Imbalancing Act: 'We Have to Decide Between Paying Rent and Buying Groceries'

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Imbalancing Act: 'We Have to Decide Between Paying Rent and Buying Groceries'
Brooke Cartolano and her son Eliott. Photo:Nikki Constantino

Brooke Cartolano, 29, is raising her 10-year-old son in Oakland, California, where schools are closed and an order was made to “shelter in place” for three weeks.

I’m the general manager of a small local restaurant. For now, the restaurant is staying open, but I, unfortunately, have pretty severe asthma. The owner of the restaurant gave me the option to self-quarantine for 14 days and I made that really difficult decision, even though now I’m not going to have any money coming in. I have a couple of paid sick days that I’m going to use, and I’m going to try to get temporary unemployment and pull money out of my 401K. Other than that, I’m just hoping that it will all work out. I don’t want to die for capitalism.

“I don’t want to die for capitalism.”

I’m actually pretty concerned, because I got the flu last year, even after a flu shot, and it was a lot for my lungs. I was out for about a week taking around-the-clock nebulizer treatments. From what I understand, the coronavirus is worse on your lungs than the average flu for people like me. I don’t have well-controlled asthma on a normal day. If I sweep the house, often that will send me into an asthma attack. There was a daily steroid that helped me, but I stopped taking it, because it was too expensive. My stress level is at a 10. I do what I can to mitigate it, but it’s definitely high stress.

My partner works at an event production company, but we just found out this morning that the company is shutting down for the foreseeable future. They’re paying him through the week and then it’s unemployment after that. It means we’re going to run out of money at some point. We’re in the early stages of discussing whether or not we’re going to pay rent, to be honest. Our rent is really high and, if neither of us is going to have money, we might have to delay paying rent just in order to get more money coming in. We’re still kind of in shock.

I have one kid, my biological son, and I share custody with his dad. School was canceled, so we’re hanging out, cooking at home, doing family stuff, trying to get him to read. I imagine we’re all just going to be hanging out in our art room, doing some sewing projects. I don’t really want to force him to do anything, it’s already been rough for him, because he’s 10, so he understands more than a little kid would, but doesn’t understand as much as an adult would. I think that’s been one of the hardest parts: wanting him to be careful and wash his hands, because he’s away from me half the time with his dad, but not to scare him. We’re trying to impart the seriousness of the situation without him being in tears.

There was one moment where he asked me, ‘Could you die if you got it?’ And I said, ‘Hopefully not, but there is a chance.’

We always play public radio in the background at our house, so my son has heard a lot of the news and he knows that I have asthma. There was one moment where he asked me, “Could you die if you got it?” And I said, “Hopefully not, but there is a chance.” He got pretty upset at that. I don’t know if I should have said that. That’s the hard part: I’m like, “Should I have even said that?” But I don’t want to lie to him either, because he’s old enough that I should tell him the truth. He got teary-eyed and really quiet. So we had to do some couch snuggling until he felt better. It broke my heart.

The “shelter in place” order was scary, but I think it’s the right thing—everyone needs to listen to scientists, and stay the heck home. We took a drive yesterday, stopped off at the beach for some fresh air, but other than that we’ve been at home cooking and cleaning. I might cook more, but my partner cleans the dishes more. We’ve always split things equally. We’ll both probably do some deep cleaning. There will probably be a lot of Netflix binging. My partner is an artist, so he’s excited, looking on the bright side, for some days to paint. I’ll probably get some good reading in. I‘m also a full-time student and the school is still scrambling, they don’t know if they’re going to make everyone go fully online or not.

If I go back to work and school remains closed, I could probably take my son with me. I’ve actually brought him to work a lot, I can stick him at an empty table and let him read a book. We’ll see what happens because it is a small restaurant. If sales get too low, they won’t be able to remain open, period. Being somebody who lives paycheck to paycheck, I think we’re suffering the most right now, and I really need people to remember that. We don’t have a big savings account to turn to, we’re really up in the air right now. We have to decide between paying rent and buying groceries. We’re all scared, we’re terrified.

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