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  1. FEATURE: Home, Sick Home

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    Two blocks south of Yale New Haven Hospital, a 10-year-old boy named Jaden* coughed and wheezed in his Section 8 apartment. When the downstairs neighbors smoked, cigarette fumes floated through the air vent into the living room. Black mold stained the carpet floor, spreading into the bedrooms where three children slept. The floor’s dense knots of carpet fibers, dust and mold spores offered a breeding ground for dust mites and cockroach eggs. The walls, after years of soaking up trapped carpet moisture, were damp to the touch.

    These poor housing conditions turned Jaden’s apartment into a petri dish of asthma triggers. For people with asthma, small particles such as pollutants, mold and dust could set off an asthma attack, where the airways swell up and fill with mucus. In severe cases, without enough airflow to make any audible sound, the lips turn blue and the heart rate slows down enough to require emergency care. In each of the five years that Jaden had lived in his apartment, he had rushed to the emergency room once or twice for asthma attacks.

    Hospitalizations, however, were not enough to alleviate Jaden’s asthma. Jaden used his inhaler properly and took his medicine regularly — his mom made sure of it. Following doctors’ recommendations, Jaden gave up his favorite hobbies of basketball and football. Jaden’s mom juggled working a part-time job, cleaning the apartment of asthma triggers and keeping up with Jaden’s medical appointments. But after each hospital visit, Jaden still returned to his main asthma trigger — a carpet floor of mold.

    MORE THAN A BREATHING PROBLEM

    According to the National Center for Healthy Housing, around 30 percent of asthma cases are linked to home environmental features, such as mold spores, dust mites, tobacco smoke, rat feces and cockroach shedding. These triggers are especially prevalent in disrepaired homes, as roof leaks build up moisture for mold growth, faulty ventilation causes dust and pollutants to proliferate and cracked floors leave potential openings for rats and cockroaches. Given that low-income families are more likely to live in poor-quality housing with asthma triggers, asthma is more than just a health problem — it is also a poverty and housing problem.

    Alice Rosenthal, an attorney that specializes in medical issues of low-income families, set out to investigate Jaden’s substandard housing and address the root cause of his asthma. Rosenthal works with the Center for Children’s Advocacy in New Haven, a legal rights nonprofit for vulnerable children. At no charge to families, Rosenthal informs and advocates for their children’s rights, and, in one-tenth of her cases, represents them in court.

    After spending only one hour in Jaden’s apartment, Rosenthal said that she couldn’t breathe. She instinctively wanted to sue the landlord for violating health and safety standards — a lawsuit could force the landlord to replace the moldy carpets. 

    Jaden’s mother, however, objected. She told Rosenthal that she still needed to maintain her relationship with the landlord in order to have a home at all. If Jaden’s family complained, the landlord could retaliate by adding them to the tenant blacklist, jeopardizing their chances of finding future housing. In a state where there are only 41 affordable homes for every 100 extremely low-income rental households, the risk of losing their home was too great. Managing Jaden’s asthma meant not only facing medical procedures, but also poor housing conditions, powerful landlords and a lack of safe and affordable housing.

    POOR HOUSING, POOR HEALTH

    In Connecticut, both asthma and housing are serious issues. According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Connecticut has the second highest childhood asthma rate in the nation. In 2018, nearly one out of every 10 children in the state had asthma.

    Moreover, asthma disparities run rampant. Connecticut’s five largest cities — Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Stamford and Waterbury — have 3.4 times more asthma-related hospitalizations than the rest of the state. These cities make up only 18 percent of the state population, but account for 44 percent of all asthma hospital costs.

    The disparities persist on the city level. New Haven has the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the state. In Jaden’s neighborhood, the Hill, the rate of asthma ED visits and hospitalizations is 436 children per 10,000 residents. Three miles north in East Rock, however, the number falls to 97 children per 10,000 residents. In other words, a child living in the Hill has over quadruple the risk of asthma hospitalization than a child living in East Rock. 

    According to Rosenthal and Benjamin Oldfield, a pediatrician for patients with asthma, the culprits behind Connecticut’s high asthma rates are environmental factors — air pollution, smoking and poor rental conditions.

    In New Haven, half of the housing stock was built more than 80 years ago, and over 70 percent of units are rentals. The bulk of New Haven’s affordable housing stock is owned by a handful of landlord giants, who own property through limited liability companies. Behind a shield of LLC protections, landlords are rarely held accountable for housing violations.

    As such, most cases of housing neglect go unresolved. In a Healthy Homes assessment, the CDC found that a typical home in Connecticut had 14 housing deficiencies, from broken fans to poor ventilation. The most common issues were wall-to-wall carpeting that traps moisture, visible mold growth and mice, cockroaches, rats or bedbugs — all of which are serious asthma triggers.

    Jaden’s home is not an isolated case, but part of a larger trend. There have been many cases in New Haven alone:

    In February 2018, a 115-year-old cracked pipe in the Norton Towers Apartments leaked mold from the fourth floor to the basement. A 7-year-old girl went to the ICU three times for asthma attacks that were believed to be caused by the building’s mold.

    In May 2019, black mold and soggy ceilings forced a family out of their apartment on Truman Street. The mother suffered asthma attacks from breathing in mouse droppings and mildew.

    In January 2020, Robert T. Wolfe Apartments were infested with mice and insects. Residents had been complaining about leaky roofs, cracks and mold for years, but their concerns were never addressed.

    Most notorious is the demolished-by-neglect Church Street South complex, which locals dubbed “Asthma Central.” Built in 1969, the 301-unit complex consisted of 22 flat-roof, concrete buildings and housed around 1,000 low-income adults and children. It was designed to knit downtown New Haven with Union Station in a “civilized urban environment [with] much to study and enjoy,” as architectural historian Elizabeth Mills Brown once described it.

    Fifty years later, however, the complex had deteriorated from decades of poor maintenance. According to a 2018 survey by Yale School of Medicine professor Carrie Redlich, over 90 percent of the apartments reported mold and structural damage. Nearly all surveyed children reported respiratory problems, and one in two children had physician-diagnosed asthma. The correlation between its deplorable housing conditions and high rates of asthma were likely no coincidence.

    “[New Haven] is one of the oldest communities in America, so we have a really old housing stock,” said Rosenthal. “Most of housing in New Haven is rentals, and we have some really big slumlords. Put that together in a pot, and you get a lot of poor housing conditions that I think are exacerbating children’s asthma.”

    A RIPPLE EFFECT

    In order to alleviate Jaden’s asthma, Rosenthal knew that she needed to combat the landlords causing his poor living conditions. Respecting Jaden’s mother’s decision not to sue, Rosenthal instead sent warnings of court involvement if the landlord refused to make mold repairs. Over the next several months, Rosenthal teamed up with Jaden’s pediatrician and pulmonologist to issue repeated threats of legal housing complaints. They sent demand letters, requesting action for a legal offense. By ignoring the black mold that has festered in Jaden’s home for decades, the landlord was in part responsible for exacerbating Jaden’s asthma, a protected condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act. After her first few demand letters went ignored, Rosenthal threatened to appeal to get the federal office of Housing and Urban Development involved. 

    It took six months of fighting for the landlord to get maintenance to remove the moldy carpets from Jaden’s apartment.

    Shortly after, Jaden weaned off his dosage of asthma medications. He attended more days of school, and resumed basketball and football. With less time spent on managing Jaden’s asthma, Jaden’s mom gained a full-time job as an administrative assistant for the Yale New Haven Hospital.

    “There’s a ripple effect,” said Rosenthal. “We improved his housing, which improved his health, which allowed him to go back to school, which allowed his mom to work, and everyone is happier.”

    Jaden’s case, however, was an exception. For most landlords, demand letters simply roll off like raindrops off a roof.

    HELD BACK BY FEAR

    Benjamin Oldfield, a pediatrician at Fair Haven Community Health Care, writes letters to landlords as routinely as prescriptions to patients. Despite his gentle nature, Oldfield isn’t afraid to make biting charges against predatory landlords. As a practitioner of holistic care, part of his medical duties is to ensure that his patients have healthy homes in addition to healthy treatment. 

    The Fair Haven Community Health Care center on Grand Avenue is known as a Hogar Médico, or a “Medical Home.” The clinic resembles a Victorian-style house and is lodged across a row of Spanish-themed mom-and-pop stores. Under one roof, grandchildren and grandparents alike get comprehensive care from immunizations to colonoscopies. The clinic welcomes everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. According to Oldfield, about one-quarter of his patients are undocumented and uninsured.

     

    Credit: Fair Haven Community Health Care

     

    Asthma is one of the most common conditions seen at the clinic, requiring check-ups every three months. When a child’s breathing is impaired by mold and other poor housing conditions, Oldfield issues demand letters to the landlord, hoping his medical clout will convince the landlord to make home remediations. At the end of every letter, he leaves his contact information and an invitation to brainstorm solutions.

    More often than not, however, the demand letter fails to get passed to the landlord. The letter must be transferred by the patient, who is often low-income or undocumented and holds no position to make demands from landlords with high-priced lawyers. Much like Jaden’s mother’s reluctance to sue, Oldfield’s patients are also hesitant to deliver his demand letters due to fears of eviction, unwanted attention and deportation.

    “They’re vulnerable across many layers,” said Oldfield. “If the landlord decided to kick them out, then they have no legal recourse.”

    Housing remediations are also no small demand. According to Rosenthal, a professional mold removal can cost up to $20,000. If the apartment is low-income and federally subsidized, that money has to come out of the landlord’s pocket.

    Luckily, asthma attacks can often be prevented by simple measures in the home.

    INTERVENING IN THE HOME

    Oldfield had a 17-year-old patient, Chris*, who suffered from asthma since his early childhood. When his family moved into a new apartment, Chris’ asthma worsened. Oldfield tried upping his asthma regimen to three medications per day, but Chris’ chest still tightened even while sitting still. Suspecting that the abrupt increase in asthma flare-ups was due to a housing change, Oldfield referred Chris to Putting on AIRS, a state-funded asthma intervention program that checks people’s homes for asthma triggers.

    Betty Murphy, the program coordinator of Putting on AIRS, is a mastermind at connecting the medical and environmental pieces of health. With almost 40 years of public health experience under her belt, she strives to dedicate her last few years before retirement to helping families with asthma. She works seven days per week and visits homes across three districts in Connecticut. Murphy has every symptom of a workaholic, except that she works not from a compulsion to be busy all the time, but because she “love, love, loves” her job.

    Putting on AIRS works like a team of detectives, with Murphy at the lead. During home visits, the team looks for hints of what could be exacerbating the child’s asthma. The asthma educator assesses the family to see if they can properly administer the inhaler medication. The environmentalist searches for potential home triggers, from bathroom mold to left-out cereal boxes that might attract cockroaches. Murphy reviews the doctor’s orders and information collected from home visits to map out an intervention that educates the family, addresses home triggers and informs the doctor’s treatment plan.

    “Asthma is never one thing,” said Murphy. “You can fix the environment, but if you’re not taking the medications, your asthma won’t get better.”

    During Chris’ home visit, the asthma educator helped make sure that he followed the appropriate medication procedures. The environmentalist, however, found cigarette fumes flowing into Chris’ apartment. Unlike Chris’ old smoke-free apartment, his new apartment permitted smoking, and both of his neighbors smoked. To help purify the air, Murphy ordered air filters to be installed and directed the family to close their windows from smoke.

    After installing air filters, Chris did not have any serious asthma attacks for 4 months, a new record for the year.

    “It’s not a slam-dunk total success, but it shows that home interventions could change the course of asthma, potentially more so than medication can,” said Oldfield.

    Simple fixes such as air filters cost less than $100 to purchase, but can save hundreds of dollars in hospital costs. A CDC evaluation found that home visits for asthma can reduce hospitalizations by 87 percent and missed school days by 82 percent. For every 100 participants, there was a net savings of over $26,000 from prevented emergency visits.

    Still, the home visits are limited by resources, funding and poverty. Putting on AIRS is fully funded by the CDC at no cost to families, and most repairs are little tweaks or behavioral nudges, like providing plastic bins to help families store items and prevent dust accumulation. According to Murphy, they can only install air filters if the state budget allows for it, which varies from year to year. This means that Chris was able to get air filters as a state donation, not a state obligation. A $20,000 mold removal, which many low-income housing units need after decades of neglect, would likely be out of the question.

    AN UPHILL BATTLE

    Small interventions are also parried by small obstacles, and for people in poverty, these obstacles are confronted on a daily basis. Even though Murphy pulls the strings on asthma home interventions, there is still an endless stream of factors outside of her control. The child’s only caregiver could be addicted to smoking, which disproportionately affects low-income communities. Parents often cannot afford to take time off work to take their children to the clinic if it closes before 5 p.m. If the family gets evicted, then past home interventions are rendered useless, and the child may get exposed to a swath of new asthma triggers found outdoors and in homeless shelters.

    Dorothy Novick, a pediatrician who sees low-income patients with asthma at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, compared “treating poverty” to “treating cancer.” Even when all cancer treatment options get exhausted, by the unstable nature of the disease, some children still die from cancer.

    “Poverty is very much the same way. You do everything there is to do, but there are situations where poverty is bigger than you,” said Novick. “I feel as passionate and concerned about my patients as ever. But there are times my efforts feel futile because of how little we as a society invest in our most vulnerable communities.”

    Connecticut’s health system has taken multiple innovative approaches to asthma, such as Rosenthal’s medical-legal partnership, Oldfield’s medical home model and Murphy’s home visiting program. The Yale Center for Asthma and Airway Disease boasts “world class medical treatment to asthmatics” on their website. Still, these interventions are only band-aids to the systemic issues at the root of asthma disparities. They don’t fix the unlivable housing conditions in segregated, low-income neighborhoods of color, level the power imbalances between landlords and tenants, nor curb the unaffordable costs of safe housing and health care. Such fixes require policy change that makes housing and health care available to everyone, especially families that are financially and politically disenfranchised.

    Although Jaden and Chris’ asthma improved with their housing, their stories are the rare exceptions. Rosenthal still has clients who eat dinner on gnawed tables and sleep with mice scuttling over their blankets. To avoid lawsuits, landlords will claim to “fix” asthma triggers by painting toxic bleach over black mold or tossing a few snap-traps in homes littered with crumbly rat feces. Oldfield still has yet to hear back from a single landlord of his undocumented patients. And Murphy is often unable to help families who work multiple jobs and cannot afford to take time off work for home visits.

    “People shouldn’t live like that,” said Rosenthal. “If housing was a right and health care was a right, I think we’d be a lot better off.”

     

    *Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.

  2. POETRY: Interrupted Connection

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    The press of our Uber driver’s ankle
    has sent us to a part of town where
    traffic lights sleepily blink green.
    Where roses are hung from every
    street lamp. And every person outside
    actively participates in happiness.
    I do too, my head out the window,
    hoping for eye contact. Just how
    I don’t spend a single night by myself
    because I’m scared it will never have
    existed. I named her Heaven so I could say
    she’s my little Heaven, he’s saying about
    his daughter as he merges his car. How
    can you hear something like that and not
    smile in sympathy? All three of us are
    sitting in the back, smiling silly at this
    little revelation. He seems so decent I could cry.
    I know he has nothing in common with
    the old man on the street who called me
    a fucking bitch last week. But in the second
    before he introduced himself to us, I couldn’t know.

    We ask him more about his Heaven.
    Her horoscope. Her type of humor.
    What she has been up to lately.
    She’s always had a thing for acting.
    We decided to let her pursue it.
    As a parent, you have to at least try.
    I am looking out the window,
    choked up for no good.
    Did you hear that?
    He says you have to at least try.
    When my best friend’s father died,
    you told me it was unfashionable
    to claim another’s grief as your own—
    apparently, Prophet Muhammad once
    said too much grief is obscene.
    That is why I almost hated him.
    At least try to pull yourself together,
    he’s still talking about his daughter.

    She’s my best friend, my little angel.
    She has this thing she does where
    she’ll pause mid-sentence, and
    rediscover what she wanted to say.
    I think I said, She sounds so special,
    and I meant it. Do you see that?
    The sky, bruised with deep-set
    clouds. Orange. And red. And pink.
    If Dad were an Uber driver,
    I wonder if he would talk about me.
    If he were an Uber driver,
    would girls distrust him?
    You think I want to be like this?
    You think I don’t want to know
    the man who drives me home?
    The people who feed me?
    You, the woman who raised me?

    His heavy ankle hums the car to a pause.
    We’re in front of my apartment complex.
    Well, you girls take care. I’ll tell Heaven
    about you three. She’ll be so happy to hear
    you asked about her. I don’t know what
    this man thinks about when he drives away.
    Maybe about the Elmer’s Glue he has to
    buy for Heaven’s science project.
    The piano chords he’s been practicing
    and how Heaven bops her head to them.
    And I could imagine every tippy-toed parent
    hanging up fairy lights, every tomato-souped child
    at a dinner table, and I am thinking about
    how the body is love’s witness, how our bodies
    are blissful when they’re half ours, and half not,
    our arms wrapped through another’s,
    your hand placed on me.

    So now I am thinking about how you sat, many years ago,
    on a grease-stained couch, your ribs straining against
    the pressure of your pregnant stomach. I was so young
    you didn’t want me to see you like that, so you
    softly touched my temple and told me to leave.

    Who named a bone a temple?
    Who could be that kind?

  3. HUMOR: A Day on Capitol Hill 

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    In a dreary hearing room, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices staged its first public inquiry. At the center of an elevated, U-shaped table sat Chairman Santé. Though a renowned immunologist, his presence was rather understated. In fact, he looked like a small bird. From his perch, Santé squinted his black eyes, pursed his lips and swiveled his head about the room with anxious, twitching movements. To his left sat the Executive Secretary, Dr. Klein, who had her head buried in a dense procedural handbook. And on either side of the Chairman sat a bored-looking group of researchers and doctors — who were unrecognizable as such, having forgotten their white coats and stethoscopes. Rousing the committee members and quieting the hearing’s spectators, Santé briskly knocked his gavel.

    “We are gathered here today,” he began in a shrill voice. 

    “Uh, Mr. Chairman,” Dr. Klein nervously interjected. The Chairman abruptly turned and narrowed his beady eyes at the Secretary.

    Nearly whispering, Dr. Klein continued, “According to Subsection A-1 of Clause No. 2 in the parliamentary procedure handbook, you must first motion to open the public inquiry session, which a two-thirds majority of committee members must then approve.” 

    Grimacing, Dr. Santé obliged. His motion nearly failed, however, as several doctors were busily doodling on their prescription pads. Dr. Jones drew an elaborate mandala, Dr. Tobin sketched a portrait of Mandela and Dr. Vazquez, marveling at his newfound ambidexterity, traced his own hands.

    “This committee is gathered today to determine the order in which the novel pandemic vaccine will be distributed,” the Chairman recommenced. “Though we favor geriatric frontline workers…I’m sorry…geriatrics and frontline workers, this is a democracy. So, the testimony of several interest groups will be considered. First to state their case for priority access to the vaccine, the representative of—” 

    ALL in favor of welcoming the representative of the New York Union of Social Media Influencers,” Secretary Klein cut in. She was now more confident about the urgency of her procedural responsibilities, and smiled triumphantly after the committee members’ hands were counted.

    Summer Bliss, the union president, approached the podium. Summer wore a stiff latex dress, emblazoned with the Kirkland logo. The outfit was part of a paid promotion to boost the sale of plastic straws, which, according to Kirkland’s market research, Gen-Z was heartlessly abandoning in favor of more “sustainable” alternatives. But unless Ms. Bliss remained perfectly still, the dress produced a rubbery sound, unfortunately amplified by the committee chamber’s vaulted ceiling. Careful to minimize any avoidable latex squeaking, Summer took slow, deliberate steps toward the podium, inching forward as if waiting in a crowded line visible only to herself. 

    Whispering among themselves, the committee members puzzled over Summer’s appearance. As she could no longer constitute herself through pixels, Summer’s “luxury minimalist” online aesthetic seemed to disintegrate before their eyes. The brave union leader had dropped her overflowing purse to the floor in a desperate attempt to locate and silence her cell phone, from which an obnoxious chorus of dings and pings had begun to sound. Spilling out of her bag, several portable UV lights — which served the dual function of self-tanner and germicidal lamp — loudly rolled toward the committee table. 

    “Shoot! My Malibu Dream Antimicrobial Bronzing Lamps, 10 percent off with code ‘SUMMER,’” cried the influencer. She concealed a grin with her hands — she knew her subtle product placement would earn her a generous kickback. Critics had called the business of Ms. Bliss and her influencer associates “pandemic profiteering,” but Summer preferred to think of it more optimistically: as her ticket to Cabo. 

    Still miles from the podium, however, Summer realized that her rubber gown did not support bending or crouching or crawling. Unable to collect her scattered belongings, the phone continued to ring, and Summer was paralyzed — rendered incapable of making her case. 

    “NEXT!” cawed Chairman Santé. Though he appeared no taller, the irate doctor was now standing in his chair. 

    “I think you mean, all in favor of escorting Ms. Summer Bliss to her nearest exit?” Secretary Klein chirped. “I cite Clause No. 15, Subsection B-4 — Formal Proceedings for the Removal of Incapacitated Guests.” Santé firmly pressed his lips together, as if to contain hot steam, and dabbed at the vapor collecting on his forehead. Wary of the aggravated Chairman, and perhaps sympathetic to Ms. Bliss — who was still marooned between the podium and the door — not a single representative stepped forward. 

    Seizing this opportunity for self-advocacy, however, four Malayan tigers entered the hearing room and prowled toward the podium. As they were not earlier permitted to sit in the public viewing area, the tigers expressed their vexation through the sinuous motion of their tails. The lead tiger, though, was apparently well versed in diplomacy. With a low growl, he calmed his agitated siblings, who proceeded to follow him in a neat single file. Despite the tigers’ reformed behavior, Chairman Santé loudly banged his gavel — which, upon closer inspection, was very clearly a lobster mallet. The doctor was particularly displeased by the big cats’ presence, as he suffered violent reactions to feline allergens. 

    “If you wish to be heard, puh-lease remember your etiquette. And do stand several paws behind the podium,” Chairman Santé sighed. Though tigers were not usual guests, the committee, a decade ago, had allowed the H1N1 swines a platform to defend themselves. For this reason, Santé concluded that it would only be fair to hear the tigers’ case. 

    Excusing himself, the lead tiger stood on his hind legs and neatly crossed his front paws over the podium. He then introduced himself and his cohort: They hailed from the Bronx Zoo, where, several months ago, they’d caught the virus from poorly mannered schoolchildren who’d coughed into their enclosures. Of course, the tiger spoke in his native tongue — a pleasant medley of meowing and growling. But the chairman, groaning, could not speak tiger. (Language instruction is often excluded from epidemiology curricula.) 

    “INTERPRETER!” Santé called. Despite the Chairman’s expectations, a tiger translator did not suddenly materialize before him. Woefully unprepared for the felines’ visit, the committee was forced to ask the spectators if any among them spoke tiger. One woman, a journalist for The Washington Post, had about a year’s worth of lessons, but this would be insufficient to communicate the tigers’ case. Still, the journalist knew just enough to politely ask the tigers if they would please step away from the podium until a professional interpreter could be located. Purring their assent, the big cats filed into the first row of spectator seating. In the meantime, perhaps to encourage more spectators to testify, Dr. Klein introduced a procedural amendment.

    “This advisory committee warmly invites, and deeply appreciates, the testimony of any member of the public — provided, of course, that they agree to release and discharge said committee from liability arising from the large feline predators seated in the first row, behind the podium,” Dr. Klein read from a legal pad. 

    An enthusiastic knocking at the door seemed to suggest that the Secretary’s indemnification clause had greatly reassured the public. Facilitating the entrance of the committee’s next guest, a guard pried open both sides of the hearing room’s double doors. In strict adherence to pandemic safety regulations, the man at the door wore a thick wooden disk with a six-foot radius. Strapped to his shoulders with bungee cords, the disk extended from his body at the level of his waist, ensuring he was socially distanced from any passerby. Though terribly obtrusive, the disk, at least, doubled as a purse: Its wooden face could open, revealing a hollow space suitable for the storage of groceries, accessories and even a small child. Apart from the disk, the newcomer’s appearance was otherwise unremarkable, save for his circular glasses. Each lens was covered by a large plastic googly eye. Despite his obstructed vision, the man navigated the aisle unassisted, stopping exactly an inch before his disk reached the podium. As if witnessing a miracle worthy of canonization, the spectators oohed and aahed at the man. 

    “I’ll have some order here, if it’s my dying wish!” cried the Chairman. Santé was unable to share in the crowd’s excitement: The tigers’ grooming had released dander into the air, bringing painful hives to the surface of his skin. 

    “Agreed!” Dr. Klein inserted. “Sir, please state your name, age, residence, occupation and favorite color, for the official record.” 

    “I am Sebastiano Adalberto Pietrapennato Montecorvino,” he began, in a thick Italian accent. “I’m 47, reside in New York, serve as a pandemic backline worker, and I quite like the color clear.” 

    “A backline worker? Could you clarify?” asked an intrigued committee member, whose colleagues seemed more interested in determining whether “clear” could indeed be a color.

    “Why, of course! It’s why I speak to you all today,” the Italian exclaimed, gesturing with pursed fingers. “The media, the politicians…they only talk of frontline workers. But it’s us backliners, working behind the scenes, who are curbing the spread. We need early access to this vaccine to continue our efforts,” Mr. Montecorvino explained. The plastic pupils of his googly eyes frantically tracked with the nodding of his head, giving him a deranged, cross-eyed expression. 

    “And how do you go about this work?” asked the Chairman, pinching his nose to withhold a tiger-induced sneeze. 

    “Allow me to demonstrate,” replied the backliner. Removing a key from his shirt pocket, Mr. Montecorvino unlocked a compartment on the face of his disk. From this hollow space, he produced a cast iron pan and a glass vial containing a live beetle. 

    “We’ve developed a sterilizing strategy with 100 percent efficacy,” the man boasted. “Our logic is quite simple, really: If you can squish a bug, you can also squish a viral bug!” Raising the pan above his head, Mr. Montecorvino brought the cookware down with surprising speed, smashing the glass-enclosed insect. The man clarified that the committee members would require a microscope to observe this phenomenon at the cellular level, but promised that the technique was effective even at breaking atoms into quarks. 

    While the medical researchers on the advisory committee feigned knowledge of the Montecorvino methodology, they were actually dumbstruck. With their hands, several doctors concealed their mouths, which they were unable to keep from forming tiny O’s as round as the man’s portable disk. Whispering among themselves, the researchers wondered whether their scientific hubris had blinded them, pushing them to develop ever more complicated chemical disinfectant formulations. Perhaps virus-killing could be as simple as a whack on the head. 

    Though primarily focused on their campaign of decontamination and prevention (bug-smashing), the backliners comprised an internationally coordinated scientific vanguard. Perhaps the medical revolution would not be televised, but WhatsApp groups transcending borders (and the outdated values of empirical thought) would record the backliners’ many innovations. One of Montecorvino’s colleagues, a Brazilian woman, had just demonstrated the therapeutic benefits of self-administered concussions: pandemic-induced anxiety can be easily remedied by temporary incapacitation, she claimed in earnest. And another of the Italian backliner’s comrades, hailing from Iceland, had recently praised the curative properties of a diluted solution of Clorox and mosquito repellent. The unorthodox medicine not only halted viral replication, but also (anecdotally) alleviated back pain, eliminated signs of aging and cured color blindness.

    “Any instrument will suffice to squish the bug! Even your hand!” Mr. Montecorvino added, his voice rising over the excited hum of the committee’s doctors. He then mimed the action of virus-slaying with a spatula and a gavel he’d removed from his disk’s seemingly bottomless storage compartment.

    Though Chairman Santé had been distractedly applying hydrocortisone to his inflamed skin, his alert, colorless eyes darted to Mr. Montecorvino’s gavel. Reminded of his own dinky lobster mallet, the twin forces of jealousy and anger brought the Chairman once more to his full (unimpressive) stature.

    “How dare you imitate my authority!” squawked Dr. Santé. Fury infecting his every limb, the Chairman wildly flapped his short arms at his side, as if doing so might elevate him to a more imposing height.

    At this point, the hungry tigers could no longer ignore the parallels between the chairman and the savory birds of their dreams. Had the lead tiger the opportunity to state his case, his refinement would have floored the hearing room. But now, rapacity devoured his noble intentions: He viciously pounced onto the chairman’s chest, in unison with his siblings. Though they would return to the Bronx Zoo without a vaccine, much to the chagrin of the apes and elephants, the tigers would at least be well fed: Ms. Summer Bliss, still ensnared in her own gown, would make for easy prey. At the very least, the influencer would not die in vain: The multipurpose ultraviolet lights she’d been hired to promote would soon be trending as college dorm room decor. 

    As the beasts gulped down her co-committee member, Dr. Klein attempted to reimpose order over the doctors, who were fleeing alongside the spectator-evacuees. (The Secretary had always rued a meeting concluded without the appropriate procedural motions.) Her efforts, however, were futile, as she was inaudible over the Chairman’s screams. Sighing, she also acknowledged that she was powerless to save her colleague, for the zoo animals could not be distracted from their feast. At the very least, Dr. Klein reasoned, she could save the meeting minutes. Scribbling a few lines onto her legal pad, she promptly exited the hearing room. 

    Still no early authorization vaccine candidates identified. Meeting duration: 26 minutes.

  4. LAND ART: 40.6949° N, 74.0017° W

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    Witnessing the first snowfall of the year in New York City was magnificent and humbling, especially for a kid from Texas. Time seemed to slow, the sounds of the city softened, and all cars, rooftops and sidewalks were covered in white. Sitting by the window in Brooklyn on Dec. 16, 2020, I watched one of the great metropolises of the world be consumed and completely transformed over a matter of hours. As the snow continued to fall that night, I knew I wanted to make a piece acknowledging the presence of nature in the highly urban environment of NYC.

    The next morning, I searched for a place to make the drawing and came across Pier 5 of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Three adjacent turf soccer fields now made one pristine blank canvas, with a spectacular view of Manhattan in the distance. Better yet, the snow was completely untouched, due to fencing for construction on the surrounding pier. I couldn’t have found a more ideal place. After calling an unresponsive Park Services office, convincing construction workers on their lunch break to let me into the site, getting kicked out by four Park Enforcement Patrol officers and trudging back at night in the 17-degree weather, I finally found myself standing at the upper edge of Pier 5.

    It was completely dark, with the exception of Manhattan’s skyline shining across the water. I usually make land drawings during the day, but I’ve noticed that darkness isn’t a problem when drawing at this scale — it actually allows me to see the image in my mind more clearly. My legs found traction in the thick snow, sending crisp signals to my brain at every step and gradually rendering an image of my path. I was orienting myself through touch rather than sight. As my imagination sharpened, I quickly slipped into the flow state that propelled my soaking wet boots for the next several hours.

    In this state, my body is a pencil being guided by an artist in the sky. My ego vanishes, and the body becomes a line-making device, tuned into impulses in my surroundings, modifying itself to generate the figures the artist commands. Curve: lean in with a long stride. Straight: fix left toes in direction, drag right foot for line. Sharp turn: arms tucked into chest, quick lunge. Detail: backward step with heels. Circle: arms out, duck feet and pivot…

    That night, from 11:34 p.m. to 2:29 a.m., I shuffled for nearly six miles of lines through the snow. After I finished, the whirlwind of creatures, stories, places, visions, sensations, coursing through my mind began their descent into hazy memory, and the snow began to melt. 

     

    Photo credit: Asher Liftin

     

    More of Diego Miró-Rivera’s work can be found at diegomirorivera.com.

  5. FICTION: Much of Anything

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    My name is Theo Abelson, and I live in a gray middle-class house on a street of gray middle-class houses in central Connecticut, and I’m terrified of death, not so much dying but what comes after, the nothingness, the eternity, not because I’ll feel it all but exactly because I won’t, because I won’t feel anything, because I will never think again about music and how beautiful it is, about the trees and the way they move in the summer wind, about the scent of thyme, or time, as the case may be, because I will never again feel the pain and joy and ugly wonder of life, because there will be nothing and nothing is .

    I watch from the couch as Mom puts the fish in the pan. My eyes shut fast and hard, then open again. I have Tourette syndrome, and my tics flare up when I’m feeling stressed or navigating a big transition. They’re flaring up now, not that it has to mean anything, but it probably does, because recently I’ve been thinking a lot about college, about how college means the end of childhood, even the death of childhood, and that scares me almost as much as death itself. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my gayness, which is what I call it, because something about “homosexuality” sounds trite and Reagan-y.

    I’m terrified of my gayness, maybe even more than death, not because I can’t accept myself but exactly because I can, because I can and I fear others may not, because I’m 17 and lonely and what if I always am, what if nobody wants me, what if at Yale I walk around campus, masked, a mouthless nobody, and nobody knows that I’m me, and nobody touches me or shows me how to have sex, because I’m terrified, really, not of my gayness but of its implications, of the possibility of being solitary, of being unknown, of knowing nobody, because nobody is .

    The cod sizzles in the pan. Mom throws in some preserved lemon and a few sprigs of rosemary, then sits down at the kitchen table and reads about the virus, unconsciously picking her nails. I blink and blink again, then tense my neck and breathe out forcefully.

    Mom isn’t French, but she’s a French teacher, and she raised me speaking French, so I’m sort of a French heritage speaker, but also not really, since nobody in my family is French. My French accent is impeccable and I can understand anything, but my vocabulary is limited and I forget simple words when I most need them. Mom tells me I just need to read more in French because Mom seems to think reading solves all problems, but I think I’m probably just stupid, at least with French, because I’m quite smart when it comes to other things, like math.

    I think I’m good at math. To be fair, I don’t really know whether I’m good at it, because I’ve never met anyone else good at math, except for Abhinav, but he graduated three years ago and I only talked to him once, in line for the musical, which I believe was “Shrek” that year, or maybe “Fiddler on the Roof,” I can’t remember and it doesn’t matter.

    I’m either good at math or just obsessed with it, or I guess both, but more likely one or the other, because I’m usually obsessed only with the things I can’t do, like Portuguese, although I guess you speak Portuguese, you don’t do Portuguese, unless you’re having sex with a Portuguese person, but that’s not what I meant, at least this time.

    The house smells like fish. I ask Mom if she wants to play a quick game before dinner. I don’t really want to play a game, but it’s a good way to pass the time. I’m good at math, but I’m also good at procrastinating, unbelievably good, so good that I’ve had projects I want to start for days or months or years that I manage to never start. Right now I’m trying to avoid packing for college, because I want to pack but I also don’t, because I know college will always be better in my head, nebulous, undefined, untouchable.

    Mom wants to play a quick game before dinner, or maybe I shouldn’t make that assumption, maybe it’s better just to say that she agrees to play a game, because I proposed the game and even I don’t want to play a game. She comes into the living room and smiles at me with that tired-Mom smile. Mom is tired because she’s teaching French online and because she’s nervous about the virus and because she cooks all the meals and washes all the laundry because I’m lazy and always mean to help her but never do.

    Mom is an atheist Ashkenazi Jew who says things like ganza mishpucha and ungapatchka. Yiddish is another language I want to learn because I’m Jewish but all I know is oy vey and ganza mishpucha and ungapatchka and spiel and those sorts of things. Mom has curly poofy gray hair that she’s sad is gray but she doesn’t dye it because sometimes middle-aged women come up to her on the street and tell her she’s so brave.

    Dad is also an atheist but is not an Ashkenazi Jew. Dad was raised Catholic and has a migraine, not that the two are related, or maybe they are, but either way Dad is upstairs in the queen bed curled up like a dead cod. Dad teaches English and always tells me that I need to read some James Joyce, which I’ve never done, but I think I know enough about James Joyce, like that he was Irish. Sometimes I feel guilty because I’ve never read James Joyce, but then I think about other things, like Madrid, which is where I want to live when I’m older. It’s easy not to think about James Joyce when you’re thinking about Madrid.

    Mom is here in the living room and still has the tired-Mom smile on her face, because it’s only been a second since she came in. I can think about a lot of things in a second, and sometimes I have to remind myself to focus on the real world because it’s easy to wander off in my brain. I spend a lot of time thinking up different plans for my future and imagining different possibilities, which is interesting but also sad, since I can’t live all of those different lives and soon I’m going to have to choose one and I have no idea how. I can’t be a composer and writer and activist and linguist and diplomat and mathematician who speaks French and Spanish and Arabic and Portuguese and Greek and Catalan and Basque and Quechua and lives in Madrid and Barcelona and Paris and New York and Tunis and Buenos Aires. Or maybe I could, but I wouldn’t be very happy.

    Mom and I take out our phones and start playing the game neither of us wants to play, which involves building train lines from one assigned city to another assigned city and earning points. There’s a grackle nest outside in the bush filled presumably with baby grackles, which are very loud, and the game has music that’s really twangy and all Western-like, and I’m building trains and listening to the little bird screams and banjo plucks, so naturally I start thinking about other things, like how I don’t make any sense.

    I don’t make any sense because I spend hours dreaming about living abroad and learning languages and embracing adventure, and yet the thought of starting college reduces me to a tic-ridden lump. I don’t make any sense because I hate my tics, I want them to disappear more than I want anything else, even money, and yet I’ve spent so much time with Tourette’s that I can’t quite imagine myself without it. I can imagine everything, cities and songs and stories, and yet I can’t imagine a universe in which my eyes don’t twitch. I can imagine a universe in which I have a good nose, or a universe in which I hate music, and yet I can’t imagine a universe in which I blink at regular intervals. In which I’m normal. And to be clear, I really like music, by which I mean I love music, by which I mean I’m absolutely obsessed with music and constantly hear random melodies and harmonies in my head that I have to get out by aggressively improvising at the piano. And I have a really bad nose. So clearly there’s something different about my tics.

    Sometimes I try to remember a time when I didn’t have tics, and I can’t. I know they started when I was 8 or 9, but they’ve become so central, so normal, that my most vivid memories all feature Tourettic contortions in one way or another. The first day of middle school, sitting in science class and trying to keep still as a burning desire to jerk my head to the left spread up through my neck. The night before music camp, burying my face in a pillow to stop myself from violently biting my lip. The first day of high school, running to the bathroom after orchestra to let out the furious stream of tics I’d bottled in for 50 minutes. I guess maybe I don’t hate my tics. I hate what they do to me. How they leave me exhausted. How they make my muscles sore and my skin raw. Sometimes the physical effects are so bad that I have to ice my eyes or my neck. Sometimes I get all swollen and puffy. Once a man on the street asked me if I had a black eye and if I needed him to call somebody.

    I drag my last two train tracks from Boston to New York and end the game. Mom goes upstairs to check on Dad and I think about the baby grackles, who should really stop screaming if they’re that hungry, to conserve energy, and also because it’s annoying.

    Mom and Dad murmur about something, not sensually or anything like that; it’s a mundane murmuring, a murmuring about milk or medicine. Then Mom comes downstairs and fast-walks into the kitchen, because I think she’s forgotten about the cod, and looks in the pan and says some vulgar things, and I think maybe I should go help her, but then this idea pops into my head, and it’s been popping into my head for days, and it’s so pretty, so I just listen to it for a little while, listen to the chords and the harmonies being played on a piano, and I remember the chords and promise I’ll write this piece at some point, soon, I’ll do it soon, maybe now, but no, not now, because then I take out my phone and look up Amharic and start reading about it, because Ethiopia seems like a cool place, I think, and the grackles outside are still making noise, but the banjo music isn’t, which makes sense, since we’re not playing the game, and the hot humid air fades into something cooler and duller as I sit on the green couch in the living room in July.

    For dinner we have charred cod.

     #

    I’m in bed. Mom and Dad are talking about something in the other room and I try to hear what they’re saying but then I realize I really don’t want to hear, because what if they’re talking about condoms or something, I’d rather not know. So I close my eyes and block out the noise and try to stop the voice in my head, which just keeps talking, but after a little while I finally manage to relax, at which point my mind goes quiet and I fall asleep and then

    Il fait chaud dans la forêt. Les petites salamandres transpirent au-dessous de sus bouts de bois. Moi, je n’en ai pas. Un bout de madera, je veux dire. Pas une salamandre. Donc je reste au-dessus de tout ça, au-dessus de l’au-dessous.

    Midnight. Awake again. A fly on the dresser. The angry glow of the streetlamp cutting through the window and into my eye. (Et il faisait calor. Et il faisait chaud.) I’m too hot and too cold and too alert and too tired. Mom snores in the other room and a cat screams somewhere down the street. Was that a dream? About the salamanders?

    I don’t think I’m dreaming now because my tics are back. I think I’m awake. Ten fingers, five on each hand. Sometimes in dreams there are 11. For some reason.

    What else can we think about? Climbing a tree in a beautiful meadow with some hot guy who’s also somehow extremely intelligent and remarkably empathetic. Flying to some city that’s off-the-grid enough to be cool and woke but not unstable enough to be dangerous.

    Aha! Flying to some city that’s off-the-grid enough to be cool and woke but not unstable enough to be dangerous and finding a hot guy who’s also somehow extremely intelligent and remarkably empathetic and climbing a tree with him in a beautiful meadow just outside the unnamed sort-of-off-the-grid city. Perfect.

    My heart rate is pretty high.

    G flat major (no fifth), B flat major. Up to D major, down to G flat major (no fifth). B flat major. Repeat. Lower range of piano. Tracing the notes of an augmented triad can feel so haunting, so nostalgic. It reminds me of something from when I was little, something from not now.

    At first I thought the third chord would be D flat major, but that was too easy, too predictable. The D natural is just jarring enough. I think I’ve found my progression. Now I need to figure out what happens, because a progression isn’t a piece and a piece isn’t a progression.

    Why not, though? Why not write a three-chord piece, a piece with three chords and nothing more? Why isn’t that enough? There’s something to be said for simplicity, bare-bones music, music that is just the outlines.

              (summer is coming

                        the sound of fireworks in the night

    families burning meat                                  a motorcycle race)

    (Et il faisait chaud. Et il faisait calor.) It’s a short tree, stubby, with lots of branches. Perfect for climbing. Sedges and birds, lots of them. Bobolinks, blackbirds, sparrows, rails, bitterns. Hot guy is shirtless, for some reason. I climb the tree faster than I should be able to and look out over the flat land. Where am I? Botswana, maybe; the land is dotted with elephants. Is that too boring? Too safari-y? Maybe Eritrea?

    G flat major (no fifth), B flat major. Up to D major, down to G flat major (no fifth). B flat major. Repeat. Lower range of piano. The fly on the dresser takes off. Buzz buzz buzz. Does it know it’s going to die someday?

    (Et il faisait chaud. Et il faisait chaud.)

    Come on, come on, go back to sleep. Stop trying to remember your dream. It was just a bunch of words. Salamander, forest, hot, rocks, above, below. Words, schmerds.

    These new tics are starting to get on my nerves. Before, sniffing, that I could deal with. But blinking? Blink. Blink. Blink blink. No, hold the lids shut for longer. Until they feel stuck to your eyes. Blinkkkk. Blinkkkk blinkkkk. That’s it.

    No, you can’t stop, silly. You have to keep going. Blinkkkk blinkkkk blinkkkk. Ouch. Again.

    No, no; think about the guy and the tree. Think about Eritrea. Wouldn’t you much rather blink? No, I want to think about Eritrea. Not your choice. Or why not both? Blinkkkk blinkkkk. Blinkkkk. I’m sitting at the top of the tree and the cool (blinkkkk) winter breeze blows beads of sweat off my (G flat major no (blinkkkk) fifth) forehead, because I’m au-dessus de l’au-dessous, above the stagnant parts, above the salamanders and the (blinkkkk). Would you stop? Blinkkkk blinkkkk. I’m in the tree, remember? In the (blinkkkk) tree. G flat major (no fifth).

    (Y il faisait chaud. Et il faisait calor.)

    What is going on with this forest (G flat major no fifth)? Why blinkkk is it

    (the fly lands on my arm and I

    #

    In the morning my eyes fill with what Mom calls eye goobies. Those yellow crumbs. I guess it makes sense that the more I blink, the more they build up, kind of like how the more you grate a block of cheese, the more cheese you get, kind of, I think. I go into the bathroom and run the water and scrape off my eyes, and it smells like eggs and bacon cooking, which is objectively exciting, I guess, from a nourishment perspective, but right now I’m not hungry, and something about that smell makes me vaguely nauseous, or maybe angry.

    Sometimes I try to describe my tics to myself and realize I can’t. Calling them twitches is too easy, and besides, they’re not that, they’re not involuntary or unconscious. I make the choice to tic, but it’s the choice to make that choice that’s involuntary. So maybe Tourette syndrome is like twitches once removed, like Anastasia, who is my first cousin once removed, I think, or maybe my second cousin, because I’ve never understood the difference.

    Downstairs I lie on the couch and Mom wraps some ice in a paper towel and puts the paper towel over my eyes. It’s cold. I could have gotten the ice myself, wrapped it up myself, but it’s been a few months since my tics have been this bad and I feel scared and small. Sometimes it’s nice to be cared for like you’re little, like you’re not going off to college, like you’re not close to the death of your childhood. I’m thinking about the fact that last night, before I woke up and thought about the future and death and men and got all nervous, I dreamed in French for the first time, and I’m wondering what that means. There was a little Spanish too, I think, because sometimes I mix them without meaning to, and now I’m realizing that the house still smells like bacon, that fatty metallic smell of burning flesh, and I’m getting queasier, but it’s okay, I manage to calm myself down by thinking about nicer smells, like the smell of the ocean and the smell of a forest after the rain and the smell of gasoline, which some people hate but I love.

    There’s this feeling I get sometimes, often when my tics are acting up, and I’m feeling it now. I’ve thought a lot about how to describe the feeling, because I really don’t know how to describe it, but I hate when people use not being able to describe something as a description of the thing, so I need to be able to say something more than nothing.

    It’s a feeling deep inside my chest, somewhere in my rib cage, and I often mistake it for nostalgia, but I think it’s actually the opposite, a sort of yearning for something I can’t have, at least not yet. Just like Dad knows when he’s getting a migraine, I can tell when my tics are coming on before they do by tracking the intensity of this feeling. It’s completely incapacitating and deeply horrible and yet somehow wonderful. It’s everything I want to do and everywhere I want to travel and everyone I want to meet smushed into a marble that lodges itself in my lungs. My tics flare up when things change, and when my tics flare up I want things to change. My tics hate change and want change. They tell me to do nothing and then insist that I do everything. Maybe they don’t mean to stop me, maybe they don’t mean to hurt me, maybe they just get so excited when things are changing that they don’t know what to do with themselves. Maybe they just get overwhelmed sometimes.

    So the little marble is a reminder that I have a lot of things left to experience and that those things are worth waiting for. But that can be hard to stomach when I’m lying on the green couch in the living room of my mid-sized Connecticut house with an ice pack on my face and this idea in my head, these three chords that keep dancing through the holes in my thoughts, echoing, nagging. G flat major, B flat major, D major.

    I’ve always loved music that makes me feel nostalgic, but now I don’t think it’s nostalgia that I feel, it’s this feeling, the rib cage feeling. I have no interest in remembering things. I just want to do new things, different things, things outside of this town and state and country. Sometimes Mom starts talking about what I was like as a baby and I don’t listen, because something about acknowledging that I was once small and slimy scares me. I read stories about dementia that are meant to make me cry and I never cry. Forgetting doesn’t scare me as much as dying, and dying doesn’t scare me as much as not doing things. New things, different things, things outside of this town and state and country. I desperately want to do new things. 

    But for now I’m on the couch with my eyes closed and I’m smelling the forest after the rain. The smell is one of my favorites, although it’s not much of anything. The marble sits in my lungs and I listen as Mom cleans up the breakfast I didn’t eat.

    Anasthasia Shilov

  6. FEATURE: On the Waterfront

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    The Long Island Sound spills northward into the New Haven Harbor, which passes beneath Route 95 via the Pearl Harbor Bridge and splits into the Quinnipiac and Mill rivers. At the intersection is Criscuolo Park, where I stand at the foot of an empty playground. The park is silent, and because it’s January, the grass is gray and the metal poles of the playground are frosted over. I’m not alone — trucks pass over the Mill River and residents stroll down the sidewalk when all of a sudden, dozens of seagulls cross the river. They swarm above me, sweeping close to my head. On the other side of the Quinnipiac, there are more of them — sauntering, loitering and scavenging for food. 

    Across the river is Murphy Road Recycling, a facility that has processed garbage on the waterfront for years. I stare across at the looming white metal structures, industrial exhaust and black tarps hung up over who knows what.

    At the New Haven waterfront, life clashes with industry, seagulls clash with garbage processors and activists clash with businessmen. Areas of the Elm City, especially close to the water, have been vastly industrial for decades. Once, waterfronts were the perfect place for companies to do their business: Waterwheels, dams and other contraptions developed during and after the Industrial Revolution made water power a key fuel. Now, many companies, like Murphy, no longer use the water. But they remain on the waterfront — much to many New Haven residents’ dismay.

    “INDUSTRY RULED THE WATERWAY”: LIFE ON THE QUINNIPIAC RIVER

    Ian Christmann’s two sons used to attend school along the Quinnipiac River. Instead of driving them in each day, he’d pile everyone into a kayak and paddle up the river to their Fair Haven school, after which he’d paddle to his office, which was also on the river. Christmann said the morning trips were a great way to appreciate the river’s natural beauty.

    Christmann is an environmental advocacy photographer who, since graduating from college in 1996, has traveled to 26 countries to take photos. He has been fixated with the Quinnipiac River for over a decade. A few years back, he captured each stretch of the 35-mile river for a photo exhibit. As he hiked, kayaked and helicoptered through, he noticed the good and the bad of the area — “the natural beauty of it and man’s negative impact.”

    Historically, this river was the second-most carcinogenic river in America,” the photographer told me. “That has changed, but it is still being polluted by upriver sewage treatment plants, and numerous chemical companies are still dumping into this river.” 

    According to a website built by Christmann through the Quinnipiac River Fund, a local conservation and advocacy organization, factories took over the Quinnipiac in the 1850s during the Industrial Revolution, when water power surged as a new source of energy. There was no anti-pollution legislation then, and metal plants upstream led to an explosion of industrial towns on the river. The river quickly became extremely polluted. 

    Nicole Davis, the watershed coordinator for Save the Sound, an agency dedicated to combating water pollution and related issues, said part of this stems from a historical lack of river appreciation — not just in New Haven but all over the nation.

    “As a society, there was a really long period where there was no value placed on rivers,” she said. “It was a way to receive goods and get rid of your waste. So if you were an industry that had a lot of chemicals or things you needed to get rid of, being near a river was huge, because you could just dump it in the water and it would get washed away.”

    More recently, the river is receiving positive attention, Christmann said. “In the 18 years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen it become more prominent in people’s minds.” The motivation for improving the area comes “from a past where industry ruled the waterway.” That’s changing, he said.

    Davis said part of the progress comes from activist organizations like Save the Sound, which have been able to achieve some success in the recent years, including extending the number of miles of the river available for fish passage. Fish passage is important because it doesn’t only allow more wildlife into the area, but it also allows for smoother running of water via less blocked up river passages, and thus cleaner water, she said

    Still, Christmann reminisced about what the river would’ve been like before the Industrial Revolution, when wildlife roamed free. “150 years ago, this was one of the richest oyster beds in the country,” he said. The website he built for the river states that by the early 20th century, Fair Haven’s oyster industry had taken a hit, since industrial river pollution made the waterfront an inhospitable habitat for sea life. 

    In 2021, the Hartford-based company Norm Bloom & Son almost single-handedly carries the New Haven oyster industry. Patty King, who manages the company’s New Haven branch, has spent most of her life in the water. She started out as a deckhand on her brother’s lobster boat, then made her way to a clam boat and has worked in the clam and oyster industry ever since.

    For King, though the river still faces pollution, it is almost unrecognizable compared to what it was like when she was younger.

    “I’ve noticed a change for the better,” she said. “We have seals, ospreys, eagles and lots of wildlife that did not exist in Connecticut when I was a kid. When I first started 20 years ago, it was a big treat to see an osprey out on the water. There were companies in Branford that used to dump directly into the Branford River.”

    Partially because of overfishing, there are fewer clams in the water than when she was a kid, she said. But according to King, “oysters are thriving.” If the river is getting cleaner and the animal life is thriving, then what’s wrong? 

    That’s where Murphy Road Recycling comes in.

    TRASH ON THE SHORE

    Ten years ago, Christmann, who lives half a mile from Murphy, took a helicopter ride along the river to photograph industry areas from above — and what he found shocked him.

    “What I noticed about Murphy Road was that they had stacks and stacks of dumpsters just stacked up against the water,” Christmann said. “You could see that the rain and the runoff was going right into the river from these dumpsters. That there’s a trash facility against the edge of the river seems ridiculous. What a poor use of that location.”

    Murphy Road, according to Christmann and other New Haven environmentalists, does not play by the rules of their permit in a variety of ways. Their permit, for one, allows them to process only dry waste at the facility. Dry waste usually means bottles, cans, paper, clothes and other nonorganic materials, while wet waste includes food waste, yard waste and other organic items. But Christmann suspects that dry waste is not all they process: “If you go to their facility, you’ll see hundreds of seagulls flying around the trucks as they enter,” he told me. “Seagulls don’t go picking through dry waste.”

    Laura Cahn, who chairs New Haven’s Environmental Advisory Council (EAC), said the company uses unregulated chemical deodorizers to spray the trash as it is processed. The deodorizer quickly enters stormwater and the river. But it is not illegal, and therefore goes unregulated. 

    Murphy is on private property, which is part of the issue, Cahn said. “They do, however, have to obey the laws, which they don’t do.” Cahn said when the state issues an inspection report, they give a list of violations on Murphy’s part, “and that’s the end of that.” Murphy doesn’t fix their violations. Google Earth images, for example, still show that dumpsters are “piled up in the wrong places.”

    The last time the state inspected Murphy’s New Haven facility was in 2017. The time before that was 2012. The facility is supposed to be inspected regularly and spontaneously, but “that’s not happening as much as it should, if at all,” Christmann said. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, aware of concerns from residents, has encouraged more regular inspections for the area — according to the New Haven Independent, in December, DEEP analyst Brend Madho suggested quarterly inspections from a third party as a potential amendment to Murphy’s permit. However, the changes have yet to be implemented.

    Cahn, who has tried to work with Murphy in the past, said the company is largely left to their own devices: “Nobody enforces them, so they do whatever they want.”

    The EAC recently asked if Murphy would set up a composting program to pick up food waste in New Haven, but they said it was too expensive. Murphy is “not trying to help,” Cahn said with frustration. 

    “[Murphy] advocated for single-stream recycling. At the state level, single-stream recycling doesn’t work. It just contaminates everything,” Cahn continued. “We want economic progress, but we want it in a way that benefits everybody — not just makes profits for one company.”

    “THE SLAMMING OF DUMPSTERS AT 2 A.M.”: IMPACT ON THE RESIDENTS

    Murphy is located in the Annex neighborhood of New Haven. According to Roger Reynolds, senior legal counsel for Save the Sound, it’s “maybe the worst environmental justice neighborhood in the state.”

    “It’s remarkably overburdened with pollution,” he said. “You add it all up, and it is the high 90th percentiles for all the pollution indicators. It has I-95, which is very congested there, and it has the New Haven Station oil burning power plant.” And it has Murphy.

    New Haven environmental activist Chris Ozyck expressed concern about Murphy last year, when the company applied for a permit to process garbage from the suburbs of New Haven. He was worried about the traffic on Quinnipiac Avenue, where he lives, and the associated noises of garbage trucks — the trucks do not use the highways like they say they do, he noted, but rather drive through residential areas. 

    Ozyck knocked on doors around his neighborhood to hear from the community about their grievances with Murphy. Years ago, he had heard complaints of rats, so when he knocked on doors he specifically asked about them.

    “What I quickly found out was that almost every person had problems with the smell of trash, currently,” Ozyck said. “And they were kind of relieved to hear that there are other neighbors who also had the same problem — that it wasn’t just them. Nobody knew how to handle this, and nobody knew that they had a voice that could help get change.”

    The city provides phone numbers for residents to call about odor complaints.  But at the time, nobody was picking up the phone. And while some residents who were close to the facility could tell where the smell was coming from, others who lived on the other side of the street could not.

    “You can tell that there’s something at the site, because there are a lot of seagulls there on certain days,” Ozyck told me. “It was funny — even in their application [for a permit to process garbage from New Haven suburbs], they had pictures of their buildings with both seagulls on the building, and inside, which is scavenging, which is not supposed to be happening.” But due to the pandemic, the state of Connecticut will not conduct any in-person enforcement, so no officials visited the facility and saw the gulls.

    In a victory for those living in the neighborhood, Murphy Road’s application was rejected by the city last month, so the company’s operations will not expand. But the facility is a deep-rooted problem in the community. While they won’t expand yet, they can still plague the community they’ve been hurting for years. Christmann noted that for those living right next to the facility, the impact is particularly concerning.

    “You have all of these houses that are literally right up against the property,” Christmann said. “The slamming of the dumpsters at 2 a.m., the vermin, the sound, the smell, all of that impacts a very low-income impacted neighborhood to begin with. You don’t choose to live beside a garbage facility unless it’s one of your only options.”

    Data from DataHaven, a nonprofit organization that provides statistics on the Elm City by neighborhood, has some telling notes about the area. At 31 percent, Annex is tied for the highest percentage of its population being 18 or younger. The neighborhood has the second highest percentage of Latinx residents, and is in the bottom third for percentage of white residents. These kinds of factors, Reynolds said, stress why the situation is a justice issue — those traditionally overlooked by local government, and those most vulnerable, like children, are situated in a particularly dangerous spot.

    In an email correspondence, Jonathan Murray, Murphy Road’s director of operations, did not comment on questions pertaining to residential impact, wet-waste use and regulation of the company.

    Murray wrote, however, that he believes Murphy Road Recycling has been widely recognized as a leader in their industry. He continued, “We have established a long history of operating and maintaining a business that utilizes state-of-the-art technology and equipment in the communities we serve across Connecticut. We continue to not only meet, but often exceed and set, industry and environmental standards.”

    But to Christmann, the fact that there are homes “right up against the property” is unusual to begin with, he said. The company has facilities across the state, but none of them are directly juxtaposed with residential neighborhoods. Instead, there are large wooden buffer zones separating the two areas. Cahn told me that she and EAC have asked the city if Murphy Road could move to a different location but, according to Cahn, officials said there are no other options.

    That’s frustrating to Cahn and her fellow activists, who wonder why a non-water-dependent industrial plant would need to be on the water — because for them, the waterfront could be so much more.

    IMAGINING THE WATERFRONT

    At one point, Murphy had a public meeting and tour, which Cahn attended. She recalled walking out to the edge of the waterfront, and gazing across the river.

    “When you go out to the end of the facility on the water, and you look across the river at the beautiful Kew Bridge, lit up at night, and the skyline of New Haven, you think of the possibilities for such a place,” she said. “Maybe there could be a riverfront walk, maybe there could be a park … and I realized that this area has a very long history of industrial use. And so at the moment, its uses are limited. But if we don’t start to plan for decades from now, we’re still going to be in the same position that we are in now.”

    In collaboration with New Haven’s Urban Design League, Cahn and her council submitted a letter to the City Planning Department, requesting a coastal evaluation of all waterfront properties in New Haven. 

    The letter said that as New Haven receives requests from developers in the waterfront area, “we need project review protocols and laws that support city and state goals for water-dependent uses and achieve a good balance among parks, nature preserves, the working-waterfront and residential life.” The letter included air quality, noise, safety and economic benefit among a list of factors to be included in the review process. 

    Christmann is aware that progress is being made — Murphy won’t be able to submit another permit application until September after being rejected in January. Still, he dreams of a better future for the waterfront.

    “New Haven’s waterway is underutilized,” he said. “The majority of it feels too industrial to be something that everyone has access to.”

    Davis said while projects like the Murphy rejection are important for environmentalists, organizations like Save the Sound are always working, and there’s much more to be done on the waterfront. Specifically, Davis and her colleagues are working on a project to provide property owners with information on how they can prevent stormwater from carrying potential toxins from their property to the river.

    “100 small projects can have the same impact as one big project,” she said. “Intervening at Wheeler Street was huge, and a huge win for the community, but making people aware of the impact of what happens on their lawn is also really important.”

    Beyond the Murphy debacle, New Haven has many other environmental justice issues to attend to, and it’s going to take structural change to fix them — especially in communities like Annex and Fair Haven with higher proportions of people of color, Ozyck said

    “[Environmental justice] is not just a one-and-done type of thing,” he continued. “It’s got to be an integrated process. And we don’t have that in New Haven right now.”

  7. POETRY: I Want Us Both to Eat Well

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    after Christopher Citro’s “Our Beautiful Life When It’s Filled with Shrieks”

     

     

               except both
                            is just me
                                        6pm & barefoot
                            in the kitchen

               coring apples for my first oat-
    meal of the day
                            a promise
                                               of warmth
               to a still
                           living body I never learned
                                                               to take care of

               what          is so intuitive
                            about surviving?

    some days
               all I can do
               is tuck myself in
                                       only
                            to kick the covers off

               maybe none of us know
                            how much water
                                                                   is too much water

               the line between
                                        drought

                                                   & drowning
                            is not a line
                                                   but an exhale

               a forgotten
                            pothos balanced
               on my too small kitchen
                                                             window
                                       tender & crawling
                                                                          yet

     

    Regina Sung

  8. FEATURE: Against Erasure

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    As a newly admitted Yale student, Amal Altareb ’23 attended the 2018 Bulldog Days amazed by everything her new school had to offer. As she explored the campus with her tour group, she noticed the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC) and La Casa Cultural (“La Casa”), two of Yale’s cultural houses that neighbor each other on Crown Street. Altareb, who is Middle Eastern, wondered if there was a similar space for her.

    Altareb left Yemen for the United States in 2012 and has not been able to visit her home country since. At Yale, she had hoped to find a network of Yemeni students who might remind her of home, but she found that such a network did not exist, nor did a cultural house for Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) individuals. In its history, Yale has only admitted two other Yemeni students. Altareb felt that few of her classmates could understand the events transpiring in her country.

    “Especially with what’s been going on in Yemen — the civil war, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis — it felt so lonely to not be able to share [my thoughts]. Sometimes I just wanted to have people [to reflect on it with],” Altareb said.

    Based on conversations between MENA-identifying individuals and the News, countless students from all over the Middle Eastern diaspora seem to have had similar experiences as Altareb, struggling to find individuals on campus with analogous backgrounds. Though they are offered peer liaisons from the AACC and the Afro-American Cultural Center (“Af-Am House”), MENA students must choose one or both of the two cultural houses based on whether they feel “more Asian or African,” Altareb said.

    After struggling to find a community that understood her experiences, Altareb decided to join the movement for a MENA cultural center. She helped lead the campaign as the president of the Middle Eastern and North African Students Association (MENASA) this past year.

    In many ways, she inherited this fight: Founded in 2018, MENASA has been calling for such a cultural house for the past three years. Due to internal University and national-level bureaucratic hurdles, these efforts have been unsuccessful.

    IMAGINING A CULTURAL HOUSE

    The idea for a MENA cultural house emerged in the spring of 2018. Shady Qubaty ’20, the first Yemeni undergraduate at Yale, came up with the idea during Yale’s first Arab Conference. He questioned why there was not an umbrella organization for MENA students, who often do not identify with any of the four existing cultural centers. The Arab Students Association reached out to members of the Persian and Turkish Student Associations to discuss the possibility of creating a larger umbrella association for the Middle East. With the support of the three major student associations and after three years of mobilization, MENASA was formally registered as a student organization in January 2019. 

    MENASA runs its programs like a cultural center: hosting cultural events and activities as well as a peer liaison program. When in-person events were possible, MENASA hosted speaker events, film screenings and food tastings in room 110 at 305 Crown St., a small conference room with only about 15 chairs. If MENASA successfully establishes a cultural center, they will receive administrative funding from the University and acquire a larger space on campus, Altareb said.

    MENASA is now in the process of finding a location for a possible cultural house, reaching out to alumni for funding support and communicating with possible faculty directors before formally proposing the cultural house to the Yale administration.

    According to surveys conducted by the YCC, the idea of a MENA cultural center is popular among students. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, the surveys found that 75 percent of the students who responded were in favor of the cultural house.

    Reilly Johnson, the current YCC vice president, wrote in an email to the News that the YCC’s efforts to support MENASA have focused on garnering support from Yale College Dean Marvin Chun. “The first step to establishing a cultural center is getting administrative buy-in, something that the YCC has attempted to assist student advocates in by gathering data and presenting student perspectives on the necessity of a MENA house,” she wrote.

    Although the administration has discussed a potential cultural center with student groups for the past three years, more alumni support and tangible sources of funding would be needed before forwarding a formal proposal to the administration. Chun wrote that the administration wants to support cultural communities on campus but only by using existing cultural centers and resources. He stated: “We are not going to create many more cultural centers to address every community at Yale because that isn’t quite feasible.”

    UNPACKING “MENA” IDENTITY

    The fraught question of what constitutes MENA identity further complicates the fight for a cultural house. The countries formally included in the MENA region, and the populations who identify with the ethnicity, vary based on the source. From a collection of sources such as the United Nations Statistics Division, UNICEF and UNHCR, the list may include: Afghanistan, Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Djibouti, Egypt, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Western Sahara and Yemen. 

    Shyla Summers ’24, an Iranian American and the YCC cultural and religion co-chair, noted that the term “MENA” has long been fraught with controversy, calling it a Eurocentric term. She elaborated that, historically, “Europe viewed East Asia as the Far East, so in between that was called the Middle East. It is quite literally centered around Europe.” The practice of calling the Middle East the “Middle East,” moreover, was popularized by Westerners, British officer Thomas Edward Gordon and U.S. naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan.

    The U.S. Census currently does not categorize “Middle Eastern and North African” as a racial group. Most MENA individuals therefore have to identify as “white.” The Census Bureau currently describes the racial category of “white” as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”

    The Obama administration considered adding the MENA category but ultimately decided against it in 2018, stating that the Census Bureau had not researched the implications of MENA being classified as a race rather than an ethnicity. When the movement for MENA’s inclusion as a racial category was revived, it was once again shuttered by the Trump administration, according to MENA advocates. An Al Jazeera article quoted Samer Khalaf, the national president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who claimed that the Trump administration blocked the move because the “white” population in the United States would drop in numbers if the proposal were enacted, potentially making white people a minority.

    In an opinion editorial for the News, Summers wrote that MENA individuals were categorized as “white” because Europeans wanted to claim their race was the foundation of civilization, and at the time, the landing point of Noah’s Ark was believed to be in what is now Turkey.

    Summers wrote that labeling MENA individuals as “white” does not accurately represent the population’s heritage. As MENA individuals are often lumped into the “white” category, there is an assumption that they are within the category that is “least discriminated against,” she said. In Summers’ view, this undermines the distinct forms of discrimination MENA individuals face.

    “In an era of rising xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism, all of which disproportionately affect MENA people, it is ever more important to establish a new cultural house,” she wrote.

    Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said that because the census does not recognize MENA as a racial group, the University’s admissions process and Student Information System (SIS) do not as well. The University only acknowledges five racial categories — “white,” “Black,” “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.”

    Last year, MENASA launched an effort to include MENA as a racial group within Yale’s college application system and SIS. MENASA had conversations with the admissions office and the Yale administration to realize this goal. However, these efforts have failed due to bureaucratic reasons.

    According to Quinlan, the office did not reject the request. Instead, he said the inaction was due to the office’s reliance on third-party platforms like the Common Application, Coalition Application and QuestBridge Application.

    “Yale — like all other American higher education institutions receiving federal funds — are required to track and report on data about race and ethnicity using the Census Bureau’s categories,” Quinlan wrote in an email to the News. “Replacing or amending the existing question is not an option currently available to the Yale Office of Undergraduate Admissions.”

    Quinlan qualified, however, that although the option of selecting MENA as a racial group is not available to Yale College applicants, there are various areas on the application where applicants can express their cultural identity, and that many MENA-identifying applicants have done so in the past. Quinlan wrote, “Yale’s whole-person review process ensures that the Admissions Committee looks at each applicant’s background, interests, and likelihood to engage with Yale’s community in any number of ways. As with all applicants, a MENA student’s ethnic background is one part of a much larger evaluation.”

    NEED FOR A CULTURAL CENTER

    MENA-identifying students advocate for the cultural center for a variety of reasons. In Altareb’s experience, the MENA region is often viewed based on the foreign relations of its countries and the conflicts between them. MENASA aims to dismantle this image by foregrounding the richness of MENA culture.

    “It is a dignifying recognition of our identity,” she said. “We are who we tell you we are. We’re not the separate categorization [of Caucasian, African or Asian] you’re dividing us into.”

    Altareb and Yazeed Mualla ’22, the president of the Arab Students Association (ASA), both said that the lack of a cultural house also creates operational difficulties for MENA clubs on campus. Mualla pointed out that practices like student group recruitment, group retention rates, allocation of funding, bias incident reporting, and informing students of opportunities and resources are hindered by the group’s inability to identify MENA students.

    Since they lack institutional support, Altareb said, ASA leaders must review the first-year directory each year and decipher which students have MENA-sounding names to determine whom they should reach out to. Altareb said that since there are so few MENA individuals at Yale and in the United States as a whole, the students yearn for an established community.

    “If you go to the MENA region and talk to someone on the street, I can’t guarantee that they will identify as MENA,” Altareb said. “Being in the minority in the west, in the U.S., these different identities fade away and the commonality becomes more important.”

    Both Altareb and Mualla stated that having MENA students from adversarial countries interact can lead to greater understanding in the region overall. “Creating the house will foster an emphasis on these commonalities within the community as opposed to the turbulent political and societal issues that currently dominate the narrative and dialogue regarding the region,” Mualla wrote.

    Jonathan Wyrtzen, director of undergraduate studies for the modern Middle East studies major, said the MENA cultural center is specifically needed because the shared experience of MENA students “falls through the cracks of the logics by which [other cultural houses] have been created.”

    TRACING THE ORIGINS OF A CULTURAL HOUSE

    The path forward for MENA in its struggle to establish a cultural house may seem opaque, but one can trace the histories of other cultural centers’ formations to imagine a path forward.

    The Af-Am House was the first cultural center to be established. In 1964, 14 Black men launched an effort to bring more Black students from around the country to Yale through a social weekend they called Spook Weekend. In the following years, Black students worked to address the major concerns encountered by the Black community at Yale: They pushed for increased Black student enrollment, the development of the African American Studies department, better relations with the Black New Haven community and a cultural center. The students established the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY) in 1967 to address these concerns. BSAY soon proposed the establishment of a cultural center, which was approved by the Yale Corporation in the spring of 1968.

    The student activism that produced the Af-Am House inspired the advocacy for the Asian American AACC and La Casa. The Asian American Students Alliance (AASA) and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) de Yale banded together to demand a cultural house from the administration. In 1981, the Asian and Chicano American Cultural Center was established, which welcomed Asian American, Latinx and Indigenous students. La Casa and the Native American Cultural Center (NACC) moved out of 295 Crown St. and were given their own physical spaces in 1999 and 2013, respectively.

    Joliana Yee, director of the AACC, said that Asian American students’ two-decade-long fight for a cultural center centered around increasing their visibility on campus. She said that because Yale is a historically white institution, the administration was not aware of the significant population of Asian students on campus. She shared the “shoe story,” a pivotal moment in 1978 during AASA’s fight for a cultural center. They invited then-Yale-President Bart Giamatti to meet in their Bingham Hall basement headquarters. The leaders removed their shoes and left them in the hallway, exhibiting a common Asian custom while showing Giamatti how large the Asian American community was at Yale.

    Yee also said that the AACC was important in advocating against racial biases that students faced on campus. Don Nakanishi ’71, one of the co-founders of AASA, was attacked by other students after the Pearl Harbor bombing because of his Japanese American identity. The establishment of a cultural house raised the authority of racial groups to push for action in issues that mattered to them.

    Though the AACC was established in 1981, Yee noted that there has been a continued fight for resources since.

    As recently as 2015, Yee said, students have protested to procure necessary resources for the cultural centers. She referenced a 2014 Consultation Committee on the Cultural Centers report, an evaluation of the cultural houses conducted by independent experts. The report mentioned the need for greater attention to the cultural centers’ physical infrastructure and to the centralization of financial resources, as resources were unevenly distributed among the centers.

    Yee also commented on the inherent exclusivity that comes with cultural centers. “There is always a danger of just being so insular,” she said. She mentioned how she has worked at other universities that have multicultural centers instead of standalone cultural centers. But to her, it doesn’t matter whether one works with a multicultural center or an independent cultural house. She elaborated, “It’s more about the lens in which you are using to approach the work that you’re doing. … If I’m intersectional in how I understand race, then I wouldn’t just be focused on Asians. I’d understand that the Asian condition is predicated on how other communities of color are also being treated.”

    Though Yee acknowledged the challenges MENA students faced in establishing a cultural center, especially amid the pandemic, she reiterated other cultural centers’ support for the students.

    “Space is always a contentious thing, and I think that’s another large barrier for MENA,” Yee said. “It was also a barrier to the cultural centers back in the day, and students and alumni had to push the administration. … The cultural centers exist and understand what it takes to [establish a cultural center to] some extent, so we’re here to support [MENA] until they can be something on their own.”

    MOVING FORWARD

    According to Altareb, the pandemic has hampered MENASA’s efforts to organize for the cultural center proposal because meeting and planning in person was much easier.

    “It was hard as president to keep everyone engaged and showing up to meetings,” Altareb said. “But the passion is there, and the flame isn’t going away anytime soon.”

    Zahra Yarali ’24, the YCC cultural and religion co-chair and an Iranian American, said that as a first year entering amid a pandemic, MENASA gave her a community through its action groups such as MENA House Basics, where they work to bring a formal cultural house proposal to the administration.

    With 2020 serving as a reflective year on the push for racial justice in the United States, Yarali agreed that the current moment has provided deeper significance to the push for a cultural house.

    “We’ve had to really reflect on what foundations our country has been built on and why it’s affecting people today and taking the lives of people today,” Yarali told the News. “Race is rooted in oppressive concepts of superiority, and the origins of the MENA community being grouped into the white racial classifications [contributes to that].”

    Altareb encouraged everyone to bring the issue up with their friends and on social media. “Even as simple as talking about it can make a difference,” she said. “I remember in my first year, the only people that talked about this proposal were MENA groups. Now, it has become a whole-Yale issue.” She said students can also aid the effort by signing onto their forthcoming petition for the cultural center and attending events endorsed on MENA’s Facebook page to communicate interest in the cultural center to the administration.

    Most of Yale’s peer institutions do not have cultural centers for MENA-identifying individuals. Oregon State University seems to be one of the only U.S. universities with such a space, having started the Ettihad Cultural Center — which serves as a home for Central, Southwestern Asian, and North African students — in 2014.

    This is, however, precisely the reason why MENASA is advocating for a cultural house. Altareb said that similar to Yale’s trailblazing choice to establish the Af-Am House, Yale can lead the movement for national change in recognizing the identity and unique challenges faced by MENA students. Yale was the first Ivy League school to establish a cultural space like the House, after all.

    “If Yale does really do this, there can be a ripple effect on all the Ivies,” Altareb said. “As the leading institutions in this country, what they do matters. Imagine if 20 other top-tier colleges follow Yale, there could be actual change.”

  9. PERSONAL ESSAY: On Graduating in a Pandemic

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    Four years ago, I entered Yale as part of the class of 2021, and now the year I both dreaded and anticipated is here. It’s 2021; my senior spring. What I imagined would be a victory lap after three and a half of the best years of my life looks a lot more like a slog to an ever-moving finish line. Almost every part of my imagined college experience has changed, and these changes due to COVID — multiplied over the thousands of seniors graduating this year and last — produce an impact that we will feel for years to come.

    My former suitemates, whom I’ve spent many nights with imagining the future, are now in different cities across the U.S. When I first came to Yale, my idealized college experience was centered around our suite unit; I imagined that we would weather four years of Yale, then enter the rest of the world together. Instead, only three out of my six suitemates from sophomore year are still graduating in 2021, and all of us are headed to very different futures than we had imagined. What remains of our graduating class resembles my ex-suite: altered plans and changed people, staggering in unexpected new directions. 

    I called those of my former suitemates who are still graduating — pseudonymized here as Paris, Maia and Luisa — and we discussed where we might be in the next couple years. The following are imagined futures loosely based upon these conversations.

    In 2024, PARIS lives in a sun-soaked 15th-story apartment, the fourth or fifth she’s lived in since graduating, with a windowsill full of plants: philodendrons, African violets, basil, a Venus flytrap. Her dark hair is now short, shorter than it’s been since college, and her apartment-mates are what she would describe as “boss ladies.” Her phone beeps with a text from one of the teenage girls that she works with at her job as a community organizer; the sound wakes up her pitbull, who lazily flaps an ear and curls back up against the back of her desk chair.

    It will be three years since Paris left New Haven and fled to new cities to escape a suffocating senior year spent in quarantine. Feeling that COVID catapulted her prematurely into adulthood, Paris ran in the opposite direction of a stable “adult” job. After graduating, she spent time backpacking in South America, teaching in Spain and organizing in Philadelphia. She went wherever there was movement and action and young people. The wanderer lifestyle she chose was in direct reaction to the sensation of being stuck.

    Paris has switched therapists several times over the course of the three years because she always felt like progress wasn’t being made in sessions. Somehow, the pandemic never quite leaves the conversation. Her wanderlust and rejection of normal, “age-appropriate” behavior feels like the continuation of senior year: no demarcation between one chapter ending and another beginning; continual limbo. Her near-excessive accumulation of plants, pets, books, artwork, things, according to her newest therapist, Alicia, represents the anchors that Paris uses to prevent herself from floating away entirely. And her retreat from many of the friends she had made in college, Alicia tells her, may be the response to having grown disconnected from the emotional states of others — she feels alone, and has come to believe that she is alone in feeling alone. Everyone else is a monolith of unrelatable, happy people and she quickly falls away from them, feeling like there is little mutual ground for conversation left.

    In 2023, MAIA has joined the consulting company that she has worked for since sophomore summer. She still keeps in touch with a handful of people from college, but she spends most of her time texting her cohort at work about the ever-changing demands of their entertainment industry clientele. Maia recently started seeing someone, but she realizes she doesn’t have a lot of patience for things like nights out. She occasionally does productions with a local theater group, but even that feels like work sometimes.

    Graduation had been dampened by so many other competing demands. What once was celebratory and important, had become decidedly… not. Maia rationalized to herself that graduation mattered so little in the context of people losing their loved ones to a raging virus; she had herself so thoroughly convinced that by the time the virtual event came and went, it had long been classified as a forgettable memory. Pomp and circumstance, the commemoration of accomplishment — all foreign concepts. Change was dulled; the anticlimactic feeling of leaving college and starting work was further reinforced by having already spent six months at home, unable to see friends, with the only noticeable change in her day-to-day being a Zoom link with a corporate header instead of a Yale one. 

    Now a full-fledged member of the workforce, Maia finds that there was no celebration there either. At a company that had once mailed their prospective employees cupcakes to woo them into signing, Maia has not yet tasted a single company-sponsored dessert nor attended a cheese-tasting event. There is no more wining and dining, much less company-sponsored recreation, and even a reduction in company merch. She tells herself, logically, they know you won’t reject a job during COVID, and they are right. And who am I to complain when others are unemployed? The work we do is the most important thing, anyway, she tells herself. The days of after-show parties and spontaneous happy hours are long gone.

    Instead of fun with friends, the pleasures of life look a lot more like solitude at home. Since senior year, Maia has begun to enjoy the growth she notices in herself. She has learned more about how to be an adult — cooking recipes, paying rent, being able to decide when to start working and when to stop (the stopping is still hard sometimes). She feels gratitude for the friends that she still talks to from   time to time, and for the ordinary things like warm showers and cold drinks. She is getting better at being alone.

    In 2022, LUISA, with her plaid backpack and teal Yeti rambler (the same one from sophomore year of Yale), is back to the books, spending most of her time exactly where she had planned for senior year: in libraries and coffee shops. The backdrop has changed, but the rhythms of academia remain a wonderful constant. She misses stability so much that her craving for certainty makes her return to school. The master’s degree wasn’t part of the plan, but neither was this virus, and school feels like the closest thing to normal, even if everything has to be from a laptop.

    Luisa is impressed with herself for how well she deals with unmet expectations. Friendships were permanently fractured because of the distance created by the pandemic, and past Luisa would have been torn up every night. Instead, she feels a sense of emptiness where there once lived feelings like attachment. “Maybe if we had been sophomores, the gaps would have slowly been closed again over time, but because of the lasting impression of people in masks keeping distance, dwindingly friendships a year out seem only natural,” she writes in her brand-new Moleskine — teal, like the rambler. The premature separation from her classmates by geographical location, by gap-year “1.5” graduating class divisions, by on- and off-campus, sucks. Luisa feels like they had been rushed into the next phase of their lives before even making it to the climax of the current one. All the more reason, she thinks, to tether herself to some semblance of normalcy: Her weekly course calendar is something she can rely on.

    It’s 2021 and I sit in my off-campus apartment, daydreaming about the future and wondering where this spring season will take us. I stare outside the window, wondering when I’ll finally be free from this longing feeling for a chance to gather with my ex-suitemates, to be free of hypervigilance about safety and cleanliness, to just have a sleepover or meet a new friend without worry. I think about my plans to stay in the city next year, and about all the missed potential from an ideal senior year.

    The only thing I appreciate is this: Right before we got sent home, I was hurtling toward disaster, going 100 miles per minute into the future, and COVID forced me to slow down. I was forced to recognize the beauty in the slow. Graduation has historically been all about projecting into the future — anticipating what’s to come, cherishing the bright spots within these precious college years, formation and self-discovery in an ever-accelerating landscape. Pandemic graduation seems to be about having the brakes thrown into our plans, and being forced to sit still and alone for a very long time. 

    Every year, college grads bid goodbye to their family away from home. The difference, this year and the last, is that we did not see our goodbyes coming. Who knew that the last time we’d see Jimmy from Davenport was that final Friday in “Game Theory,” or that we should have hugged Collin from FOOT goodbye when we passed him on the street? Our plans changed; the people in our lives changed. Some of us who thought we would stay in New Haven exited this pandemic deciding it was time to go; and others who entered thinking it was a get-the-degree and get-out situation, found themselves wanting to stay just one more year in New Haven. One more normal year. Disparities and distance grew between the employed and the still-searching; our support systems, the ones that should have been solidified during these past four years, are flimsy at best as we get shuttled into the rest of our adult lives. And yet we persist. We try to bring back the dinners, the movie nights. We make plans once again. We gather as a suite on Zoom and dream out loud about the people we’ll meet, the things we’ll do and the places we’ll go once we graduate into this pandemic and out into the rest of the world. Each of us four departing seniors head in different directions, none of us knowing exactly where we will land. All we have to fuel us onward are some precious memories of the good old days, and faith that we are resilient enough to get through graduating, even in a pandemic.

    Kalina Mladenova

  10. INSIGHT: Help Us Make History

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    Even after 15 years as an archivist, Michael Lotstein still gets a thrill when he works with primary source material, which he calls the “tangible aspect of historical inquiry.” 

    “Sitting at a table with documents that were written three, four or five hundred years ago, and just being able to touch it and see it and handle it is very intoxicating,” Lotstein, the University archivist at Yale, said.

    Lotstein had never planned for a career as an archivist. He attended Arizona State University, of which he is evidently very proud — during the interview, he wore a maroon ASU T-shirt and flashed the “fork ’em devils” hand sign while describing his academic trajectory. But after completing his master’s degree in history there and working in the government documents division of ASU’s library, he was unsure where he wanted to take his career next. Working in an archive was “something I hadn’t really thought about before,” Lotstein said. “Once I looked into it, it just kind of clicked for me.”

    Lotstein exudes a calm, kind demeanor, often beginning his answers with the phrase, “That’s a great question.” He joined the Zoom interview from the converted work space he and his wife both use in his home in Hamden. He is flanked by large windows, a tall bookcase and a fireplace topped with picture frames. Lotstein has worked at Yale since 2011, and initially arrived at the University as a processing archivist, handling already appraised material, summarizing its contents and preserving them appropriately. In 2015, he assumed his current position as the University archivist.

    In this role, he collects ephemera that relate to Yale’s history as a university, including letters written by a head of college’s wife to students fighting in World War II, the original charter founding the University in 1701 and all kinds of student work. These documents contribute to the archive’s almost nine miles’ worth of physical records and over 20 terabytes of digital records. 

    Currently being added to the University collection is Lotstein’s newest archive: the Help Us Make History project. This archive is an ongoing attempt to document Yale students’ experiences living and studying through the COVID-19 pandemic. This project is one of the University Archive’s 1,175 individual collections, and it’s the only one Lotstein is actively collecting for. Although Lotstein is no stranger to archiving the present moment — in 2019, he worked to preserve the 50th celebration of Yale’s coeducation — the project is unique because of the speed with which the archive had to adjust to working remotely and the rush to document student experiences during the pandemic. Realizing that the pandemic, and Yale’s subsequent closure in the spring, was an important historical event, Lotstein and his boss Christine Weideman sent out a survey in March in coordination with the Yale College Dean’s Office to document students’ reactions to the move off campus and to online learning. The survey asked open-ended questions about their experiences learning remotely, their feelings and concerns for the future. When the survey was more successful than Lotstein imagined, receiving over 200 responses, he realized that students were eager to share.

    “There’s a market for preserving and documenting the events that … were going to be unfolding in the future,” Lotstein said. “Help Us Make History was really a way for us to regularly communicate with students through the prompts that we’re putting together.”

    The questions sent in the first survey sought to gather students’ experiences of and immediate reactions to the changes induced by the coronavirus. The project’s website, which remains open for submissions, primarily features self-reflective prompts. It asks what students’ biggest accomplishment was during the fall semester, how they maintained connections during the pandemic and what they want future students to know about being a Yale student in 2020. In addition, on Oct. 14, students were invited to write postcards in front of Sterling Library that answered the prompt “What would you like future students to know about being a Yale student in 2020?” to be included in the archive.

    Since the project’s inception on April 16, 2020, Lotstein has compiled 315 online submissions and 206 postcards giving insight into the lives of Yale students during the pandemic.

    In the responses, many students stressed the negative impact that the pandemic has had on their mental health and the struggles they have had with online learning. “Online classes suck. I don’t learn well online. I don’t feel like a real student anymore. This is not the education I was promised. All my professors are doing their best, but it’s so hard to motivate students virtually,” one student wrote.

    Many shared that they miss their friends from Yale and being on campus. Others wrote about their concerns for family member’s health and fears of financial insecurity. “I’m without heat, internet and stable health insurance to treat my worsening mental and physical health,” one student wrote. 

    In addition to relating their struggles, some also wrote about silver linings. “The experience of living completely within the confines of my neighborhood block has been revelatory of a sense of place which we have lost. Every day, I go for a walk with my mother, and she points to every house, wall, tree or corner and tells a story rich with experience and meaning intimately tied to this previously lifeless space,” one student mused. 

    Another shared a lighthearted takeaway: “I have mastered the art of creating a Zoom space in my bedroom that makes it appear as though my room is clean and orderly, when in reality, it looks like a bomb has gone off. Faking it till you make it, right?”

    In creating the project, Lotstein wanted to give students the opportunity to share their stories in whatever way they saw fit. All submissions are encouraged to be anonymous, a practice which Lotstein believes has fostered participants’ “no-holds-barred responses.” Lotstein said that anonymity also protects responses from affecting the future careers of any Yale students. Also, the prompts’ open-ended nature allowed students to share freely at whatever depth they preferred, even if it was just a few words or sentences. He believes that there is value in all kinds of contributions. “All of it collectively builds the historical record of the University during the pandemic and your contribution is important,” he said. They plan to continue collecting responses through the website for the foreseeable future.

    “In large part, the history of the University is written by the students during their time here at Yale,” he said. To him, archiving the experience of Yale students during COVID-19 holds significant value both for the present moment and the future. He believes the project creates a space for students to share their experiences and participate in the creation of the historical record, in addition to raising awareness of the role of the University Archive at Yale. 

    ARCHIVING EFFORTS 

    The pandemic has complicated Lotstein’s ability to do his job. The archive now has a strict schedule that limits the number of people allowed in any day. Lotstein currently works from his home in Hamden roughly half of the week processing digital records, and spends the other half on campus fulfilling requests for access to archival records.

    “The biggest challenge for me is just making sure that students are getting access to what they needed in a timely manner,” Lotstein said. “I think that’s something that my whole department has been struggling with because so much of our digitization efforts are reliant upon student work that no longer exists.”

    While the archive gets the same amount of requests for records, Lotstein isn’t able to get students what they need as quickly due to restrictions on how many staff can work in person at a time. “Our volume has stayed the same, but our staffing has plummeted,” Lotstein shared. “We’ve all had to pitch in.” Lotstein sometimes goes in extra days throughout the week to scan documents for students who need archival information. 

    Despite these everyday challenges, Lotstein sees the work as critical. The archives present a crucial, though often overlooked, connection between the past, present and future. “The value of archiving is that without it, there’s no historical record,” Lotstein said. “Things will just vanish without somebody out there preserving them.” 

    At the same time, archivists must be attentive to current events and have enough foresight to know what will be important to preserve for the future. “There’s a trend towards archivists as activists, meaning that there is a recognition of the importance of events as they’re happening in real time, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, whether it’s social justice movements, whether it’s going back a few years to Occupy Wall Street or when you live in a community that just suffered a mass shooting,” Lotstein said. “The records that are being created through interviews with survivors or interviews with people on the ground protesting or documentation being produced through artistic expression or journalistic inquiry. The records that … come out of all of these active events need to be collected.”

    Michelle Peralta and other archivists with Yale Manuscripts and Archives are working on a project called Hindsight 2020, which aims to paint a picture of the lived experiences of the greater New Haven community through online submissions. Lotstein’s project, and its prompts, focus primarily on Yale students, with one prompt open for contributions from Yale faculty and staff as well. 

    “Archivists need to be conscious of the fact that the … historical record is going to be built on these events,” Lotstein said. “It’s important that archivists maintain connections with groups and organizations in their communities … to make sure that these records are being [kept].”

    While the Yale archive has actively collected student experiences since the University’s founding, Lotstein believed that collecting practices have ebbed and flowed over the years.

    “When I took over in 2015, one of the things that I noticed pretty much immediately [is] that there had been significant under-collecting of records documenting student life on campus,” Lotstein said. “I’ve really tried to make my focus around collecting the records of student organizations.” Lotstein argued that archiving student work and records from other student organizations as part of the University Archive is worthwhile. Yet Lotstein noted that most organizations were surprised that the archives wanted to record the student experiences on campus; evidently, most people aren’t used to thinking of posterity or their place in history as they go about their lives at Yale. Lotstein was pleased to enlighten them here: Archiving their work and events “demonstrates the value of who they are, what they do and the records they produce,” he shared.

    Unexpected support for the Help Us Make History project came about through a collaboration with a group of Saybrugians — Henry Jacob ’21, Micah Young ’21 and Adam Haliburton ’10 GRD ’21 — who developed a podcast called “Say and Seal.” The podcast, which has released two episodes so far, features interviews with students about leaves of absences. Future episodes plan to cover public health and politics.  

    Early in the process, a mutual friend suggested that they reach out to Lotstein. When they did, the University archivist was enthusiastic about the prospect of helping support their podcast and including it in the official archive, especially because he shared a connection to Saybrook — Lotstein has been a Saybrook Fellow since 2012.

    As this is Lotstein’s first time supporting production for a podcast, he has welcomed the “fantastic, serendipitous experience” to learn more about podcast creation. Although “98 percent of the work was the three of them,” Lotstein said he has “pitched in … University resources when they needed it.”

    The inclusion of the podcast as an audio component to the primarily written COVID-19 archive has benefited the project.

    Haliburton feels that “an official history can always be made more illuminating, more filled-out, with contemporaneous voices.” 

    Jacob considers the podcast to be a “small-scale project” for the Yale community. “If one student in 50 years listens to an episode and uses it for a class, or even finds it interesting, I think our job is done,” he said.

    LOOKING FORWARD

    In processing the submissions to the Help Us Make History project, Lotstein has been struck by “the extraordinary way that they’ve been able to communicate their feelings and their opinions.” Lotstein said the submissions have been “so cogent and so eloquent in such a small amount of text or within the context of a photograph or a video or the podcasts.” 

    Lotstein acknowledged that it’s hard to know how the archive will be used in the future, but said he anticipates the perspectives contained in the archive being valuable for future researchers, students and professors. By collecting a wide variety of information and opinions in the project, future researchers will be better equipped to understand student experiences during the pandemic. Lotstein also speculates that if online learning becomes a larger part of Yale in the future due to the shift online that began with the pandemic, the project will play a large role in preserving the reflections of students living through the change.

    Lotstein hopes that on an emotional level, preserving the Help Us Make History project for the future will “allow people to step out of the experience and give them a chance to heal, mentally, physically, emotionally.” And for some, revisiting the archive later on “may bring up a lot of feelings” or help them “find some sense of closure,” he said.

    In collecting and preserving the experiences and memories of students during the pandemic, he hopes that current and future students will find the record useful. “My hope would be that this project helps … bring everyone together under that common cause of perseverance through the pandemic.”

    Credit: Michael Lotstein