A native of Clonakilty in West Cork, Julie O’Brien-Grodewald moved to New York City in February 2002, when she was 21. Like so many other emigrants she worked hard, sometimes holding down two or three jobs at a time, and eventually saved up enough to go into partnership in a bar: The Junction NYC, normally a busy local, is located just steps from Grand Central in the heart of midtown Manhattan. Julie is married to Stevie and they have a two-year-old daughter Izzy. She shares her story of how Covid-19 has shaped life today for her family and her adopted city, where the death toll has now reached over 1000.
I remember the first day my chest tightened. It was the day of my wedding anniversary and I woke up happy and thankful – Tuesday March 10, 2020. It was a dull kind of a day outside but not super cold, so I took my paperwork from the bar and hopped on my bike. I rode along the east river, to a spot I sometimes work from in Battery Park, a beautiful sanctuary along the Hudson River. Lady Liberty stands tall in front of me and usually there is a gaggle of tourists around the Freedom Tower and New Yorkers working on Wall Street and the finance sector behind me. I somehow find the mix calming. Only on this day there was no hustle and bustle from tourists or traders. Covid-19 had already been wrecking havoc in China and Italy at this point and had started taking its toll on tourism here in New York. But it was as if a lot of us were still feeling untouchable – that this monster somehow couldn’t get to us. Seeing lower Manhattan so eerily quiet gave me my reality check and it terrified me.
I called my dad and asked him to cancel his flight from Ireland into NYC for March 18. My initial worry about him arriving on my busiest week of the year smack in the middle of Paddy’s Day festivities and the March Madness Basketball Tournament had quickly turned into a fear for his safety travelling to one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
A couple of days later on March 12, they shut the schools in Ireland. A couple of days after this they called for closure of the schools in New York.
At the time, I felt so uneasy looking at all these bars and restaurants still open and people partying like it was 1999 (excuse the pun, gotta love Prince).
I had all these thoughts running around in my head. If I close my bar voluntarily now, what would it do? Would it make matters worse? Would it mean my neighbouring bar would end up getting crowded and therefore make it even more unsafe, with everyone hanging out together in such close proximity.
My head felt like playdoh – a mush of what ifs. I thought why doesn’t the government call for our closure? And then a second later what am I going to do if they do call for our closure? How will I pay rent? How will my staff eat? Do I have enough in the bank for my family to survive a few months with no income? Why did I pick the last year to start investing in the stock market? The same thoughts I’m sure as thousands of bar owners in NYC. My heart went out to my two business partners who have investments in multiple bars and not just one.
The next couple of days we kept the bar open, albeit with a very limited staff due to it being quieter. There was also the fear of not being able to pay our staff if things were to continue this way.
Then Governor Cuomo Came on the air and called for all bars and restaurants in NY to be closed by the night of March 16. That is when it felt like someone released a squeeze on my chest. The tightness started to lift; for the first time since that day I sat by the water downtown, I knew in my heart, irrespective of my own economic concerns, for myself and for the city, that this was the absolute right decision. It calmed me to know that our government were now taking this pandemic, and all of our safety, really truly seriously.
March 17, 2020, the St. Patrick’s Day that will never be forgotten. I spent the day shutting down the bar, changing locks, boarding up the windows for the unforeseeable future. That same day my husband Stevie got laid off from his job at the hotel due to its closure. It was a sad day for us, as I’m sure it was for a lot of people, but we were kept busy and, at the end of the day, we smiled when we got home to our two-year-old, Izzy, who always makes everything better. Thankfully she is at an age that she doesn’t understand what is going on. I find myself sympathising with people who have older kids or multiple kids or kids not with them, perhaps with another parent in a different state or country; like my husband Stevie who has a 15-year-old daughter living with her mum in Colorado – how hard this is for them.
My days are now taken up with puzzles, crafts and obstacle courses built out of furniture, abiding by the laws of isolation in our small 700 square foot Manhattan apartment. I splurged and bought an indoor slide for Izzy, as I felt bad every time we passed the locked park in our little community. How do you explain to a two-year-old that she’s suddenly not allowed to play in a playground? The slide has now consumed our living room but when it gives her so much joy, it only helps to make me and Stevie happy.
My little family has become closer. However I am seeing a change in our form. A couple of weeks of isolation can take a toll. I think we have become a little more secluded in our own thoughts. It isn’t a terrible thing. We just need our own time. I don’t think this makes us any less strong as a family; I love my husband and my daughter more than ever. But being together 24/7 is exhausting over a long period of time. We are both used to working fulltime and juggling our lives with work and a part-time nanny. Alba has been with us since Izzy was two-months-old. She is more like family at this point. I worry about her and her kids and if they are going to be ok. I know she misses Izzy, as much as she is missed.
It’s hard to get motivated. We should be taking this time to work out more, get healthier, clean the closets, but it’s hard when your mind is consumed by terrifying thoughts for the future of the world let alone the future of our individual lives.
I speak to my sisters and my parents on a regular basis. In the two decades I have lived in New York, I never once worried or needed to be scared of an attack in my home country, in remote West Cork Ireland…until now.
I think about my ‘Work Family’ a lot, my staff whom I have become so close to, who I believe to be the most hardworking and dedicated workers in any bar in NYC. They care so much about each other and the people whom they serve. A few of them have worked for me for eight years plus, had babies, come back, moved home to Ireland, come back. Two of my chefs have been with me for 10 years. I worry about them having the funds to survive during the time The Junction is closed, as we had to lay everyone off. Two have moved home to Ireland to be close to their family during this ordeal. I wonder who else will make the move and, if they do, will they be able to come back?
The future of The Junction is in the air. I’m sure there will be changes. People will be missing from the other side of the bar too – the effects of the coronavirus. We are located in a section of midtown and Murray Hill that is heavily reliant on tourism from hotels and workers from office buildings. Hopefully the neighbouring hotels will not be a permanent closure and the offices will rehire our regular customer base that has been laid off. I wonder how many have been able to file for unemployment being that the phone lines are jammed, and the online site keeps crashing with the hundreds of millions of people who have logged on in the past couple of weeks who suddenly found themselves unemployed. Stevie and I both have not yet been able to file.
I hope that we will re-open in a couple of months…and with a full staff…and a bar full of my wonderful loyal regulars. I miss them all and I hope that they are all keeping isolated and safe.
I walk up to the bar every few days just to run the water and check that everything is ok. I make the 30-minute walk uptown through the streets of Manhattan and it is so quiet, kind of like a holiday weekend when the whole city leaves to go to the beach or upstate. I used to love those weekends staying in the city, everything being so calm and mellow. Now it’s unnerving. The few people I pass make sure to step a few feet to the side, or off the sidewalk altogether out of fear of being too close. The few taxis on the street drive by with no fares in them, cabbies all with worried frowns. I get to 39th Street. The bar is dark from the plywood covering the windows and the quiet is lonely and strange.
I walk home a different route along First Avenue that brings me by a couple of hospitals. To the side of one of the NYU buildings what looks like a refrigeration truck without wheels has been set up to act as perhaps a morgue? Men in camouflage guard the dead.
What is going to be the final count? When will everyone start taking this seriously, abiding by the laws of the lockdown – the fools that gather in parks and on trains for non-essential reasons? What is the number where these people get scared into caring? Today, March 29, there is more than 1000 dead in New York, over 30,000 worldwide, more than 10,000 of those in Italy. White tents now fill the lawns of Central Park – an emergency field hospital. The Javits Centre, one of the largest convention centres in the nation, has also been transformed into a temporary hospital. What does this mean for a city like New York with a population density greater than in any American municipality. Everyone will be touched by this, in one way or another, but how many will lose their lives?
One day soon I will make the walk up to The Junction to unlock the door and take down the boards that block the sunlight out. That day there will be a rainbow and I will be following it to the other side. I hope that a lot of people in the world will be doing the same thing. What has humbled and scared us all will unite us and strengthen us. We will get through this.
Julie has set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds to help her staff through this tough time. If you can afford to donate the price of a pint or two to help out, follow the link below and be sure to stop by The Junction the next time you’re in New York where the welcome is always warm.