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Photo by Anthony Behar/Sipa USA

The Mets Citi Field stadium opens as a COVID-19 vaccination mega-hub in Queens, New York, on Feb. 10. (Photo by Anthony Behar/Sipa USA)

How a line cook ended up working a vaccine line

Joe Reilly’s pandemic-year job hunt took him from restaurant to hospital morgue to Citi Field

A New York moment:

Before the pandemic, Joe Reilly was a cook at a restaurant in New York City. When the virus forced lockdowns, Reilly lost his job: He wanted to work, but with restaurants shuttered, he didn’t know what to do.

A friend told him about a job in Brooklyn at Kings County Hospital, which was in desperate need of temporary staffers to deal with the coronavirus surge. Reilly got the job. On his first day, the hospital assigned him to something the cook never imagined doing: moving bodies of people who died of COVID-19 out of hospital beds and into the morgue.

I met Reilly while reporting recently from Citi Field, one of New York City’s 24-hour vaccine sites. Reilly was checking people in for their vaccine appointments at 2:00 in the morning—an hour when people seem to have more openness to conversation about their lives. I think Reilly’s life this past year encapsulates the experience of this city in the pandemic. 

Reilly said he got the sense Kings County Hospital would have found other work for him if he had refused to move bodies. But he decided that someone would have to do it, and he found he could stomach it.

Still, he called it “scary.” He wondered each time he picked up a body whether he might contract the disease, and whether the personal protective equipment he wore would work. He had morbid thoughts, wondering whether the team would be able to carry him in a body bag, since he’s a big man, if he got the virus and died. 

That particular hospital lost several nurses and physicians to the virus.

“I can’t describe how bad it was,” Reilly said. “Nurses and doctors were having straight-up breakdowns in a shift, and going in the supply closet to cry.” 

With the hospital morgue overcrowded, he would move bodies to a storage truck outside. Eventually, when deaths and hospitalizations began to slow in the city, the public hospital moved him to a testing tent. 

And then, when the vaccines came, the city moved him to the vaccination sites. Now that he’s worked in hospitals and dealt with the worst of the job, he’s thinking about becoming a nurse instead of going back to restaurants. 

What an arc: Reilly went from line cook to a front-line healthcare worker.

This week I learned:

One Catholic church in Corona, Queens, lost 100 congregants to the coronavirus. The name of the parish? Our Lady of Sorrows.

Culture I’m consuming:

I’m currently reading half a dozen books at the same time, a bad habit, but one of them is Watership Down by Richard Adams. It’s a relief to read about the lives of rabbits when you’re writing about coronavirus pandemics and opioid epidemics.

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Hanging out

Lessons from under the clothesline

Reach. Grab. Sling. Pin.

Reach. Grab. Sling. Pin.

I can get lost in the rote rhythm, but why would anyone in an age of damp dry and dewrinkle settings want to? Use a clothesline, that is? 

It’s a good question, especially when it comes from a friend who lives in a neighborhood with covenants that would keep her from erecting one even if she leaned that way. But the plain truth is this: I just like to hang out. 

My habit has nothing to do with being eco-chic or even economical. Mr. Edwards, the gas man, once set me straight on that fallacy as he skirted past flapping sheets on the way to our propane tank. “You’d do better to cut back on your oven use,” he called out, ducking. I nodded and smiled, not bothering to explain just how unlikely that was, with seven seated around our table. 

But thinking back, curtailing my oven usage might have been easier than trying to explain to him what I don’t really understand myself. That I like lugging laundry to the backyard where there’s sun and grass and a cat that’s glad to see me. That I think wooden clothespins have aesthetic value. That getting four loads hung out by noon makes me feel, well, productive. It helps that I have a husband who champions any effort to cut down on utility costs, one who considers the stiffness of line-dried towels a value equal to that of a loofah sponge. “It’s multitasking,” he reasons. “We dry and exfoliate at the same time.” 

Naturally, some days this outdoor business is a chore we do without, thanks to Whirlpool. Other days, though, it is a satisfaction, like when I take in the sight of whites waving in the wind, strangely juxtaposed between an old barn and a new-fangled fire pit in our backyard. Funny how it’s the clothesline bridging the middle of that scene that best represents a life luxury—time. Time to fashion a diorama out of pinpoint cotton and a pair of pillowcases. Time for talks under a stand of five stretched-out strands, where words are spoken through teeth gripping an extra clothespin and instructions are given (again) about hanging from the hem. 

On a good day, sheets snap in the breeze, unleashing the smell of lavender detergent to float free and surprising. On a good night, we wrap ourselves in them, fingering crisp corners that demand a nod to the work of our hands. Yet I wonder, am I failing to redeem the time when I choose a backward path? 

I weigh it out as I string 50 pounds of wet jeans and towels along our nylon strands for all the world to see. Yes, I weigh it out, and maybe that’s the whole point—a clothesline has clarifying qualities, the kind that duet with that luxury of time. Standing silent beside one, I am apt to sense sins like harsh words toward the owner of this shirt or a lack of prayer for the one who wears that one. I find I cannot deny stubborn stains in the bright light of day. I wrestle with heavy loads and things like J.C. Ryle’s sure saying about spiritual darkness coming in on horseback and going away on foot. 

My friend, the one with the covenants, could probably appreciate that aspect. She likes sure sayings. She likes Ryle. She did, in fact, listen politely as I described how an orderly row of just-hung socks can represent a day’s fresh start. But when I gave her the “it’s humble work, beautiful in its simplicity” line of logic, I lost her. She sputtered: “So, help me understand. If you’re not saving money and you’re not going green, then you’re doing this for … for … ?”

Well, I guess I’m doing this for … me. So I’m coming clean. Some folks have comfort foods. Some have Instagram feeds. I have a clothesline.

Reach. Grab. Sling. Pin.

Reach. Grab. Sling. Pin.

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AP Photo

Anti-coup protesters with makeshift shields take positions in Mandalay, Myanmar, on Tuesday (AP Photo)

A tale of two takeovers

In Myanmar, pro-democracy protesters face a bloody military crackdown. In Hong Kong, they face Communist law

For weeks, the anti-coup protests in Myanmar drew comparisons with Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. Both movements, largely leaderless, are filled with passionate young people seeking greater freedom, real democracy, and a better future. Both faced a Goliath-sized enemy—in Myanmar, the authoritarian military junta, and in Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party.

The protesters in Myanmar even took tips from their counterparts in Hong Kong: They donned hard hats, created makeshift shields, and used Twitter hashtags to publicize the movement.

Yet since the end of February, both movements have faced major government crackdowns. In Myanmar, the military violently suppressed protesters, killing more than 120 people by March 14. In Hong Kong, Beijing-backed authorities crushed the territory’s remaining vestiges of democracy, detaining 47 pro-democracy figures and approving changes that would remove the public’s ability to freely elect lawmakers.

While protesters seem to be losing their battle in both places, they face starkly different styles of suppression—one bloody, and one legislative.

In Myanmar, also known as Burma, cell phone footage showed soldiers shooting rifles into a crowd of protesters. Young protesters carrying a bloodied, limp body as gunshots rang out in the background. Other video showed the harrowing moment a soldier tried to shoot a civilian filming from his apartment window.

One widely shared photo showed a 19-year-old protester wearing a black T-shirt with the words “Everything will be OK” while demonstrating on the streets of Mandalay. The next photo showed her lying on a stretcher, killed by a shot to the head.

At night, the authorities switched off the internet while troops roamed the streets, firing into the air and raiding the homes of protest leaders and political opponents. The military has arrested nearly 1,800 people since the Feb. 1 coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

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