This past week, New York’s non-essential workforce was mandated to work from home. Thousands of people are out of a job entirely. Doctors, nurses, first responders, and other essential employees are working tirelessly to save lives and spread information. The rest are asked to stay home unless they need to get food or medicine, or to spend some solitary time outdoors.
We have all undoubtedly encountered challenges, big and small, navigating our now-very unusual lives.
Last Friday, I was preparing to do a simple task I have done hundreds of times before: my laundry. I live in an apartment complex with a few communal laundry rooms. They consist of just three washers and three dryers, and there is always competition for the coveted space. Finding a machine not in use is typically the only challenge, but now we’re living in a world where most of the typical parts of our lives have been upended.
With a basket full of clothes, detergent, and Lysol wipes in hand, I walked a few yards to the laundry room. It was surprisingly empty, and I was not-so-surprisingly relieved. I wiped down everything I was about to touch, loaded my clothes into a washer, and again wiped down everything I came into contact with. I went back to my apartment to wait out the 27-minute cycle. I returned, moved my laundry to a dryer, and back home I went.
An hour later, I was folding my clothes when another woman entered the room. She looked immediately panicked to see me on the other side of the door. Not because she was worried there wouldn’t be any available machines – the typical reason – but because of the coronavirus.
In an understandably exhausted tone, she said, “I’m scared to even do my laundry now… but at least we’re six feet apart.”
Social distancing has become our “new normal.”
The woman, who was wearing a bandana around her face and latex cleaning gloves on her hands, was hurriedly shoving clothes into a washing machine. She told me I was the first person she’d spoken to face to face, aside from her husband, in a week. She shared with me that her anxiety was getting the best of her, and she’d been spending most of her time cleaning and disinfecting her apartment.
The woman’s husband works at a local hospital and she was fearful he would contract COVID-19. Her elderly father lives 800 miles away in Kentucky. He’d recently gotten sick, and she was trying to work out the logistics with her sister on how to be able to care for him without potentially exposing him to the virus.
This conversation lasted mere minutes. She thanked me for listening and apologized for sharing “too much” with me, and I assured her it wasn’t a problem. I felt more thankful than ever to be able to listen to her story, as a journalist and a human being also trying to navigate an uncertain time.
My neighbor and I cleaned everything we’d touched, exchanged words of encouragement, and we both went home.
In the scheme of things, figuring out how to do your laundry during a pandemic feels trivial. It’s a reminder, though, of all the little steps we can take to keep each other safe.
And it’s an experience that made me cherish our human ability to connect with people emotionally, even in our darkest times.