MASKED ANGELS

Stories from Nurses on the Front Lines

By Samuel Lee

Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #18

We write our names across our face shields so we’ll recognize each other and know we’re family.

Intro

“Being a folklorist is a bit like being a priest,” my close friend Sam Lee once told me, “you have a reverence for things – especially words. I’ve known Sam since my wife Amanda and I came to New York to work as folklorists for the Queens Council on the Arts in 1981. At the time we were doing the project, City Play, and Sam – who also has a reverence for words – told us stories about growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn. After his mother died when he was 14, he got a job working at Izzy’s poolroom. “I learned to shoot real well, and I would steer people to the numbers writers, the bookies. During the holidays, the numbers men would come around and give people in the neighborhood turkeys and give their children toys. When the cops came around, they would protect them because they didn’t want anybody coming around and taking their turkey man.”

 For as long as I’ve Known Sam, he was documenting stories, and a few years ago he told the full story of his childhood on The Moth Radio Hour.  Way back in1983, he made a video Rapping with the Rappers interviewing artists including WBLS’ first rapper, deejay Mr Magic, Fearless Four, Spyder D, Female artist D Bora, and LL Cool J to name a few. Currently he runs a storytelling program called Encounters in Black Tradition in Englewood, New Jersey. During the surreal days of the Corona virus, his love of stories emerged as a saving grace for his own well-being and as a window for all of us into what front line nurses braved at the height of the pandemic in New York.

~ Steve Zeitlin

Sam Lee

Sam Lee

When the virus struck, I was stuck like everyone else. I was in a basement apartment, quarantining myself, watching the news and netflix all day, eating 4 or 5 times a day and getting more and more depressed. I got a call from a friend, Michele Vapiano, who is the manager of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Englewood, New Jersey. She told me that the hotel was empty and they were giving away a lot of the food, and making rooms available for doctors and front line nurses. I suggested to her that I could set up a video camera in the lobby, and collect some stories.

I was blown away by the stories I was told. The nurses spoke to me like disciplined soldiers sent off to battle. On the front lines, everyone is the same – there’s no color, there’s no white, no black, woman, man, doctor, nurse or room cleaner. They were hugely empathetic human beings. Like medics on the battlefield, they were often ministering to people when they died. As one of the nurses, Melissa Porco, told me, “There’s many nurses including myself that take great pride that we can be there when a person transitions or passes. No matter what race or religion – we try to make that as comforting and as special – it’s truly an honor to be able to do this work with them. Even when the outcome isn’t what we want it to be – we have to accept it.  Be with them in that moment and be very present, that’s the key.”

I needed to do these interviews with front line workers for myself – for my own mental health – but also because I realized the stories needed to be told.  I have always taken as my tagline some words from the playwright George Bernard Shaw, “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community… and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.”

The stories of these nurses gave me some badly needed hope. As Michele Porco ended her interview with me, “I would like to say to everybody out there not to give up any hope, that we will get through this. We’re here for you. We won’t leave your side. Hang in. It’ll be OK. Keep hope.”

The very first nurse who came in was Desserie Moran. When I first started interviewing her, I didn’t think this was going to be a quality project – but when I heard the emotion in her narrative, when she started to cry, I realized how deep these stories cut. She told me that when she drove home from work each night she just sat in her car and wept for an hour before she could even open the door to her house. Here is her story.

 

Desserie Morgan

How has the pandemic changed my life? I don’t sleep like I used to. When I do sleep, I’m dreaming constantly about Covid. When I’m at work I’m worried about my family at home. When I’m home I’m worried about my family at work. I’m a manager as well, and my responsibility is to make sure the people who report to me are safe.

When I’m at home everything has changed, my mental health has changed—hugging and kissing my children is such a natural thing to do, but I find myself feeling stand offish and pulling back – I’m so concerned that I’m going to get them sick. After I do hug them and kiss them I say a prayer – Please God don’t let me give them anything.

I feel like there’s a part of me that’s kind of damaged. That part of my life has changed – I hope not forever. I’m worried when I talk to somebody – I try to get a good look at them and remember them because I may not see them again – because you just don’t know with this thing.

On one of the first pandemic days, the patient in the room with me was not doing great. I was fixing her IV – and as I was fixing her IV her other hand reached over and grabbed mine and I realized she was trying to hold my hand. And I just looked at her and knew she was terrified – her oxygen was de-saturating and I knew she was going to have a rough couple of hours. And there was a very good chance I might be the person or one of the last people to talk to her before she needed to be sedated for intubation. So I tried to make her as calm and as comfortable as I could. I was looking into her eyes and although I was trying to limit my time in the room I knew that she needed me. So I stayed in that room and I held her hand and I told her that I was with her – that she’s not alone. She’s gonna make it through. And she said, “I love you, you’re an angel.” I had to be there for her in that moment.

My worst day so far – it was on a Sunday – I was a supervisor for the critical care department and I was called in by a frantic critical care physician asking me to find the I-pad immediately and to bring it over to critical care. I told him that patient-relations wasn’t there and there was no one to do it and he said we have about two minutes before this patient passes on us and dies and the family needs to see them. And so I ran to critical care with that I-pad and in that moment I didn’t have the opportunity to know what I was walking into so I was not prepared. And when I got inside and it was just myself and the patient. And I had the I-pad on and I dialed the number and I saw it was a 12 year old boy and his 8 year old sister and their Mom saying goodbye to the patient who was their father. And I have 12-year-old twins and a husband and I couldn’t disconnect from it. And I was staring and the way the I-pad communication works – you see them and they see the patient – and I was staring at them pleading with me to do something about their Daddy and I knew he had minutes, if even. And I kept saying “Honey, talk to your father, and tell him you love him and the Mom was on the other side trying to tell them “say goodbye to Daddy.” And it was so heartbreaking – and I fought back as much as I could. I’m not letting them see my tears. When it was over and I had left the room that same physician came and said “I’m so sorry to do this but we have another one right next door.”

So I went next door, the next room – and I had to do the same thing but this time it was a 19 year old girl and her 15 year old brother saying goodbye to their mother. So I went through that as well. I could not shake that – I could not stop thinking about it for days. I saw their pain, I heard their voices in my head. I couldn’t get past that. So that was definitely the worst day in my life.

The best day is whenever I hear the Rocky song. In my hospital they do an amazing job of celebrating discharges. If a patient is discharged from Covid, they are able to push a button on that person’s way out and it plays the Rocky theme song to just tell them what champions they are – whenever I hear that I’m having the best day.

There is no way in this world I could do anything else and be happy. The team I work with is family – we write our names across our face shields so when we see each other we know we’re family. When this is over everybody on the front lines is going to have to heal mentally. To make sense of what happened, process what we went through. It may be over physically but mentally it has taken a toll. It’s taken a toll.

But I don’t think twice about it. I’m a nurse. That’s what we’re supposed to do – if you’re called to this profession you just feel a need to help people. I don’t feel I’m putting them before my family – I feel like I’m doing for them what I hope somebody would do for my family.

 

 Desserie’s full story on Youtube filmed and edited by Sam Lee can be seen here .

 

 

Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

 

 

Nesting Eggs: Planet/Language/Culture/Community/Family/You

The Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #16

Making the Case for City Lore

The interview was ending. I was anxious to get on with my day. But the interviewer had one last question. It came out of the blue: “So what is your hope for the future?” 

As I pondered the question, it occurred to me that there is something even more precious to me than the goals I work toward as the director of City Lore, New York’s center for urban folk culture. Founded in 1986, City Lore works to preserve places that matter, highlight the work of traditional artists, document stories, bring community-based and folk artists into schools, project poems from our POEMobile, and operate a gallery. Our mission is to foster New York City—and America’s—living cultural heritage. All these are, in themselves, reasons to go online and join City Lore this very moment.

Yet my hope for the future, and the reason City Lore is central to our collective future and worthy of your support, goes beyond this mission. My hope is that each soul whose existence happens to manifest itself on the planet will continue through the generations to bring something new into the world, to retain their individuality, to develop their own sense of humor, and to tell their unique story in a distinctive way. Indeed, I was inspired to become a folklorist because of the expressions and humor I share with my brothers. (We still address one another with “Yo, Sire”; and when someone once asked my brother Murray why, he answered, “Respect.”) These expressions were the “language of us,” as the writer Virginia Randall notes.

Joseph Albert Elie Joubert from Quebec’s Abnaki tribe suggests that “the secrets of our culture lie hidden within our language.” I have come to think of the layers of our existence as the set of nesting (matryoshka) dolls that sit in my tchotchke cabinet at home. I imagine the doll within a doll within a doll, first created in Russia in 1892—or the similar brightly colored eggs—as our fragile blue-and-green planet, nesting diverse languages, nesting diverse cultural groups, nesting communities, nesting families, and, finally, nesting the smallest doll, the distinctive individual. Today we witness a corporate assault on each and all of these meaningful layers of our existences.

 

 

Languages nested in our blue-and-green planet. Half of the world’s languages will disappear in this century. Scholars have shown that the areas of the world where languages are disappearing are often the same once-isolated areas where plant and animal species are disappearing. So there is a simultaneous assault on our planet egg and the languages nested within it, a connection between species diversity and language diversity.

 

 

Cultures nested in language. An ancient but renewed clannishness and demonization of our fellow human beings, fueled by social media, pits Americans against one another. Racism and xenophobia disparage cultural diversity, while anti-immigrant policies seek to strangle multiculturalism and cultural variety – a variety that has thankfully been replenished by successive waves of new immigrants who, since our nation’s founding, have been one of the most important wellsprings of our distinctly American creativity and renewal.

 

 

Communities nested in cultures. Our local  communities are threatened with gentrification that erodes the economic, age, ethnic and cultural diversity of neighborhoods, often tearing apart the fabric of community.

 

Individuals nested in communities. And then there’s you and me, the nested individuals.

 

Today, corporations are continually merging into larger and larger entities and increasingly dominating both the global economy and our individual lives with their relentless adherence to the bottom line. On the global scale, they are willing to sacrifice the planet for profit, but their assault affects us on a subtle, personal level as well. If they can put you and me in boxes, know what we watch on YouTube, try to sell us anything we’ve ever googled, they can customize their marketing such that they can shape our tastes and nudge us into market categories, slowly shaping who we are and how we behave. Capitalism runs on homogenization. 

In this new world era, governments are viewed as corporations (small ones at that), and we the people not as citizens, but as consumers. The nuances of art threaten to become simply “content” produced by “creatives” for large corporate entities. From their perspective, minority languages, climate change, diverse cultures, and individuals with unique tastes and personalities are simply hindrances or distractions brushed aside for short term gain.  

So, as poet Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Our job as individuals is to push back, to fight against an assault on the nested layers of our civilization: for a clean planet that sustains diverse life forms, for diverse languages, for diverse cultures, and for diverse communities and families, while at the same finding meaning in our limited time on earth. On top of everything else, our job must also be to protect, maximize, and treasure our own personhood. In the virtual world, people live on their phones rather than in physical places, and develop relationships online rather than with the their neighbors. In this new world where we are continually bombarded with ever-more-subtle advertising, we are tasked with sustaining our sentience, interiority, and free will. “There will be no one like us when we are gone,” wrote British neurologist, naturalist, and historian of science Oliver Sacks when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, “but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled.”

Steve Zeitlin with his nesting dolls. Photo by Amanda Dargan.

In spite of everything, I still believe that there will always be people in search of authentic experiences, art forms, and traditions, created and shared person to person, expressions of individuality nested within cultures and traditions. People will return to those experiences because that’s where meaning lies. It is there that personal, family, community, cultural, and linguistic diversity is expressed. That’s why City Lore is still here—you can access that distinctiveness and singularity by attending any of our programs.

In addition, the work that we and our colleagues in folklore and related fields do and have done to document and preserve folk and community traditions can serve as touchstones for the creativity of future generations. Today, you can find yourself in the diverse cultures, communities, and languages that we share with you at City Lore. The deeply rooted experiences may give us the tools and reasons to fight back.

My hope for the future is bound up with language and an appreciation of cultural diversity. Is that more important than world peace? Perhaps not. Yet if the planet ever does become a “peaceable kingdom,” here’s hoping it’s not because we have been corporatized into sameness but because we have learned to communicate across differences. 

You can join City Lore – “a practical application of a utopian endeavor” – by Clicking Here for the membership form.  You either send it back to us or click on the donation level that will take you to PayPal.

 

 

Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

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