Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Jun 28: Paul Alexander, a political appointee and senior advisor to Michael Caputo, the HHS assistant secretary for public affairs, accuses CDC officials of “undermining the President by reporting on the potential dangers of the coronavirus to pregnant women.  In an email obtained by the Washington Post and directed to Redfield and Caputo, Alexander says that the CDC is frightening women “as if the President and his administration can’t fix this and it is getting worse.”  Coronavirus cases pass 10 million worldwide.*

Contributor's Voices

For $21.90, not including tax, I made the somewhat impulsive decision to buy “Three (3) Live Pet Land Snails, Hand Raised Pet, Educational Fun” off of Ebay from a man named “lucky_gary” who had 547 stars worth of ratings, but then turned out to be a woman named Agnes, whom I immediately assumed to be Hungarian, as my aunt is named Ági (short for Ágnes).

Maybe it was the sense of kinship, or the fact that nothing of note had happened to me or around me for the past four weeks in quarantine, but I made that purchase, along with a small orange rectangular “kritter keeper,” a bag of sphagnum moss, decorative wood pieces, a bag of terrarium soil, and a live ivy plant (which I managed to kill about 2 weeks later).

After I did this, I immediately regretted it; so much anxiety about whether or not they would arrive alive or safe, or if I could take care of them, or if I had bought the right kind. It all overwhelmed me. But I refused to share these worries with anyone as it would have confirmed the lack of faith I had in myself to take care of these snails—and my parents were already against the idea.

When the snails arrived, they were all alive, with an extra sent along, just in case. I managed to place them all in their new home, and I was incredibly happy. I Facetimed all my friends, one by one, naming each snail: Dj Khalid, Mushroomman, Sasuke, and Cabbage. Their personalities became clear: Cabbage was a little insecure, and would only eat when the others didn’t, Mushroomman was the smallest and would always follow DJ (the biggest) around, and Sasuke had big stripes on his shell. For a good four days, I found so much joy just watching these snails, feeding them, cleaning their “kritter keeper.” I even told my (now online) therapist that this was the best choice I’d ever made since quarantine started.

But as my time spent at home became longer, and the hours in my room seemed endless, the snails were not enough. The things that had brought me the most joy started to collapse in my mind under the pressure of being my only source of excitement. I had carefully crafted my bedroom, and filled it with my favorite eclectic items like the single LED heart earring I got on Valentine’s Day, the McDonald’s Happy Meal toy I stole from my biology class in freshman year, and the painting that hangs over my bed of the Last Supper (but Jesus and his disciples are replaced by different cereal mascots like Tony the Tiger and Aunt Jemima), which I got for 4 dollars at a Goodwill on the Lower East Side. I have always had a soft spot for my plants, which I find  on long treks through Manhattan, and then carry home to the Bronx. I was miraculously gifted my other plants one New Year’s day; I received three different plants, out of the blue, one of which was a four foot tall, wild, and unruly succulent. My plants and items, although seemingly haphazard, were in fact positioned throughout my room, placed perfectly. But as my room became more suffocating under quarantine, my sentimental items instead started to represent a hoard of memories and of what I could be experiencing, enjoying, and loving—if it weren’t for the isolation.

To make matters worse, after three weeks in quarantine, I found I could no longer go outside; even a safe, quick walk wasn’t possible for me when every interaction with strangers seemed unsafe, uneasy, and occasionally hostile. Suddenly everyone was more aware than ever of everyone’s presence, searching and predicting your next step: whether you were wearing a mask or not.

I live in Riverdale in the Bronx, and since “Gov. Cuomo order[ed] all workforce in state to stay home,” people no longer commuted to the city for work. It became a village here, with more people than ever walking the streets out of boredom and sluggishness. They constantly watched for where and when you walked next, out of fear of you and the sickness you might carry. So at the end of the three-week mark, I agreed with myself: I could not leave the house again. It had become too emotionally taxing to have to be aware of all my actions and movements while checking for other’s. It just wasn’t worth the fresh air. And so it got worse.

As I was losing motivation to continue struggling to find meaning and purpose to my life at home, I became more and more distant with my parents, and the snails became more difficult to take care of. I was bad at cleaning their cage because they always pooped; I was bad at giving them fresh food; and I was bad at interacting with them. The fear of something dying because of me, and the burden of a life being solely my responsibility, still kept me feeding them daily and cleaning their cage.

When things got worse, on a Friday, I asked my parents if I could spend the night alone in Poughkeepsie, where they rent a faculty apartment on the Vassar College campus. It’s inside a large Victorian house with eight other tenants. And after a long conversation with my parents, my dad and I left Riverdale for Poughkeepsie, where he dropped me off.

The enormous, inexplicable joy that one night gave me, and the invigorating freedom of cooking a box of Annie’s macaroni and cheese only for myself, and being able to have a space entirely my own, was pure joy. I could sit in the sunroom, where I slept, and at night look out on the cement path, lined by street lights, where stranded students and quarantined neighbors walked as they headed home, while I sat content in my own solitude. I could wake up to the late morning sun by myself and for myself, and do things on my own time and terms, which was incredible and new. To know I needed to make my own food, since no one else would, and to know I needed to go to sleep early, because no one else would wake me up, gave meaning and purpose to my actions since they were entirely my own: I didn’t clean my room for my mom, I didn’t eat my mom’s food because she told me to, I didn’t brush my teeth because my dad told me to. It was all because I wanted to and through this, I was reclaiming my ability to care for myself.

When I came back to Riverdale the next day, it was like coming down from the greatest high of my life. I felt how temporary my incredible excitement and gratification really was, and the crushing lack of control of everything around me had re-entered my mind. Entering my room again, for the first time, I hadn’t even made it through my short, narrow hallway leading to my bedroom before I began sobbing at the idea of facing the place where I felt damned to spend hours doing nothing. The first thing I was faced with were four unfinished drawings and art projects, sprawled across my room. The sight of my room made me cry immediately, overwhelmed with dread.

The following week my parents let me go back up to Poughkeepsie for the rest of the school week; they understood I needed the change, the control. This time I brought my snails. We were happy; they were eating their food, being snails, whatever.

One day, as I was recording my morning routine in Japanese for language class, explaining how I feed my snails “various vegetables” every day, I noticed a small white mite on Cabbage (the snail). I quickly went to look it up. Mites lay eggs underneath the snails’ shells, and they hatch when it becomes warm. The only way to get rid of them for good, I read, is to buy predator mites (mites that don’t harm the snail and eat the harmful mites, but either way I’d still be left with mites). You can’t buy predator mites during a pandemic.

I immediately did everything I could to limit the mites already on the snails: quarantining the snails, giving each a bath, boiling everything in their enclosure, and throwing out the soil. I contacted “lucky_gary,” who said she had never had this problem and didn’t know what to do. While disinfecting their “kritter keeper” enclosure and quarantining the snails, I found that two of my snails, Cabbage and Mushroomman, were also quite literally having sex while this was all happening. I couldn’t take it. I realized the snails were very much alive. They weren’t just a purchase, or a pet; they were existing for more than my own entertainment. The night after spending a day trying to find a cure and doing what I could to help my snails, I couldn’t even sleep from the anxiety and fear that something living in my care would die in my hands, and I could do little to nothing to fix it.

The next day I asked my mom if I should just let them go. She said yes. She had hated them from the start. But I listened and let them go under a shady tree in the corner of our neighbor’s well-kept yard in Poughkeepsie, filled with purple pansies and violets. When I lay them down on the ground, they stayed in their place and immediately began eating the grass, which reassured me this was their rightful place, in the wild, living free for themselves. But I felt guilty.

My parents and friends rationalized my decision, saying that the snails were going to die anyway, so let them live like a snail should before they expire. But it was very clear, at least in my mind, that I was more than willing to let go of the responsibilities and burdens these snails had become in my life. Corona had provided me with an excuse for my own willingness to drop these obligations that no one but myself had brought into my life. I had let my snails go. But as the days passed, I also allowed myself to unburden the guilt and emotions that had come with that. It was about self-preservation, I realized, much like escaping my room at home.

And so now, after letting them go, I wake up in my bed in Poughkeepsie to the sound of a lawnmower in the neighbor’s yard and I hope DJ Khalid, Mushroomman, Sasuke, and Cabbage aren’t dead. I think of them often, and wonder if they too have found the freedom I did in having to take care of myself, feed myself, fend for myself.

–Zsofi Markus, age 16, Manhattan. 

Read more

Code Switch, “Housing Segregation and Redlining in America: A Short History,” NPR, April 11, 2018.

“How a new aristocracy’s segregation puts stress on society,” PBS NewsHour, June 28, 2018.

The Olson Bros Band. Sacha Baron Cohen Trolling at a Rally in Olympia, 2020.

*If the pdf thumbnails are not appearing, please reload the page.

Brian, Amanda M. “The Faux History of the Villages, Florida.” Southern Cultures 20, no. 4 (December 22, 2014): 58.
Croom, Larry D. “Five More Villagers Suffering from COVID-19 as Outbreak Plagues Florida.”, June 28, 2020.
McHugh, Kevin E., and Elizabeth M. Larson-Keagy. “These White Walls: The Dialectic of Retirement Communities.” Journal of Aging Studies 19, no. 2 (May 1, 2005): 241–56.
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Additional Links
  • Blechman, Andrew D. Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2009.

* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.