“This is the valley of ashes, a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the form of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally, a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.” - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Elmhurst. A neighborhood in the borough of Queens in New York City. As a human demarcated geographical rhombus, it is bound by Roosevelt Avenue, Junction Boulevard, the Long Island Expressway, and the New York Connecting Railroad. At first, it was European-colonially established as Middleburgh in 1652 by the English Puritans who were seven miles away from the Dutch in New Amsterdam. The settlement was not even a mile away north from the Maspat tribe (now called the neighborhood Maspeth). In 1664, it became the rural community of Newtown before it transitioned to be a part of the Greater City of New York in the 1890s. Thus became Elmhurst, a grove of elm trees. We have the New York City businessman and politician Cord Meyer to thank. My home.
I feel as though my pursuits are my own doing. I can never keep what I have kept nor remain stable for myself or for my former selves. To lose everything. To leave it all behind from friends, to family, to a feeling and sense of home. I had no bounds anymore when I packed a suitcase, a duffel bag, backpack, around $1000 in my bank account, and no place to rest. It took a month of being unstable and ungrounded in New York City. I remember walking under the trees that line the street – which is bizarre, and I cannot find any place like it ---- I knew this would be where I could settle, rest, and for what seems like the first time in my life, live.
If you have never heard of Elmhurst, then don’t worry about it. You probably have. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Elmhurst became the center of the center. The epicenter for Covid. March 2020. Elmhurst Hospital. One of the only places that were taking people with Covid in the city.
The world felt like it was ending. I was in graduate school, and nearly everyone in my class left the city. A couple of us stayed. I was one of them. We all stayed inside. Masks were hard to come by. We washed everything. We disinfected everything. My roommates and I stayed in our rooms and never saw each other face to face. A room with a view to an outside I couldn’t access or was afraid to access. No one was walking. It felt like a fictional depiction of a war zone. We had to ration everything. Food, paper goods, masks, gloves, hand sanitizer. We were all afraid. We were the epicenter of it all. It seemed like the world was watching us, waiting to see what would happen to the neighborhood.
I got Covid a couple of weeks ago. From a room with a view to an outside, I remember feeling my body change. It felt unbalanced. I felt off. I couldn’t explain it. The next day, I woke up at 4am with an intense fever. I couldn’t sleep with my body on fire. Nothing else felt off. When the sun was up, I got tested, got a positive result, and immediately called a cab to be driven to an isolation hotel near LaGuardia in East Elmhurst. NYC has a program for those who tested positive, live with people who have Covid, or those who feel they have been exposed to Covid isolate in a hotel for ten days. Food is included. It’s free. The nurses do vital checks twice a day, once in the morning and again at night. They also check up on you twice during the night (I was not a fan of these because they would be at 2am and 5am with breakfast coming at 7am). You also had the opportunity to have fresh air or smoke breaks three times a day. I spent the majority of the time laying in bed, being a host to the virus that was consuming me.
When you add the population of Jackson Heights, a neighborhood directly north of Elmhurst, you have the most ethnically diverse place in the world. The whole world lives and is embodied in central Queens. It is a place for immigrants. It is the place with the best food in New York City. You rarely hear English spoken. You hear variations of tongues. Spanish. Cantonese. Punjabi. Russian. Tagalog. Hindi. Korean. Javanese. Polish. French Creole. It is a place for immigrants, whether recent or a part of a generational line. What did they have to lose when they came to Queens?
Elmhurst Hospital is significant not only because of Covid but as well as the community it serves. As a hospital central to a synecdoche of the human world, they offer at least 150 different languages. It is easy to be understood here. As the world was watching, Covid was taking over nations not only geographically but also with the people here. We lost restaurants, bars, medical practices, convenience stores, and other places run and operated by the people who lived here. People from all over the world. We lost so many people. Those we would always see trying to make a living, the ones most vulnerable to being exposed, gone. We lost so much.
I lay in bed. I do not know what the time is. All I know is when breakfast, lunch, and dinner need to be served. I know when I need to be up so the nurses can check in on me. Each time is a battle. I feel myself going away. I am losing the ability to sit up straight. I’m losing my sense of smell and taste. I’m losing my mind as I find mysterious items in places I don’t remember placing them. I am losing my body to Covid. I am losing whatever hope I have to feel like I can beat this. I have never felt so cold. My fever didn’t show up until my fourth day of isolating, but I have never held a fever for so long. It was five days. I have felt so alone in my room with no one to talk to. But then again, I didn’t have the ability to talk or communicate. I couldn’t use my phone whenever people reached out. I was losing my mind. I was losing sleep. I was afraid to sleep because the fever would start and my hallucinations would begin. I feel like someone is coming into this room to kill me, but I can’t lock the door due to the hotel rules. I can’t sleep. My mind and body won’t let me. I am forced to keep my eyes open and just feel myself losing to Covid.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is a novel of loss and trying one’s best to retain it. Nearly all the characters lost something, or lack something, and do whatever they can to get it. The Valley of Ashes is the place for loss. Between Manhattan and the opulent world of deeper Queens and Long Island (called West and East Egg), we appear to be in a valley where blue-collar workers and their spouses live in a polluted industrial field they cannot get out of. Fitzgerald never used real locations besides Manhattan to create the setting of his novel. Still, we can easily point to West Egg being Great Neck and East Egg to Sands Point. What was the Valley of Ashes? Central Queens. Jackson Heights, Corona, Elmhurst. That’s my speculation. We don’t really know.
A few weeks ago, heavy rains came to New York from Hurricane Henri. Central Queens flooded. I was on the bus on my way home. A firefighter stopped the bus and said that the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway can’t be accessed due to a flash flood. As we got closer to my place, we stopped. There was nothing but water. My place of living was a huge pond. The subway stations were flooded. Anyone who was not home could not get home. Our bus driver decided to drive through and risk it. Driving through, our bus flooded. Water was on my knees. I felt like I was in a movie. My whole world was underwater.
I couldn’t sleep. There was so much water below. I feel very lucky to live on the top floor. I couldn’t stop watching and reading about the floods that happened here in Queens and in the Bronx. Apartments were underwater. An estimated 50 people died overall. The saddest loss was a whole family being killed due to the flooding. A whole family living in a basement apartment. A whole family gone.
Even if you think you have never seen Elmhurst, you probably have if you’ve ever flown into LaGuardia. After going over the ocean or the familiar cityscapes of Manhattan, you may be shocked to see houses and tiny apartment buildings. You may think it’s more run down compared to the city, but here you have an entire world living and breathing and existing.
In the room with the view to the outside, I watched planes take off and land. I remember when I first touched down here as a resident rather than a visitor. Who knew I would end up where I landed. All my friends live in Brooklyn and wonder when I will move there. I don’t plan on leaving Queens. This place has claimed me. Giving me everything and replacing all the things I thought I lost.
This time, I’m in my room with a view to an outside. I’ve been looking out this window for about two years now. It is strange to actually notice the time. It’s the same landscape even with all the damage done to it. From Covid to heavy flooding to the changes to fall and spring or the heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures of winter. I look down and see that the kids who played outside are now teenagers, and the ones who were in the strollers are now the kids on the bikes. It feels like nothing has changed, but that is false. I no longer think about what is lost.