When I collect the rent at their walk-up buildings in the Heights, I use my staccato Spanglish and the smattering of Arabic phrases I am likely butchering. I try to make small talk with the tenants. How are they doing? Some are willing to chat, others not. Not everyone wears a mask when they hand me cash, which I am terrible at counting. Sometimes they look at my gloves with a smirk. Can they see the uneasy smile that’s hidden behind my mask? Does it show in my eyes? Does it matter?
My first day on the job, a tenant I’ll call Eduardo told me he could pay April, but likely not May, and from there, who knows? He lost his job at a local restaurant, and his wife, a few months pregnant with their first child, had also been laid off. When he handed me a wad of cash—singles, 20s, a few 50s to count—I asked him first if they had enough for food. He assured me they did, for now.
My parents met while learning English in the 1970s, beneficiaries of the 1965 Hart-Cellars Act, which lifted long-standing racist quotas on emigration from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. My Ecuadorian mom swore my Egyptian dad was Puerto Rican and too proud to speak Spanish, while he thought she was Filipina. He worked as a busboy at Knickerbocker restaurant; she, as a secretary at a ribbon factory. Barely 20 years old, they married secretly within a few months’ time, much to my abuelita’s chagrin. They managed to learn a second language together without sharing a first. And over 40-plus years built a family, and a few small businesses—between, around, and through those pregnant pauses anyone using a second language knows well.
Our Place was one of those businesses, a greasy spoon that never knew the luxury of a separation between work and home life. Regular customers like Ralph and Neil would scoop up my siblings from school and walk them to the back of the restaurant, where I entertained myself in a makeshift playpen while my parents served up generously portioned meals for $5 or less. Our Place would be hurting in this crisis. The response of local and federal governments to protect the small immigrant-run businesses that are the lifeblood of Jersey City has been anemic. Many have closed permanently.
Now, we are the landlords of those small businesses, a step (or staircase) removed from the front line of this economic crisis, but a part of it no less. My parents became landlords after experiencing the powerlessness of being displaced tenants. A new landlord didn’t renew the lease to their restaurant, a coffee shop in New York City called Straw Place, on 23rd and Lexington. They never wanted to be in the “pocket” of a landlord again—so they became one, eventually, where it was more within their means: Jersey City. There’s empathy that comes from similar lived experiences. It informs how my parents have handled the peculiar profession of owning and managing the property where other people make their homes and livelihoods.
Eduardo started working again. His wife—call her Amelia—is due any day now. She mentioned that Christ Hospital, which is within walking distance, is no longer accepting maternity patients because of Covid concerns. She said she’ll have to go to the Medical Center instead. I gave her my phone number in case she needs a ride.
Some of our tenants are essential workers at tiny produce shops. Others have been on Section 8 or disability as long as they’ve been our tenants, and the pandemic has yet to affect their ability to make rent. Others are furloughed or, worse, unemployed. Not all are eligible for government support.
For those who’ve had trouble making rent, we’ve set up payment plans. Some have used their security deposits; and are set to pay that back, little by little. Others are getting by with help from their family or friends. Thus far, everyone has been managing with this piecemeal solution to a systemic problem. And if it at some point it stops “working,” it means that we can’t pay our insurance, property repairs, taxes, or incomes.
My father may sell one of the buildings. The other day he led interested parties up the long narrow stairway, leaning on his cane for support. Nearly every tenant opened the door and exchanged niceties with him, but they refused to allow the prospective owner in.
Sometimes, my dad is direct about his desire for me to take over the family business. Before the pandemic, I had never seriously considered it. I had preferred to observe, to make films, to protest, to write and fundraise for social justice nonprofits imagining alternatives to the rat race that is late-stage racial capitalism. That’s how we make change, right? By raising awareness? I had never considered myself to be a responsible party, an agent, someone to be held to account. Yet, what becomes more possible when we bring ourselves into the frame?
Arundhati Roy urges us to understand the pandemic as a “portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” Families at the front line of this crisis are taking urgent direct action to protect themselves and their loved ones by organizing rent strikes and occupying vacant homes. The calls to cancel the rent continue.
As Jersey City edges further toward the unaffordable, violent blandness synonymous with gentrification by the Trumps and Kushners of real estate, it is the mom-and -pop landlords who, at their discretion, keep the city vaguely affordable for working-class immigrants and people of color. Systemic solutions to the speculative market and displacement, like community land trusts, are sorely needed.
Now, I wonder: For those of us with a modicum of privilege and power, what’s our place, our cross-class contribution to opening this “pandemic portal”? Which “dead ideas” will we try to shoehorn through? What new can we grow, in the shell of the old? Can we apply the imagination we often only talk about, and usher in a new phase in our relationship to land and ownership? What can we make of our labor and legacy?
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.