June 2020

crown heights, brooklyn 8am

monica hunken

Monday morning 8am. Hammering and drilling starts up in my building. It’s getting gut renovated. My new landlord bought out every other tenant but three of us remain, holding strong onto the rare gem that is a rent stabilized apartment in New York City. And yet, even in a pandemic, he has worked the system to label this construction as “essential” in order to barrel through. I live with workers coming in and out of the building, some not wearing masks, while I hear them coughing through paper-thin walls, (is it dust? Is it the virus? Who knows?) and occasionally my ceiling falls through.  


I try to tune it out and prepare to teach my daily warm-up class online, which is the saving grace of my day. About a dozen friends, family and acquaintances pop up in my screen, dancing, stretching and meditating with me from across the world. I am responsible for something, for someone else. I have to reach in and draw out my best self, sharing some grounding techniques in these most unstable times. When I finish, I squeeze in a little bit of work for a non-profit organizing against fossil fuel infrastructure, and then grab my mask, sanitizer, helmet, hi-viz vest and race out the door for my new frontline job working as a trainer for cargo bike delivery workers in road and pandemic safety.


Biking through Brooklyn to work in midtown Manhattan, I fly past whole neighborhoods that seem to completely ignore health and safety practices. The streets are quieter but not as quiet as you’d expect. Birdsong pierces through car traffic if you listen closely. I glance at local favorite businesses and wonder which ones will survive, remembering that in the wake of the last financial crash, we lost dozens and big banks sprouted up everywhere like, well, like a virus.

In Manhattan the sidewalks are mostly full of homeless people, spreading out as if the city is theirs now. Let them have it. I make it to Bryant Park and walk past security guards at the entrance to Whole Foods, which is now only operating for delivery. Yes, that means I am now an employee of Amazon, a truly apocalyptic job in the epitome of disaster capitalism.


First stop is getting my temperature checked from a few feet away by a thermometer that looks like a polaroid camera. If I pass, then I can head in to work setting up the bike trailer and disinfecting everything. I go upstairs to what was the cafe area, now a resting spot for employees, and deliver my safety speech to the applicant hopefuls who roll in daily. I talk them through safety precautions for the virus and how I don't want any of them to martyr themselves just so that Manhattanites can still get their sushi. And then we go over road safety and I take each one of them out on an individual test to see how they fare in the streets on the heavy electric cargo bike. One of them is a biochemist. The other was a drag club promoter who brags to me about all the stars she knows. Another is from Corona, Queens and confides in me that he has already lost multiple family members to complications from COVID-19 but he has to keep working and provide for his kids. They are all out of work, desperate and scared. We bike through wind, rain and hail storms. 


I clock out and start my journey home, always feeling so much more exhausted on the way back. The ride seems twice as long. I always bike past one of the refrigerator trucks parked outside a hospital that acts as a temporary morgue. I could take another street, but I feel compelled to witness and see the thin plastic strips dividing the living from the dead, to remind myself to take this seriously, to recommit myself to protecting my community.


I sometimes arrive at my block minutes before 7pm and this one guy leaps out on his stoop in pajamas banging a pot valiantly, shouting and cheering, asking us all to join him. I smile and clap too. Only a few others join us. I live in a mostly poor black neighborhood near a housing project, and I can understand why the working class are reticent to join this global expression of gratitude. It seems to beg a continuance of exploitation. Yes, thank you for risking your lives on the frontlines for us. We can’t offer much, but we give you our humble thanks. The intention is good but we need more. As one person said, “We can’t eat applause.” We need to overhaul the system, a system that is ready for war at the drop of a hat, but is floundering to provide masks for doctors.


And that’s just the beginning of the week.

MONICA DUDÁROV HUNKEN grew up in Carmel, California and lives in Brooklyn. She is a theater-maker, monologuist, activist and teacher. She has toured her shows internationally to the UK, Europe, Australia and the Middle East. As a direct action trainer / activist in environmental and human rights, she has occupied corporate premises, dropped banners from many American structures and stood on countless police lines. She currently works for the organisation Beautiful Trouble and is a singer in brass band.  She has ridden a bicycle across more than 20 countries and loves going to Coney Island, jumping in the ocean in winter and then warming up at a Russian bathhouse. www.monicahunken.com 


(Image credit: Skeletons (calaveras) riding bicycles, c. 1900, José Guadalupe Posada, Metropolitan Museum of Art)