Maude Lechner ’23 is in the eye of the hurricane.
Maude lives in an apartment on 110th Street in Manhattan, near Broadway — the epicenter of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Outside her window, what was once a “terrifically crowded” street has completely emptied out, leaving maybe one person and one car.
“There’s a palpable atmosphere of fear,” she said. Social distancing is law, and if one New Yorker gets too close to another, “there will be a visual anger,” she added.
Jack Lechner, a film professor at Columbia University and Maude’s father, challenged the usual stereotype of the unfriendly New Yorker. Testifying to the strength of the city’s community, he finds that the current reality of social distancing feels foreign. While Maude praises her home as “the greatest city in the world,” neither she nor her father recognize it anymore.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last Thursday that the state’s hospitals will exhaust their ventilator stockpile in six days. On Saturday, 1000 ventilators sent from the Chinese government will arrive at the John F. Kennedy International Airport. Jack personally knows multiple people who have been hospitalized due to COVID-19, though most of them were admitted before supplies were depleted.
On Maude’s street, healthcare workers are lauded as heroes. At 7 p.m. every night, residents of buildings on the block stick their heads out of their windows to applaud for hospital staff, sometimes clanging cowbells.
Maude structures her days around a desire for normalcy. She goes for walks at sunrise, attends Zoom classes, makes herself the ever-durable Progresso soup for lunch and takes up knitting. She’s also working on a middle grade novel she’s been writing for years, about an intelligent young girl who is kidnapped by circus pirates. She is “completing it in leaps and bounds,” she said, and reading it aloud to her parents, who consider it a bright spot in their day.
Sometimes, though, she has no choice but to confront the dark circumstances.
“I’m beginning to enter a strange realm of unreality where I forget why I’m still in this apartment,” she admitted.
Maude fears for her parents’ health, thinking often of the medical supplies shortage and her father’s immunocompromised status. The recently opened field hospital in Central Park reminds her just how dire this crisis is. So do the grocery stores, which are missing supplies like yeast, gloves, and of course, toilet paper.
“I don’t want to think about what happens when one of us gets infected, because then all of us get infected. If one of my parents gets it, I’m not sure that they’ll get the kind of care that they need,” Maude said.
As a college student, Maude is also concerned about the imminent reality of graduating into an economic recession or depression. In the more immediate future, she hopes she will find a way to maintain friendships she had only just begun developing on campus. There is a profound sense of unfinished business.
“I often feel kind of worried that I’m missing key periods of time in my college life that I can use to bond with people,” she said. She brought up Yale’s transient social culture: “I miss saying to people ‘let’s get a meal’ and then not getting a meal.”
In the city, there are glimmers of hope and ingenuity. Both Lechners said they were inspired by Invisible Hands, an effort to deliver groceries and medicine to at-risk New Yorkers spearheaded by Yalie Liam Elkind ’21. Now, people are sitting on their stoops to talk to each other from across the street, sewing masks by hand and performing Broadway shows from their apartments.
More than ever, the closeness of one’s family is a privilege. Maude cohabitates peacefully with her parents. Her father spends half his days on Zoom now, teaching, grading papers and doing an occasional crossword puzzle. Mostly, he feels lucky for his continued employment, knowing multiple friends who have already lost their livelihoods.
“Fortunately, we get along really well in this house, and we also have two pets who are blissfully happy,” said Jack, showing the family pug Ponty to the camera.
Yet nothing is the same as it was before. The Lechners are proceeding through their lives with unprecedented caution, acutely aware of just how much there is to lose. When they walk the dog, they wear gloves and wash his feet after coming back, just in case someone spits on the sidewalk. That happens sometimes in their neighborhood.
The two of them smile often, especially when they talk about Maude’s novel or the dog. They demonstrate that it might be possible to find moments of joy in this dystopian reality. But that doesn’t make the present any less terrifying.
As for the future, all remains uncertain. Discussing when the pandemic might come to an end, Maude’s family made no predictions.
“I don’t feel like I can afford to be optimistic at this point,” Jack said. “I really need to steer clear of the virus.”
Ella Goldblum | email@example.com
This story is part of a larger series profiling Yale and New Haven community members during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more, click here.