The sun had barely risen over East 149th Street in the South Bronx when Edward Halls, 70, got in line. He had seen how long the line was the day before and realized that life now required a plan.
“I passed by and said, ‘I’m not going to drink any water. I’ll bring the chair. I’ll leave early. I was going to leave at 7:30 but my sister said, ‘No, you better leave at 7.’ ”
Now it was two hours later, and a line of 32 people stretched out from the front door of the bank where the computers were still down and Halls was still sitting in his folding chair, watching his neighborhood come to life.
Across the street, a line was forming at the pharmacy. A few doors down, the line was growing at the credit union. Around the corner, people were lining up for the bus, for the lottery, for the check-cashers and the two hawkers at folding tables spread with $5 masks, $10 Advil and $20 cough syrup. Two months into the coronavirus pandemic, this is what life was becoming in one of the poorest and hardest-hit neighborhoods in America. A life of lines.
“Don’t cut, wait your turn, go with the system,” said Halls, a retired hospital janitor, as the line grew longer and the sun rose high enough to clear the buildings and shine down on all the faces behind him.
Holding strong in the fourth position was 81-year old Clara Futch, who needed a money order to pay a bill and was sitting on the walker she’d rolled across six craggy blocks.
“Life is horrible,” she said.
Behind her was Ibrahima Sanogo, a taxi driver drawing upon his experience from earlier days in the pandemic. He’d waited six hours in a taxi line for the few passengers left at JFK Airport. He’d waited four hours on the phone to complete his unemployment application. He had been waiting nearly three hours so far to see a teller about his federal stimulus check, and now he glanced at all the people still in front of him and realized he would be waiting some more.
“I can’t give up now,” he said.
Life in line: In a nation that has revered ambition, hustle and individualism, the moment was one that called for the sort of acceptance, patience and ego sublimation summoned by the words of Nelson Rivera, a school custodian standing behind a home health aide standing behind a bus driver standing behind a woman shaking her head outside a Stop & Shop.
“What can you do?” he said.
The line was all there was.
“You home?” a woman said into her cellphone outside a pharmacy. “I’m in line.”
“Even the butcher had a line,” said a woman now in line at Plaza Discount.
“Where do you think I am?” said an agitated woman through two masks into her phone.
She was between two pieces of worn blue tape on a Wednesday that could have been a Tuesday, and soon it was midday and she was still in line.
Across the South Bronx, people were lining up for various food pantries — at a community center, at the Catholic church and at the Bronx River Houses, a public housing complex of nine brick buildings where the daily announcement came over a loudspeaker in a courtyard: “Ladies and gentlemen! The meals are coming!”
People emerged from the brick towers and other apartment buildings in the surrounding neighborhood.
Here came an elderly woman in a black wool coat clutching an empty plastic bag. “Things are tight,” Barbara Sanders said, taking her place behind an orange cone.
Here came Amaurice Gabot, a laid-off parking lot attendant now in the 45-day waiting period for food stamps he needed to feed his wife and daughter. “When you don’t have nothing, this is very important,” he said of the free meal.
Here came Toribio Vasquez, another parking lot attendant whose hours had been cut in half. “Every day it’s getting worse,” he said.
Behind him was an elderly woman with a walker. A woman with wild gray hair and a dazed look. Two women clutching empty garbage bags. A woman in a wheelchair. A man wearing a homemade mask, holding his daughter’s hand, and asking with some embarrassment: “We have to put our name?”
“No name, baby,” said Norma Saunders, the tenant association president and organizer of a line that now stretched down a long breezeway, alongside a fenced-off area where residents said asbestos was being removed, past three overflowing garbage bins and an empty playground — a column of more than 100 people standing in silence until a yellow box truck pulled into the parking lot and the voice came over the loudspeaker again: “Ladies and gentlemen! The meals are here!”
People watched as volunteers unloaded cellophane-sealed containers of spaghetti and meatballs, boxes of green beans labeled “Green Veg 136” and foil bags of pizza crackers, and as they prepared to move forward, a latecomer tried to slip into the front of the line.
“Hey!” someone yelled, pointing.
“That woman skipped her place!” yelled a woman from the back.
“Everyone is going to get the same — no more, no less!” yelled another, and as the woman retreated to the back of the line, a volunteer yelled out: “All right! Bring ’em all through!”
“Please, have your bag open!” a man yelled through a bullhorn. “Move the line!”
An elderly woman fumbled to open her bag quickly, while a man in work boots behind her opened his shopping bag, while a volunteer yelled “C’mon,” while in the nearby parking lot, Daniel Barber watched for a moment, checked his clipboard and headed off to deliver the rest of 4,000 meals provided by the celebrity chef José Andrés, best known for feeding victims of natural disasters.
“People don’t understand the magnitude,” said Barber, a public housing tenant leader, who was trying to get an accurate count of how many residents had died of the virus, and in which buildings.
He drove through one neighborhood after another — streets without traffic, metal grates over shuttered shops, everything empty except for the lines at the bodega, the Western Union, the laundromat.
“Man,” he said, seeing one that stretched a whole block.
His phone rang. It was a woman from another housing project waiting on the meals.
“My line’s getting long,” the woman told him.
“Aye, aye, captain,” Barber said, and soon he pulled up in the driveway, where the woman who had called, Dana Elden, had been waiting in the longest line of all, the invisible line of citizens waiting for the city, the state, the federal government or someone to care about what was happening in a community where the number of virus deaths was proportionately higher than anywhere in the nation.
“Why has there yet to be any formal testing in this area with all these developments?” Elden said. “Why can’t they set up a tent here? Because black and brown people don’t matter to them.” She watched Barber unloading the meals, her sense of gratitude equal to the fury she felt toward leaders she felt had failed her neighbors.
“Thank you, Danny!” she called out as he left, and people inched forward with their opened bags, and the afternoon inched forward toward so many doors with orange cones marking the start of more lines.
At the end of the ATM line — 12 people — on Melrose Avenue was an unemployed delivery truck driver.
“I think the lines are getting longer,” observed Jose Marte.
In the middle of a line outside a pharmacy on 149th — 47 people — was a math professor sitting in a plastic chair.
“You can’t beat it, you can’t fight it,” he said, then noticed the line moving slightly.
He struggled to stand. He picked up his chair. He placed it back down on the other side of the next piece of worn blue tape. He sat down and looked around at the life on the street.
A homeless man staggered by. Another asked for money. Health-care workers from the nearby hospital were changing shifts and lining up at a bodega for jerk chicken, where the cashier informed one woman, “The doctors came earlier and bought it all,” and meanwhile, back at the pharmacy, an employee came outside at 5:30 with an announcement for the line.
“If you’re in line for the pharmacy, from this point on, the pharmacy is closed,” she said in a monotone, and the formerly placid face of China Rodriguez dissolved.
“I thought you close at 6!” she yelled through her mask.
“We do, but this line is longer than 6,” said the worker.
“But I’ve been waiting here since 4:15! I’m trying to get medicine for my father! He had a heart attack!” said Rodriguez, who worked nights cleaning medical offices, and was on her day off the designated line-stander for her elderly parents. “Damn. This is how people lose their cool.”
A few doors down, the line for the wholesale liquor store was at 54 and growing.
A single mom was behind a postal worker behind a health-care worker who’d just finished another shift and had been waiting 30 minutes so far for some Grey Goose.
“It won’t be long now,” he told himself.
“Five go out, five go in,” said the postal worker, Earl Commador, but way down at the end of the line, things were degenerating.
“Nobody’s following the protocol!” said Charise Green, trying to keep her composure. “Nobody is six feet!”
“Look at that guy!” said her friend, pointing to a young man who’d just joined the line. “No gloves. No mask.”
Around the corner, the line for the Aldi discount grocery store was 71, now 72, now 73, and as the sun was setting, Jay Lewis, a dance instructor who had not yet eaten breakfast, looked behind him at all the faces.
“This is kind of how I imagined the End Times to be,” he said. “That’s what it feels like.”
The man behind him, José Alvarez, was listening.
“We just have to hold on,” he said. “This is what it is. This is what it’s going to be.”
They stopped talking. They had to get through the line. Someone was smoking. Someone was standing too close. Someone was walking up and down the line hawking Advil and Aleve. Some kids rode by on bikes and popped wheelies. Some pigeons fought over a scrap of bread, and meanwhile, the line inched toward the next strip of yellow tape, the next orange cone, a few feet more, a few minutes and hours more, sun shifting, time passing.
Nearby, a woman wearing two masks, ski goggles and rubber gloves pressed her face to a storefront window. She had already stood in line for groceries, the bank, the discount store, and this was the last line of the day.
“They told me to wait out here,” said Katherine Torres.
It was a health clinic. She was waiting on her mother, who was inside trying to see if she could get a test for the virus. She was a home health aide and had all the symptoms. The fever, the cough, the fatigue, and in a place where lines were everywhere now, she was in the most critical one of all. It was almost dark, and Torres looked again through the window.
“We’ll just wait,” she said.