant in Manhattan on this cool and cloudy morning. Wongserat is in his Woodside apartment, in the throes of a delusion.
By tonight, much of the country will be disabused of any illusions about the virus, in part because of Wongserat.
His partner, Farris, settles him into a plush chair in their bedroom, then eases him onto the bed, hoping that he will sleep. But soon Wongserat is gasping for air. As Farris hurriedly turns him on his side, they both crash to the floor.
Farris dials 911 and tries to follow the dispatcher’s instructions for administering CPR. The ambulance, of course, seems to take forever.
The paramedics hurl the tan chair onto the bed to create room, then take Wongserat by stretcher down to the courtyard. As five medics wheel him to the ambulance, his stomach rises and falls in frantic measure to his search for breath.
Oh, my dear, says a neighbor watching from her window. Oh, no, oh, my Lord, please bless him.
Racing to Elmhurst Hospital on foot, Farris finds Wongserat intubated and unconscious on a bed in the controlled frenzy of the overcrowded emergency department. Beds are wheeled past, including one bearing a patient who appears to be dead.
The line outside Elmhurst Hospital, which was overwhelmed with patients as the pandemic swept through Queens.
A drawn curtain in a corner provides minimal privacy for two men who have shared an Alabama-Thailand bond for 15 years. On the faint chance that Wongserat can hear, Farris talks.
Everything is going to be OK. You’re at peace.
A doctor explains that a sustained loss of oxygen has caused significant and permanent brain damage. He excuses himself to allow Farris time to decide whether everything or nothing should be done to keep Wongserat alive.
For Farris, the only option is the one Wongserat would want. He accepts and signs the Do Not Resuscitate form.
Sitting at the bedside of his life partner, Farris loses all sense of time. At one point Wongserat’s heartbeat becomes erratic, but a physician who rushes over is advised by a colleague not to assist: The patient is a DNR.
Wongserat’s heart stops. Two social workers appear by Farris’ side to provide comfort and a list of funeral homes. One recommends that he make arrangements immediately, given the sudden demand.
Wongserat is one of 13 people to die at Elmhurst Hospital in the span of 24 hours. The hospital code for emergency intervention — “Team 700” — resounds over the loudspeaker, while a recently delivered refrigerated truck hums outside, prepared to receive.
The crush of patients is so great that emergency doctors and nurses are no longer donning fresh N95 masks every time they approach a new patient. It would take too long and burn through too many.
An Elmhurst Hospital doctor’s plea for help, conveyed in a video published by The New York Times, amplifies the increasingly grim situation. The doctor, Colleen Smith, says the emergency department is seeing 400 patients a day — nearly twice the normal complement — while supplies dwindle and crowds wait for medical assessments.
“This is bad. People are dying,” Smith says in the video. “We don’t have the tools that we need in the emergency department and in the hospital to take care of them.”
By nightfall, the borough of Queens — and, specifically, Elmhurst Hospital — will become known as the epicenter of the pandemic in New York, if not the United States. For many Americans, the coronavirus will move from abstract threat to real-life horror.
Epicenter. Over and over, the word will be repeated by the president and the governor, by newspapers and broadcasters. City officials will soon release data showing that these neighborhoods, interlocking ZIP codes containing the world, top the list of the worst-hit parts of New York.
Outdoor prayers at An-Noor Cultural Center, a mosque in Elmhurst whose imam, Mohammed Ismail, oversaw many funerals in the spring.
But right now there is just Farris, alone, walking home through the gray afternoon. He heads down 41st Avenue, past a Spanish pharmacy, a Chinese church and the old Lutheran church where people of Sherpa heritage are assembling COVID care packages.
He is in shock, his mind a jumble of every thought and no thought. All he knows for certain is that a pandemic in Queens has claimed his love.
FRIDAY, MARCH 27
‘We remain the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States of America.’ — de Blasio
The day of 13 deaths at Elmhurst Hospital was difficult, horrible, tragic. But for Iavicoli, an associate director of its emergency department, that was not the worst day. The worst is two days later — today.
She is a self-described proud Philly girl whose shoulder-length black hair offsets her white lab coat. This is who and how she has wanted to be since elementary school, after her best friend was hit by a car and brain-injured, then saved by emergency physicians.
She is also highly motivated — someone who decompresses by working toward a black belt in mixed martial arts, whose idea of relaxing is to drink Colombian coffee, extra light, while working on her laptop in a cafe.
Relaxation is now a foreign concept. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, she leaves her family’s Upper West Side apartment early, returns late and avoids talking about her day. No need to upset her three daughters, who are 12, 10 and 9.
This morning, Iavicoli straps on her black helmet and mounts her bicycle, a red and black Fuji Oval bought for $250 a week ago by her husband. It is a replacement for the stress-reducing jogs she no longer has time for.
She cycles through Central Park, over the 59th Street Bridge and into Queens, bound for her now-famous workplace.
Her pride in Elmhurst Hospital remains strong, but she is witnessing the institution being tested to its limits. One of her colleagues calls the situation apocalyptic; another will liken it to Dante’s “Inferno.”
Late in the afternoon, she hurries to join Kessler for another pandemic-related conference call, but on her way she is stunned by how the COVID sick have overtaken the emergency department. In beds, behind curtains, in the hall, in the waiting room, everywhere. She can barely see the pale tile floor.
Forget the conference call, she tells Kessler.
The couple began keeping some items separated to avoid contamination.
The two supervisors join the scrum of health care professionals working nonstop to hold a deadly virus at bay in one corner of Queens. They make bed checks, carry supplies, move patients — whatever is necessary. In this life-or-death theater, time becomes timeless.
When Iavicoli recalls this night in the days to come, her tough Philly persona will break as she describes a scene simultaneously frantic and methodical, stressful and cool — a scene of people working in concert to keep others alive. Doctors adjusting ventilators. Nurses calibrating drips. Teams scurrying to monitor oxygen levels, replace tanks and reposition patients to make breathing easier.
But giving it all is not always enough.
Before dawn this morning, a ringing cellphone disrupts sleep in the Bronx apartment of Aldama, Alvarado’s sister. The caller is speaking in English, so she hands the phone to one of her teenage sons, now awake.
It’s Elmhurst Hospital. Alvarado’s blood pressure has dropped and her breathing has slowed, he says. If her heart stops, as it did a few days ago, should they try to revive her?
Yes, yes, yes, Aldama says. Whatever they have to do.
They hang up, and Aldama waits in the dark. She last saw her sister nearly two weeks ago, the day after Alvarado was hospitalized. She had waited in vain for 12 hours, hoping for an update on Alvarado’s condition, before finally mustering her courage and slipping into the ICU late that night.
The nurses didn’t even look up, which had Aldama thinking, God must have made me invisible.
There was her sister, sedated in a glass-sealed room. Even with tubes curling around her face, Alvarado looked dignified — her chin raised, her eyes closed beneath thin, arched eyebrows.
The phone rings again. This time, a translation service for the hospital is calling to say that Alvarado — her Chiquis — has died.
Aldama cannot go back to sleep. In a few hours, she thinks, she will ask someone who speaks English to call the hospital back to make sure it is true.
Mahdia Chowdhury, outside her family’s home in East Elmhurst, returned from college after the virus hit, and lay awake at night worrying about her parents.
Later this morning, in a darkened bedroom in Corona, Rosa Lema lies awake in bedsheets damp from another feverish night. Her mind is spinning.
Her brother-in-law, the tile layer, has just left for the hospital with severe symptoms. Her test results have shown not only that she has the coronavirus but also that she is pregnant.
Weak and short of breath, she does not want to move. But from her bed she hears a sound disrupting the apartment’s usual chattering hum: one of her daughters, sobbing.
Rosa Lema manages to rise and walk into the living room. Her husband, who has just lost his job in construction, is crying; he takes her in his arms. Her sister Carmen Lema, who has just lost her job as a house cleaner, has stopped making lunch and is comforting Rosa Lema’s 9-year-old daughter.
Rosa Lema takes in the scene, and she knows.
Their brother Jorge Lema has called with devastating news: Se nos fue la vieja. We lost our old lady.
The family had heard little from Elmhurst Hospital since Flores was admitted and intubated a week ago. There was no warning that her condition had deteriorated. No chance to say goodbye, even by video.
Soon, the six children of Flores will struggle to find a mortician to collect her body from the hospital, which is demanding that it be removed as soon as possible. They will have to have difficult video call discussions about cremation, which, according to the consulate, is now the only way to send the remains of people who died of COVID back to Ecuador.
And they will have to decide when to tell their father, who remains at a local rehabilitation center, that his wife of a half-century is dead.
But right now, everyone is crying over the loss of their Abuelita. Carmen Lema moves to embrace Rosa Lema, but her sister turns and heads back to her bed.
Soon, from behind Rosa Lema’s door, comes the sound of weeping.
It is nearly 3 a.m. when Iavicoli straps on her helmet. She guides her new bicycle out of an office, down an empty hallway and out into the stilled night.
With the white tent and refrigerated truck behind her, she cycles past a Mexican grocery, a couple of Thai restaurants, a Hindu temple, a Muslim cultural center, a tax service for Spanish speakers. Queens.
She knows that when she reaches her apartment, her husband will have laid out the hand sanitizer and the disinfectant wipes. She will throw her clothes in the laundry and take a hot shower.
She has 50 minutes before arriving at her doorstep to leave her pandemic-filled day behind. She thinks of what went well, what could have gone better and how. She wonders when the death and sickness will end.
Shamsul Chowdhury kept asking his daughter if she thought he had the coronavirus.
The doctor turns left onto Roosevelt Avenue, where the elevated subway tracks create a skeletal ceiling. She feels as if she is moving through some alternate universe, as if the great metropolis of New York were in paralytic shock.
Down city thoroughfares as quiet as country roads, then onto the cantilevered 59th Street Bridge. Iavicoli can see the East River murk through the metal grates beneath her tires, then parts of Roosevelt Island, where her cherished workplace began operating nearly 200 years ago.
She exits the bridge and glides as if in a dream through a silenced Manhattan. The rush of cool city air clears her mind, allows her to shed the day like a tossed lab coat.
Up First Avenue. Across 66th Street. Through the darkened sanctuary of Central Park to the Upper West Side.
SUNDAY, MARCH 29
‘We are going to have millions of cases.’ — Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Dawa has been ill for more than a week. Coughing. Lethargic. No appetite. Struggling to breathe. His wife, Sita, trails after him as he shambles around their Woodside apartment, wiping whatever he touches with disinfectant.
But he is so weak this evening that she calls for an ambulance. He makes his way down the gray-carpeted steps, past the descending row of the family’s shoes, and is winded by the effort.
Dawa is taken a half-mile to Elmhurst Hospital, which continues to develop in-the-moment protocols for what is now considered an ongoing mass-casualty event. The news last week of 13 deaths in a day has prompted an outpouring of support in donations of masks and other supplies. And soon, patient transfers will ease the overcrowding.
But the publicity has also fueled a troubling misapprehension among some local residents, based on ominous things they have seen and heard. The refrigerated truck. The wailing ambulances. The long lines. The rhythmic thump of hovering news helicopters.
Word spreads that no one who enters Elmhurst Hospital comes out alive. The local rumor mill spins the 13 deaths into 15; 25; 1,000.
The false information has convinced some to face COVID on their own at home, armed with little more than tea and, with any luck, Tylenol. It can be a fatal decision.
But like many others, Dawa has chosen to trust the doctors at Elmhurst. He is led to a small area where others sitting in mismatched chairs draw oxygen from various devices. The hospital has no choice but to group the sick together.
Some are talking in Spanish on cellphones. Some cry in fear. He shares their terror. He knows that another Uber driver from Nepal, a father of three, recently died of the virus in this hospital. That man was a year younger than Dawa.
The former monk is connected to an oxygen generator. To keep calm, he recites a prayer in his head that invokes and evokes the embodiment of the Buddha’s compassion:
The Woodside bedroom of Jack Wongserat and Joe Farris.
Sol wa deb so la ma chen re zig,
Sol wa deb so yi dam chen re zig …
Queens can use the prayers.
The streets are deserted. Signs on the closed Himalayan Yak restaurant and the Popular Driving School, the Afghan Kebab and Grill and the S.M. Digital Sign & Printing store, will all give the same reason: Due to the COVID-19 crisis …
Trump today only intensifies the apocalyptic mood. He has continued to downplay the crisis, but news reports from his home borough — he was raised in upscale Jamaica Estates, less than 6 miles from Elmhurst Hospital — seem to give him momentary pause.
“When I see the trucks pull up, to take out bodies — and these are trucks that are as long as the Rose Garden, and they’re pulling up to take out bodies — and you look inside, and you see the black body bags.” he says. “And you say, ‘What’s in there? It’s Elmhurst Hospital. Must be supplies.’
“It’s not supplies. It’s people.”
Some local officials and neighborhood advocates are too furious to engage in macabre musings. They have been decrying what they see as the government’s failure to respond adequately to a pandemic in an immigrant community notorious for overcrowded conditions.
But everyone is forced to adapt, including Cermeli of the 110th Precinct in Elmhurst, where more than one-third of the officers are out sick.
With his short, cropped hair and crisp white uniform shirt, Cermeli, 39, exudes an embrace of order. In his precinct office, the arrangement of family photographs, the crayon drawings, the awards and honors are all just so.
But how do you apply order to an invisible threat, to a Queens you grew up in but now barely recognize? No streams of commuters pouring down the stairs from the elevated 7 train. No crowds making the pilgrimage to cheer the New York Mets at Citi Field. No shoppers at the Queens Center mall.
These days, his officers guard against burglaries in closed, untended storefronts. They cruise Flushing Meadows Corona Park, delivering reminders by loudspeaker to maintain social distancing. They stand sentry over those who have died at home until the bodies can be collected.
Photographs of Jack Wongserat, a Thai chef known as “Mama” to other restaurant workers.
When he returns to his Long Island home at night, Cermeli enters through the garage, showers and takes pains not to embrace his two children, 12 and 9.
Years ago, during an earlier tour, the captain found a glass-encased crucifix behind one of the 110th Precinct’s file cabinets. When he returned as commanding officer in February, he hung it on a wall in his office. Now he takes time to stand before the crucifix and, like Dawa, pray for better days.
Keep my family safe. Keep my men and women safe. Keep me safe.
Dawa sits upright in a corner of the emergency room. He sits as Sunday night blurs into Monday and Monday into Tuesday.
Now and then he stretches his legs, draping his black jacket over his padded chair to claim it. He asks the nurses who monitor his vitals if there is a bed, only to be told not yet. He feels hungry and is given a sandwich, but he is unable to eat. He gets by on juice and water and oxygen and prayer.
Sol wa deb so la ma chen re zig,
Sol wa deb so yi dam chen re zig …
Tuesday becomes Wednesday.
Finally, Dawa is led to a room on the third floor. He sheds his stale clothes for a gray hospital gown and eases into the comfort of a bed for the first time in four days.
His roommate, a man with the same virus, speaks only Spanish. Still, they exchange encouragement with simple gestures. A nod. A thumbs-up. A peace sign.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 8
‘Every New Yorker knows someone who has the coronavirus.’ — de Blasio
A gray Chrysler minivan makes its daily rounds. Its driver listens to anything that distracts, from sports to hip-hop to Johnny Cash. He drinks Gatorade now instead of coffee; he has enough trouble sleeping.
This is Tom Habermann, 34, manager and resident mortician of the Guida Funeral Home. Thin and exhausted, he wears jeans and a sweater instead of his normal work attire of somber black. Death is too common for any formality.
He spends these days driving from hospital to hospital, collecting bodies. There is no time for embalming, or choosing floral arrangements, or assembling pallbearers. There is only the sliding of body bags into the minivan’s hold, again and again.
The Guida Funeral Home, a family-owned anchor of Corona for more than a century, usually handles 100 or so deaths a year; it will nearly match that number in just eight weeks this spring. An answering service has been retained to handle the many calls from people begging for help, now that some parlors are refusing to accept virus victims or are too busy to even answer the phone.
Habermann and Eddie Guida Jr., the funeral home’s owner and his best friend from high school, do what they can. They see themselves as performing a grim but necessary duty at a time when the rituals of mourning have been upended. The last responders.
Dr. Laura Iavicoli began biking to work during the pandemic.
But the volume is too great. Hospitals and funeral homes do not have enough room for all the bodies; crematories and cemeteries do not have enough time. A local crematory recently offered, You can come next Friday — but bring only two.
Guida, 34, stocky and tattooed, has relied on his many connections. An uncle has a friend on Long Island who has provided a 54-by-8-foot refrigerated truck, and one of his cousins owns an empty lot nearby. That is where the parked truck now hums, the temperature set at 32 degrees.
Soon it will hold nearly 50 bodies.
Guida feels the pressure of stewardship for his family’s funeral home, which is old enough to have handled deaths during the 1918 influenza pandemic. He worries that the parlor will not be able to keep up with demand.
But Habermann is the one who has to collect the bodies. He then has to set the facial features of the dead for simple headshots that allow for both positive identification and some closure for families who have been denied wakes and viewings.
He drives his minivan to Elmhurst Hospital. To Flushing Hospital. To Coney Island Hospital. To Mather Hospital out on Long Island. Back to the funeral home. Then to the truck.
Sometimes Habermann listens to the radio as he drives. Sometimes he thinks about the apartment renovations that he and his wife never seem able to finish. Sometimes he wonders when death will become normal again.
Sometimes, at the end of the day, the professional facade cracks, and the mortician cries.
The news on this overcast day is not merely bad, announces the governor, Cuomo. It is terrible. New York state has just recorded its highest single-day death toll as a result of the coronavirus: 779. As more losses are counted in the coming months, the number will change slightly. But this span of days will remain a dark milestone: the virus’s deadliest time in New York.
The city has also released some new, disturbing statistics. The virus is killing Black and Latino people at twice the rate of white people.
“Every number is a face,” the governor says.
Since the outbreak began a little more than a month ago, the state has counted 6,268 fatalities. Cuomo notes that this is more than twice the number of lives lost in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
But, he says, there is also “good news.”
The very concept seems so removed from life in Queens, where the only sounds during this somber Holy Week, when Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus, seem to be ambulance sirens and the chirping birds of early spring. But city and state health officials have gleaned a pinhole of light in the enveloping gloom:
Daily admissions to intensive care units are down. Daily intubations are down. Hospitalizations are beginning to flatten.
The twinning of two simple words — good news — gives oxygen to hope.
Tracking these same trends is Israel Rocha Jr., the chief executive at Elmhurst Hospital, whose life has been a round-the-clock churn of crisis management and personal prayer. He all but lives in a conference room where the latest statistics are shared, the latest plans proposed, the latest worries expressed.
The hospital is testing well over 200 patients a day for the virus, with positive results climbing to an astounding 80%. At the same time, scores of its own workers are testing positive.
But Rocha, 42, has seen statistics similar to the ones informing the governor’s encouraging words. Sitting in his office, where an artwork on the wall declares that “Queens is the Future,” he has pored over reports showing that positivity rates at Elmhurst have plateaued.
For the first time in more than a month, it becomes slightly easier for the head of Elmhurst Hospital to breathe.
Evening approaches, the clouds part, and a COVID patient at Elmhurst prepares to leave. Dawa, the Uber driver who was once a Buddhist monk, has spent the last nine nights in the hospital.
As he recovered, his roommate, who always returned his thumbs-up encouragement, had declined. One morning Dawa awakened beside an empty bed.
He sheds his hospital gown for his street clothes and signs the discharge papers. He considers walking but realizes he hasn’t the strength. He takes an Uber the half-mile home.
MONDAY, JULY 20
‘We did the impossible, as New Yorkers.’ — Cuomo
A small stage materializes in a parking lot beside El Trio restaurant in Corona. Its scarlet cloth backdrop shields an old Chevy van from view. Headless mannequins in gowns of black and fuchsia stand like bodyguards at an exclusive outdoor affair.
A memorial celebration is being held for Alvarado, who created those gowns for her cabaret performances in the restaurant’s upstairs lounge, where she would lip-sync songs of love.
Close friends, the Familia Alvarado, have adorned the stage with vivid bouquets that offset the pavement’s gray. They recite the rosary and raise drinks in toast. Many wear face masks to guard against what might linger in the hot evening air.
While the coronavirus continues its indiscriminate spread across the country, here in New York it has taken an uneasy summertime pause, allowing for an approximation of normal life — allowing Alvarado’s family and friends to gather in her honor, albeit outdoors.
But the great metropolis remains shaken by the virus’s lethal supremacy; by tonight, health officials will have counted 18,787 confirmed deaths. And no corner of New York has felt its wrath more than the interlocking Queens neighborhoods of Corona, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Woodside.
Tens of thousands are out of work. People stand in long food pantry lines while trying to maintain a safe distance. Many who are living in the country illegally and are therefore ineligible for benefits, have turned to hawking wares from the sidewalks: tacos, pork rinds, flavored ices, face masks.
A sign of gratitude appeared outside the hospital as it was going through some of its darkest days.
Most everyone knows someone who has died. In this 8-square-mile patch of Queens, about 1,400 people will have died from the coronavirus by the end of July. In just one elementary school in Elmhurst, nearly 90 students have already lost a parent or guardian.
Absence is everywhere.
In a crowded apartment in Corona, the Lema family mourns not one death, but two. Days after a funeral service on Staten Island for Flores, the family’s matriarch, her husband died of the virus, before being told of his wife’s death.
Two small urns containing their ashes sit on a chipped dresser in the bedroom they shared, with a statue of the Virgin Mary between them. Their pregnant daughter Rosa Lema plans to take the urns back to Ecuador. She is waiting for the necessary paperwork — and the birth of her son.
In Woodside, Farris continues to adjust to life without his partner, Wongserat. For a few weeks he slept on the living room couch, unable to enter their bedroom, much less remove the chair that medics had tossed on the bed while tending to Wongserat.
Wongserat’s many pairs of sneakers still fill the shoe rack near the front door, and the pieces of china for the restaurant he never opened sit in a glass case. The Buddha-figurine gold necklace that Wongserat wore the day he died rests in a place of honor.
But Farris is making progress. He plays Buddhist meditation music, practices forms of stress reduction and sleeps in the bed he no longer shares.
Many recovered. Some experienced minor symptoms. Some endured what seemed like an especially bad flu. Some came so close to dying that they will feel the breath knocked out of them for months.
After being discharged from Elmhurst Hospital, Dawa spent weeks recuperating. Now, while his wife works, he cares for their three sons — the youngest cartwheels through the apartment — and volunteers at the United Sherpa Association, preparing care packages for those still in need.
He has not returned to driving for Uber.
Shamsul Chowdhury, the bank officer from Bangladesh who became a taxi driver in Queens, has also recovered, but his family has not gone unscathed. Three relatives died, and every other member of his household fell ill: his wife; their daughter, Mahdia Chowdhury; and two sons.
So many of his taxi-driving colleagues were lost to the virus that there is talk of a memorial. But Shamsul Chowdhury, too, has given up driving for hire; soon he will have a new job as a mail handler for the U.S. Postal Service.
Mahdia Chowdhury is now working as an unpaid intern for a state senator’s office — her tasks include helping constituents apply for unemployment insurance — and will return to Cornell in the fall.
The virus has brought about other changes. Elmhurst Hospital has held virtual meetings to reassure residents and dispel misconceptions. It has improved ways of providing updates on patients’ conditions and helped to establish the clinical protocols for treating COVID, forged in the hellish days of March.
Not that those days are forgotten. Here and there are modest tributes: a photo of a well-liked mechanic outside a bicycle repair shop; a black ribbon in a bakery window; a votive candle’s quivering flame.
But as the city anticipates a resurgence of the virus, one that will approach frightening levels by late fall, the worry is whether the warnings have been heeded. Will the lesson — that overcrowding helped make Queens an epicenter of the worst pandemic in a century — have been learned?
Up and down Roosevelt Avenue, flyers taped to the elevated subway columns advertise rooms newly available in basements, in subdivided apartments, in dwellings within dwellings. They flutter in the city breeze.
Outside El Trio on this hot and humid July evening, the rosaries have been said, a mariachi band has performed, and a black box containing Alvarado’s ashes has been placed on the red-cloth stage.
Her younger sister Aldama, the last family member to see her alive, wears a T-shirt depicting Alvarado as an angel in a fabulous red gown. Aldama has lost her job at the dry cleaners; her arms are now tanned from selling bottled water in a park.
She calls her mother, Concepción Alvarado, in Mexico. Soon the gray-haired woman appears on the cellphone screen, beside the altar she has set up in Yimel Alvarado’s honor outside a cinder-block house. There, on a plate, sits her daughter’s favorite pastry.
The mother cries and wipes her tears with a rag.
As the sky-blue evening gives in to the cerulean night, grief cedes ground. Members of the Familia Alvarado disappear, only to return in sequined gowns and caftans. Elevated by their platform shoes, they vamp and sing of love and defiance.
Shots of tequila are raised up and knocked back as people erupt in shouts of Que viva Yimel! The celebration of life in a drab parking lot in Queens continues well past midnight, into the hope and uncertainty of another day.
© 2020 The New York Times Company