March 31, 2020
Today, walking to get groceries on the phone with my mother, I saw a black hole where my corner Deli used to be. Shocked, I wondered how could I have typed on my laptop, oblivious, an hour earlier when a fire was being extinguished 100 feet away from me. I guess it was just one more siren, I don’t even notice them anymore these days.
José stood on the sidewalk, looking at the building and far away at the same time. As I stepped in he would always warn me if he had run out of Negra Modelo. His “cuidese” was quiet but tender, the one of an older man concerned for a young woman out there on her own. Lately his Dominican music radio had been replaced by the sound of news in Spanish, talking about New York. I remember thinking that I was happy his business didn’t have to close.
A family of seven waited in the street to get inside their burnt apartment at the first floor, to look for their documents before driving to a hotel provided by the Red Cross. An old woman collected bottles of juice scattered on the floor to bring them home, if she had one.
I tried to imagine what it must feel like to see a life of sacrifices burn in front of you in a few minutes. It is, metaphorically, what’s been happening to workers from every social sphere, with some structural differences, in the last few weeks. The charred register out on the sidewalk, the keys still inside.
As a friend said yesterday: “You’re always prepared for the possibility of losing your job. You’re not prepared for the possibility of everybody losing their jobs at the same time and there being no work available. That’s just something that we have never experienced.”
Then, I didn’t want this doubt to come to me but it did: this is the second fire on my street in less than a week. Could desperation be pushing people to collect insurance money? How badly compromised is the business of those who can keep working? My mind kept running in circles as I felt ashamed to be formulating those thoughts.
I look at the Manhattan skyline from my roof in Crown Heights. From here one could think everything’s alright. The City shines splendid. Perhaps a bit more solemn than usual, but I think those are my eyes. I keep thinking of a quote I love, the hardest to live up to. In 1951 Jean Cocteau was asked what he would have taken with him if his house was on fire. He replied: “I believe I would take the fire”.
Song: Harrison Brome – Fill Your Brains
By Gaia Squarci
Gaia Squarci is a photographer who divides her time between Milan and New York, where she teaches multimedia at International Center of Photography. She’s a contributor of Prospekt agency and Reuters. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time Magazine, Vogue, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, among others. Her work has been exhibited in the United States, Italy, France, Switzerland or in the UK.