Brooklyn Heights

Emotions ran high at Tuesday’s standing-room-only book launch for Eric Klinenberg’s book about 2020 — the year COVID changed our lives

February 15, 2024 Elizabeth Kuster
Nell Freudenberger and Eric Klinenberg at Klinenberg's book launch.Photos: John McCarten/Brooklyn Eagle
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Brooklyn Live LogoBROOKLYN HEIGHTS — Tuesday may have been Brooklyn’s snowiest day in two years, but it was a case of nor’easter be damned for the launch of best-selling author Eric Klinenberg’s highly anticipated nonfiction book “2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year Everything Changed.”

Indeed, it was standing room only in the Great Hall at the Center for Brooklyn History in Brooklyn Heights, with the night’s topic giving the occasional cough a rather uncomfortable significance. 

Eyal Press asks a question at Klinenberg's book launch.
Eyal Press asks a question.

Klinenberg, a sociologist and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, was in conversation with Nell Freudenberger, author of the forthcoming pandemic-related novel “The Limits.” “Thanks, everyone, for schlepping here tonight,” he began, after admitting that he’d been in a “dark cloud all day” from fear that the snow would cancel the in-person event. “I was terrified that we’d repeat 2020, and everyone would do this remotely, and no one would show up. So it’s fantastic to be in a room full of beautiful Brooklyn human beings.”

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“We talked about the idea of Zoom being appropriate, and then we were like … NO,” added Freudenberger.

Klinenberg’s book is built around the 2020 stories of New Yorkers from every borough. “I wanted to do my book launch here because the Brooklyn Public Library staff introduced me to [my Brooklyn interviewee],” he told the enrapt crowd.

In Klinenberg’s view, Americans have been “off” ever since the fateful year that is the topic of his book. “We’re more distrustful, more divided,” he said. “2020 was so chaotic, so disorganized, so dysfunctional, on so many levels. Collectively, we lived through this powerful, difficult thing — then we turned our backs on it. We haven’t checked in with ourselves and processed it. And we have to.”

Eric Kilnenberg Signs Barbara Turk’s Copy of 2020 at Klinenberg's book launch.
Eric Kilnenberg signs Barbara Turk’s copy of 2020.

It’s important to note that Brooklyn has the worst COVID record of any New York City borough, with a reported 921,654 cases and 14,264 deaths as of July 2023, according to USAFacts. 

“The thing that connects us to the world, the basic thing that allows us to be here, is breathing,” observed Klinenberg. “And what is breathing? You take in the Center for Brooklyn History [he inhaled], and then [he exhaled] you give something back. With COVID, this thing that you use to survive became the thing most likely to kill you.”

One of the evening’s most emotional topics? Essential workers. “Remember ‘essential workers’?” Klinenberg asked rhetorically. “The world is falling apart, and we don’t know if we’re going to get through this thing. We’re afraid to work; we’re afraid to hug our children. And the government says, ‘Some of you are essential to the economy and society; others of you can stay home.’ They canceled NBA players but not people who worked in hospitals, the MTA, meatpacking, corrections officers… You would think that being ‘essential’ would be an honorific and that with that title came respect. But in America, to be deemed essential was to be deemed expendable. Because we didn’t have proper PPE or basic healthcare guaranteed for everyone.”

The Eagle chatted with several Brooklynites in the Great Hall, asking about their personal pandemic experiences. Event attendee and Windsor Terrace resident Enuma Menkiti, Director of College at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, represented Brooklyn in Klinenberg’s book. “The year 2020 was surreal,” she told the Eagle. “It was a turning inwards. Our family created this tiny little nest and operated as a little unit. Every day was the same: Wake up, go to the park, work. Around 7, we’d go outside and listen for the clapping. It made me cry every single day because it was humanity and hope.”

Enuma Menkiti and Persol at Klinenberg's book launch.
Enuma Menkiti and Persol.

Deemed an “essential worker,” Menkiti’s husband Persol, a correctional officer, had to report to work in person during the shutdown. The couple caught COVID early on.

“We got it before anybody understood what it was and got really, really sick,” Menkiti said. “We had pneumonia, and there was no medicine for it. Every day, we’d hear stories about people with COVID going to sleep and not waking up. I was having trouble breathing, so I’d prop myself up on pillows and be like, ‘I hope I wake up tomorrow.’”

Many of her husband’s coworkers died. “We didn’t know who was going to be next,” he said. “All I could think was, ‘What if it’s me?’”

Married Park Slope art gallery owners Mitch Freidlin and Phyllis Wrynn also had a terrifying pandemic experience. “We tried so hard, for so long, not to get sick,” said Wrynn. “We got all the vaccinations; we did all the right things. We live and work in the same place, so we were able to monitor everything and be really careful. But even with all of that, in the third year of it, we both got sick.”

Phyllis Wrynn and Mitch Freidlin at Klinenberg's book launch.
Phyllis Wrynn and Mitch Freidlin.

Wrynn recovered quickly — but Freidlin “had to have open-heart surgery then and there,” he said.

“The pandemic changed everything,” said Wrynn, eyes moist. “We lost some friends, and there was virtually no marking of their passages. Other friends have Long COVID — brilliant, creative people who are literally not able to get out of bed.”

The couple is still masking up on public transportation. “We haven’t done a single thing,” Wrynn said. “We haven’t traveled. We haven’t gone into a movie theater. We haven’t gone to a performance. This is the first moment. Because I want Eric to sign my book.”

She’s finding it hard not to be nostalgic. “All I want is my life the way it was,” she said. “We had a very simple but lovely life. It wasn’t bells and whistles and balloons and glitter or anything. It was just a normal life where you sat on the stoop and talked to your neighbors.”

Writer and artist Jessica Elefante, who lives in Cobble Hill, described her lockdown experience as “trauma.” “We lived by the old folks home that was in the news a lot, so we had a steady stream of sirens,” she said. “It felt like it was in our living room.” 

Jessica Elefante in the audience at Klinenberg's book launch.
Jessica Elefante in the audience.

Then, mother of a third grader, she felt driven to document what was happening, later editing those clips into the award-winning short documentary “What Day Is It?” “It was so therapeutic,” she said. “Nobody who didn’t live here could understand what I was talking about or experiencing. My film opened up a lot of people’s eyes in my life who did not live in New York City.”

Boerum Hill’s Barbara Turk had a front-row seat at Tuesday’s book launch. In March 2020, she was working for the Administration for Children’s Services when rumor spread that the staff may soon have to work from home. “It was unimaginable,” she said. “Many didn’t have home computers! Fast-forward and we did go home — and started living on Zoom.”

Barbara Turk at Klinenberg's book launch.
Barbara Turk.

Turk, the former Deputy Director for Health and Social Services under Mayor Dinkins, lives alone in an apartment near Long Island Hospital and recalled seeing morgue trucks and streets littered with latex gloves. “My mother died of heart failure in North Carolina during COVID, and I remember vividly the day that I realized that I was never going to see her again,” she said. “It’s still something that sits on me so big, so heavy. I had to be here tonight because Eric Klinenberg writes about what makes communities resilient — and Brooklyn is resilient.”

For his part, Klinenberg said he associates Brooklyn with social justice. “I’m not a Brooklynite, but I have Brooklyn fantasies,” he told the Eagle.

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