Quarantine Log: 4/30/2020.
This morning, in my social-distancing fog, I watered my seedlings in their black trays on the counter–tomatoes, peppers, chard, melons, rapini and the host of others. They’re looking as wan and winding as the rest of us, I suppose, and probably just want to get to the earth where they belong. I’ve had to quit any kind of caffeine because it was pushing my anxiety to new stratospheres. So before sitting down to write, I guzzled some insipid herbal tea and came up to my little office above the garage, where the dog is sighing outside the door because he wants to get in. This place is my escape from the television minute by minute, repeat by repeat, account of the pandemic. Currently I’m staring, beady eyed, out my little window at the mallard and his mate who have elected to nest in the garden box we built for the chard. I can’t help but notice how they aren’t social distancing. When I watch old movies I want to scream at the characters to get the heck away from one another, stop eating out in restaurants, put on a mask for god’s sake.
Now, I check the Saving Sicily site Giovanni Pisciotta and I started on March 25–forever ago, but surprisingly also just a month and five days. Time is crumpled. The site is slowing down. We used to get three or four sponsors a day, now it takes us days to get one. We knew this would happen. This is reality, again, flipping in the days of covid-19.
Giovanni and I have been Facebook friends since 2014, apparently. How we ever got connected, I don’t recall, but for some of February and most of March, I watched Giovanni post increasingly frantic messages from his flat in Sicily– about the disease, the conditions, the deaths, and the lack of food as the lockdown wore on. Giovanni and his neighbors live in Palermo, more specifically in San Fillipo Neri, in an area referred to as ZEN for zone espansione norde. Of course, I didn’t know that at first and thought the sheets hanging from the windows painted with the letters ZEN indicated some kind of modern buddhist awareness. No, ZEN is an area with real poverty long before covid-19. The building Giovanni and his neighbors live in is “occupied” which means it was not originally meant for residence but the inhabitants have converted it from an office building to flats. And there they live. Most are daily workers who are paid in cash. Most are people with no savings at all. The lockdown meant they had no money and no food.
In a three second message exchange while we were discussing the virus world, I said to Giovanni, “let’s set up a page to help the people in your neighborhood get money for food. We can match them up with people over here who would like to help.” I didn’t think it through, it just blurted out. I think he hesitated, but it’s hard to know in messaging, and then he agreed. His hesitance, if there was one, was out of intelligence because how do you even do this? But he didn’t say that. He said,” Okay, let’s”.
At the time, there were few cases in America and we were in no way suffering like Italy. And when Italy suffers, we know Sicily suffers more for a host of reasons that belong in another piece, but take my word for it. We built the page in twenty minutes.
Figuring out how to get money from Americans who wanted to help to Sicilians with bare cupboards was a challenge because Giovanni and I did not want to handle any funds ourselves. We preferred to be matchmakers and have the funds pass directly from donor to recipient. To complicate matters, most of the people we were aiming to help had no bank accounts to receive money through PayPal or equivalents. We have relied on Western Union in person pickups. It’s pretty simple. Giovanni becomes aware of someone in his building or very nearby who is in dire need, and we put the person up in the group and wait for a sponsor. Then we give that person the necessary information to help. It’s not been fancy or very professional. There’s no real process aside from Giovanni’s assertion. I should tell you, the man has been an advocate for the rights of the poor for decades. I should also tell you he grew up in New York, and so his bilingualism made this work.
We have been able to help a group of about 25 families– including the mother with adult children, everyone out of wok; the couple with a baby who live in a garage; the family with a child on a nebulizer who had no food and no money for epinephrine; the young man whose family is his partner and his even younger brother and many more. Many of the families pick up their funds and go directly to the grocery store, masked with their passes to be out in their pockets. And when they return home with food, they post their thanks, often with a photo of their kitchen table, covered in what they have bought: passata, flour, sugar, pasta, potatoes, cookies, diapers, and once, a chocolate egg for Easter. Usually a donation has allowed the family enough food to last a week. It’s nothing but it’s everything.
Many who have donated have connections to Italy–in life, in family, or simply in their hearts. I watched my cousin who’s had her hours cut continue to help a particular woman in the group. They have since started a connected cooking page (Cookbook Cousins). I saw ex-students of mine and colleagues and friends and people I didn’t know step in. I saw grace and compassion and humility, and lots and lots of heart emojis. And I saw food. I saw people who were at the ultimate level of stress comforted just a little because someone cared and because there was something to eat.
Giovanni stayed up into morning hours to collect legal names and telephone numbers and email addresses, to communicate and translate. Several times he accompanied his neighbors to the store to help them bring back their shopping. Several times he was shaken by the conditions he saw, and he’s no stranger to difficult conditions. We worked fast
because we knew the window would close. And that work benefited me in no small way. To DO something when chaos reigns gives a person some sense of control–misguided as that sense may be. Saving Sicily was the cure for the daily White House briefings, well if not the cure, at least a salve. I sat on my couch in the basement and heard the footsteps of two of my grown sons above. They are essential workers, young electricians apprentices, and we have divided the house because they are still out in the world, and my husband and I are not. I hear my children, and I leave them dinner at the front door each night. Sometimes I see them pass by the windows. If they were to fall sick, I’d have to decide whether to touch them or not. At random times during the day, I think about that. If they were to have to go to the hospital, would I touch them before they left? How could I not? See? Those are the kinds of thoughts the project made me too busy to dwell upon. They pass before me and I acknowledge them, but then I attend to the group.
However, today I see the group is slowing down, naturally. The US tops the charts in cases and in deaths. Need in Sicily has not diminished in any real way, but ability has. We all think harder about every single penny, about every ounce of energy, about whether we should buy the 50 pound sack of flour online, about the rupturing of the food supply chain, about whether our trade or career will survive. For many, the trade or career is already faltering or laying smashed on the rocks like a heap of nothing. The slowdown in the group indicates to me yet another reckoning.
The dog is still waiting patiently behind the door, five of my parents’ friends have died of covid-19, as you can see, I cannot separate myself from the situation, or myself from the project or myself from the Sicilians. I cannot separate much these days. We have long diminished the interconnectivity that is a fact.Whether it was in favor of individualism or just the mood of the time, times have changed. We have changed, and we will change some more. As far as Saving Sicily goes, a great love between members of the group in ZEN and in the US (and UK) has grown, and that, I think will last forever because love does last forever.
We will continue at this slower pace; we will continue even at a near standstill, should that happen. At times when we cannot help with money or groceries we will write out to one another to say buon giorno, buona notte, and are you okay? I’m sorry to hear about your grandma, How’s the baby? Do you think this will ever end?
Christina Marrocco writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her work often focuses on ethnicity in America and working class issues. Her poetry and short stories can be found in Ovunque Siamo, Silver Birch Press, and the Laurel Review. Academic work in DLB, VIA, etc. .Christina is currently preparing a book of Siclilian-American interwoven short stories for publication and teaching a variety of writing courses at Elgin Community College outside of Chicago, where she has been a professor and active in international and social justice concerns for over a decade. She has a collection of short stories forthcoming from OVUNQUE SIAMO PRESS.