lonely city

‘I Just Need a Hug’: How Solo New Yorkers Survive Self-Isolation

Cesar Cardenas gets some fresh air while quarantining in his Carroll Gardens apartment, March 22, 2020.
Cesar Cardenas gets some fresh air while quarantining in his Carroll Gardens apartment, March 22, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Her Harlem street was quiet and her studio apartment dark when Liz Jackson wrote her name, the date and, in small handwriting on a blank, gridded page: “Is anyone else quarantining alone?”

She took a picture of the note and posted it on Instagram.

Jackson, who is 37 and immunocompromised, had been alone in her home for nearly a week because of coronavirus. Her closest contact was with an ex-girlfriend, Megan, with whom she shares a dog.

Megan bought groceries for Jackson, who could not risk going in the store, and put the bag on the ground outside.

“And then she stepped away,” said Jackson. “And I just remember thinking, like, I just need a hug.”

Even before Gov. Andrew Cuomo instructed the entire state to stay home if possible, New Yorkers began to hunker down in an attempt to protect themselves and “flatten the curve” of viral spread.

For the more than one million residents of the five boroughs who live alone — 58% of whom are women, according to Census Bureau data — the call to isolate oneself can be particularly trying. People are finding themselves separated from the routines, friends and gathering places that usually provide live connection and comfort.

Jackson was just emerging from the gloom of a December breakup when COVID-19 hit the city. She had already started a detailed paint-by-numbers drawing of a photo of her dog. Now she’s limiting herself to an hour of work on it each day to make it last.

“Wrapped in all of this is this deep sense of longing that is unmet,” she said. “Because I know that I wouldn’t choose solitude if I had the choice.”

But even those who love to live alone are grappling with the disruption of the usual balance of solo-but-social city living.

 ‘I Ran Back Up’

Cesar Cardenas looked out the window to see if people were out on Court Street.

He worked on his resume and swept and mopped and threw a fuzzy brown ball to his cat Mushi for about an hour. He has also taken up vaping.

Cardenas, 40, is usually happy to be living by himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He regularly saw friends for dinner and sometimes went to a dance party at 2 a.m.

He would normally pick up vegetables at local shops in Carroll Gardens and walk an extra subway stop or two for the exercise.

Liz Jackson posted a note to Instagram to reach out others who were feeling isolated.
Liz Jackson posted a note to Instagram to reach out others who were feeling isolated. Photo: Liz Jackson

“All of these things that help me push through … throughout the day, are no longer there,” he said from the apartment where he has been holed up since March 7, between jobs and trying to evade coronavirus.

On Thursday, he aborted a mission for cat food and dish soap.

“I was gonna go out and saw people coming toward me on the sidewalk from both directions,” he said. “I ran back up.”

He worries about his 401(k). He worries about his parents dying. He tries to maintain a sense of possibility within the walls.

“Who knows?” Cardenas said. “Maybe I’ll make myself some coffee, maybe I’ll make myself some tea.”

‘Gotta Hold My Composure’

Jack Davis, who is in his fifties, woke up Sunday at 4 a.m., his usual time.

He did pull-ups and push-ups in his one-bedroom apartment. He read a bit of a detective novel and watched “Bloodshot,” an action flick, and “The Photograph,” a love story, on DVD.

He went outside briefly and saw a friend on the street who had also been in prison before. “This feels like one hour rec,” they said to one another.

Davis spent, he estimates, between five and seven years in solitary confinement in prison upstate before his release in 2013.

His thoughts often loop back to people who are still there, and the possibility of passing a bill in Albany that would limit the amount of time people can spend in solitary.

Self-isolation brings up shadows of the “secure housing unit,” the SHU, where Davis was locked alone for months on end in a small, cold cell.
“The loneliness is like you’re in the SHU,” he said.

When he gets bored and would normally go over to a friend’s house, Davis instead sees the SHU.

“I just think about it,” he said. “I think about it, I gotta hold my composure.”

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